Boathouse Park planning turns to preservation

I was pleased to hear from the state's architectural historian that Stonington officials planning the Boathouse Park on the Mystic River have agreed to rework designs to accommodate preserving at least one of the existing buildings on the site, respecting its historical significance.

As recently as last month, the Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee, acting on the advice of the town planning staff, voted to send to the Planning & Zoning Commission a master plan for the park that envisioned tearing down the two buildings on the site that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The park planning team stubbornly had continued to plan the site with the demolitions despite requirements that alternatives to demolition be considered because state money is being used for the project. The buildings are listed as contributing to the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District on the national register.

Todd Levine, the state architectural historian, told me Friday that town officials, after meeting with him at the site and considering his assessment, have been developing alternative plans that might save at least one of the buildings.

The changes still are being developed and, as the design evolves, there could be the opportunity to save both buildings, Levine added.

The existing residence, which dates to the turn of the century, is the most historically intact — the exterior anyway — while the second building, once a mechanical support building for the mill, has lost a lot of original structure and material over the years, Levine said.

The mechanical building is also not as old, he added.

In advocating for preservation, Levine said, his office also acknowledges the town's needs for the project. With space considerations, the town would find it hard to save the existing buildings, build a new one and not make the rest of the site a parking lot.

"We recognize the needs they have, and they recognize the historic significance," he said. "Everyone is working together to have some level of preservation of one or both of these buildings."

An additional challenge is the space needed to accommodate the storage of the rowing shells, which are long and need space to be moved inside and out. And the house should be used in some way, not just preserved as an empty structure, he said.

The new park planning seems now on track to begin to accommodate the town's needs while also respecting preservation goals, he said.

"At the end of the day, any time you lose historic fabric, it is a problem," he said. "But compromises need to be made. There has to be compromises on both sides."

A meeting of the boathouse planning committee is scheduled for Monday, and that will be a good time for committee members to reconsider their hasty support last month of a master plan that called for tearing down both the historical buildings.

I trust they will do the right thing. This is a good time for Stonington to improve its record in the area of historic preservation, something the town should value more than it does, given the importance of history to its tourism economy.

For the town to tear down buildings that make up a historically recognized village at a gateway into town would be shameful.

Turning a brownfield on Greenmanville Avenue into a park, one that will support high school rowers and the public, is an outstanding project, and all those advocates who have donated so much time and energy to make it happen deserve kudos for bringing it this far. Huge environmental cleanup challenges remain.

Now it's up to the professionals who let the planning drift so far off course to make up for their mistakes and create something that respects not only the town's promising future but its robust history.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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