Mystic boathouse design changes in store as park project pushes forward
Mystic — Town officials and Friends of Stonington Crew leaders on Saturday morning assured almost 100 people packed into Stonington High School that they would seek new boathouse designs at the Mystic River Boathouse Park after a nontraditional proposal ignited uproar in October.
The lively hour-plus comment session — which followed a well-received presentation on the public park — largely focused on a range of concerns with the privately funded $2.5 million boathouse. Many residents echoed complaints expressed online earlier this year: that a modern, weathered metal boathouse designed by Boston-based architectural firm Anmahian Winton does not fit the historical maritime character of the area.
"We heard loud and clear that that doesn't work," said Mike O'Neill, director of rowing for the Friends of Stonington Crew and vice chairman of the Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee. "AW came up with a very simple building that met the needs and requirements of the program and put an aesthetic exterior on the outside of it. The more the community gets behind us and helps us raise money, the nicer that building is going to be."
Residents two years ago voted to approve bonding to finance the $2.2 million, 1.5-acre park, which will be just north of Mystic Seaport Museum and offer improved river access with docks, a large lawn and a boardwalk. The proposed boathouse location is across from the former Rossie Velvet Mill on Route 27.
The Friends of Stonington Crew will raise money for the 8,000-square-foot boathouse, which will house the 90-member Stonington High School crew team and eventually a community rowing program.
A large bay on the first floor will house equipment and rowing shells — currently stored on outdoor docks at Mystic Seaport — and public bathrooms. The upper floor, accessed by an elevator, will provide training space with rowing machines, weights, lockers, changing rooms and an observation deck to view rowing and regattas — the one spot the group "splurged" on, O'Neill said.
Once the boathouse is constructed, the town will take ownership and be responsible for maintaining it, which was one reason the architects chose materials that were inexpensive to maintain, O'Neill said.
O'Neill and Stonington Director of Planning Jason Vincent said Anmahian Winton — selected by Friends of Stonington Crew after a request for qualifications attracted 26 submissions — focused on designing from the inside out, with a core focus on functionality for rowing, compliance with environmental requirements and keeping costs down.
"This is a first concept," Vincent said of the boathouse design. "We are going to give you other options."
Other residents said they feared proposed on-street parallel parking would wreak havoc on a busy Route 27, that the building appeared too distant from the water or could obstruct river views or that an avant-garde building would inspire the boathouse and park to become "touristy" as opposed to an asset to residents.
"Parallel parking will stop traffic, it's not going to slow it down," Ed Novak of Mystic said.
Still, several residents and officials applauded the open process and the overall public-private effort over the years.
In an interview, Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said Saturday's meeting was the fourth public hearing on the park, which has been subject to environmental questions but is in a spot that's seen "six environmental tests since 1995. We need to move forward to the master plan, so we can get funding from the state and proceed with remediation."
Simmons hopes to see the park open by 2020.
"This is a very complicated project ... because we're trying to do two things: create a park and create a space for the boathouse for Stonington Crew and other rowers," Simmons said. Because the area's portion of the river is tidal, it doesn't drain out like lakes or upland rivers, he added. "We never fail to have water, yet at this portion it's shallow ... so we don't have any boat traffic. It's great for crew. It's a great spot."
According to the plans designed by Kent + Frost of Mystic, a town-owned vacant house and a shed would be demolished to clear space for the park. The town needs approval from the State Historic Preservation Office to demolish the structures, because they are within a historical district, Vincent said.
Chad Frost of Kent + Frost noted the park design accounts for potential sea level rise and storms by raising up the edge of the bank.
The Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee will continue to review design options from Anmahian Winton. But on Monday the committee may approve a master plan for the park, which then would go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for further review, Vincent said. The committee meets at the Stonington Police Department at 7 p.m. Monday.
Vincent said state representatives from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the State Historical Preservation Office will meet with committee members at the park site in the coming days.
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