New London looks to buy and transform contaminated land into public park
New London — For decades the small plot of blighted land at the corner of Home and Hempstead streets has been a giant headache for the surrounding neighborhood.
The 0.6-acre parcel at 43 Hempstead St. used to be home to a commercial dry-cleaning firm and later an electronics manufacturing and assembly plant, among other industrial uses. It then became a hot spot for drugs, prostitution and vagrants, and more recently a fenced-off health threat to area children.
A pledge from an anonymous donor and pressure from neighborhood families has led to a proposal for the city to purchase the property and resurrected plans for a public park.
Negotiations to buy the land from its owner, Shiloh Baptist Church, recently were buoyed by a $75,000 donation to cover the entire purchase price.
The idea of a park is being greeted with sighs of relief and anticipation by neighbors and members of the Freedom Trail Neighborhood Association, who have for years prodded the owner and city to take action.
“We’ve been working on this for 20 years, at least. We’ve waited for this day for a long, long time,” said Kathleen Barrett, a member of the Freedom Trail Neighborhood Association with her husband, Rick.
“To see things coming together now is fabulous,” she said.
The Freedom Trail group, composed of families from 13 different neighborhoods, formed in 1996 to tackle crime and blight in the area and has continued beautification efforts that have included planting trees and conducting cleanups around the perimeter of the fenced-off property.
Shiloh Development Corp. bought the parcel in the late 1990s, paid for an environmental assessment and made public its plans for a park at a cost of $300,000, partially funded with a federal block grant from the city. Costs for remediation of arsenic and lead detected in the ground were estimated to be $100,000.
The church demolished the abandoned building on the site, hired an engineer to design the park and gained a zone change in 2000. The planned park never materialized, however, and the grant money was approved but never used. It is unclear why. A representative from Shiloh was not immediately available to comment.
Barrett said youth from low- and moderate-income families in the area continue to be the inspiration for the cleanup and development of the site, since there are so few green spaces in the immediate neighborhood. Her own yard at 23 Hempstead St. has at times served as a makeshift soccer field.
Mayor Michael Passero, who said he has remained engaged with the neighbors, said he looks forward to City Council approval of the acquisition, since the city will be in a much better position to obtain brownfield grants for a more detailed environmental assessment and cleanup.
Passero said there was no greater thing the city could do for the historic neighborhood than to finally get the site cleaned up and make it into an asset.
The proposed purchase was taken up by the City Council on Monday. Several residents spoke in favor of the purchase. Councilor John Satti raised what he called "serious concerns" about the potential costs associated with cleanup of the contaminated grounds but joined in the unanimous vote to send the issue to the Planning and Zoning Commission for review.
The council is expected to vote on the purchase next month.
Ideas for what the park will look like are subject to ongoing discussions but Barrett said the consensus and priority of the families in the neighborhood is creating a safe and clean space.
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