This project would change Mystic forever

Someone I respect for his knowledge of and perspective on development in Stonington had this concise description of the Smiler's Wharf development being proposed for 7 riverside acres in Mystic: "Game changer."

I think that pretty well sums up the impact this massive project would have on Mystic, forever changing a big swath of the village, eliminating the zoning for the large property's historic use for commercial shipbuilding and marine storage and repair to one allowing a rambling residential neighborhood and tourism destination, with an enormous hotel and 200-seat restaurant.

The project would literally tower over the adjacent historic neighborhood, drawing traffic through its narrow streets. It would demolish not only all the remaining work sheds of the existing Seaport Marine business but also one 19th century house that makes up part of the streetscape of the adjacent Mystic Bridge Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Opposition has been building in the charming old neighborhood that would be overwhelmed.

A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 28 at the Mystic Middle School. Don't miss it if you care about the future of Mystic.

One town away, across the river, a red flag has already been thrown down by Groton planning officials, who have sounded alarms about the project.

A principal objection raised by the Groton Planning Commission is the height of a 63-foot-tall hotel and the 74-foot-tall apartment building, which commissioners found to be "significantly out of scale and character with existing and new development within the downtown Mystic area."

Zoning in Groton limits new building to a height of 40 feet, according to a May 6 letter from the Groton commission to Stonington planning officials that raises objections to Smiler's Wharf. The newly recreated Central Hall Building was allowed 50 feet and it mirrors the existing historic Main Block building across the street. The letter noted a small accessory roof structure on the Main Block is higher than 50 feet, but it can't be seen from the street.

Modifications to the historic Power House Building in Groton were approved at 51 feet and another large building on the river, Randall's Wharf, is less than 50 feet tall.

The letter also complained that a drawing from the Smiler's Wharf architect depicting the buildings on the Groton side of the river exaggerates their size.

"The scale of the diagram appears to be skewed and there appears to be many significantly tall buildings on the Groton side along Water Street that are either not in existence or are only two or three stories in height," the letter said.

Architect Meg Lyons of Stonington, according to news reports, said in a public meeting on the project in Stonington that the Central Block building in Groton is 62 feet tall. She should consult with planners in Groton to see if they can't agree how tall the tallest buildings in Mystic really are.

I also was struck by the way Lyons and the attorney for the project, William Sweeney, have said the buildings were designed tall to create more green space around them and make the project less dense. It seems to me they are probably tall because the developer wants to look over the railroad tracks to capture more valuable views of the open waters of Fishers Island in the distance.

I also think the development team's suggestion that there is no retail being proposed because it would compete with Main Street stores is not the entire story. Because the project is in a flood zone, the buildings are raised up one story and parking would be underneath. That design does not lend itself to street-level retail stores.

Maybe it's just me, but I find it troubling that there is confusion about important numbers and a pretty heavy spin on motives this early on for a project that is asking for the moon, an entire new zoning district for buildings that would loom over the rest of the historic village.

I also don't like the appearance of the proposed buildings, which look like they belong in a suburban office park. But there is a lot more here to be alarmed about than aesthetics. Maybe I don't have the right eye for it.

There is apparently a request for state funding to build a boardwalk for the project along the river, but I wasn't able to track down any state officials Thursday to get details about the request.

I am also underwhelmed by the developer's own projected tax impact for the project: $120,000 more a year. That doesn't seem to be worth the price of forever ruining the character of a big part of one of Stonington's crown jewels.

I am glad that at least the planning officials in Groton are paying attention and working hard to protect the character of Mystic, even the part that is not on their side of the river.

Let's hope volunteer citizens of Stonington's Planning and Zoning Commission are as thorough as they begin to assess this game changer.

Come on out May 28. There is a lot to talk about.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Editor's Note: Modifications to the historic Power House Building in Groton were approved at 51 feet. Information was incorrect in an earlier version.

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