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State presses ahead with plans for $20 million pedestrian bridge in New London

New London — The National Coast Guard Museum Association has submitted an application to the city for construction of a 400-foot glass-walled pedestrian bridge to span Water Street and connect the downtown with the waterfront and future Coast Guard museum.

The state has authorized and approved up to $20 million for design and construction of the bridge, which is considered to be a companion project to the $100 million National Coast Guard Museum. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to consider the site development plan at its Nov. 5 meeting.

The idea of a pedestrian bridge over Water Street has been talked about for decades as a safe way to connect visitors in the downtown area and those parked at the city-owned parking garage on Water Street with the waterfront, train station, bus terminal and Cross Sound Ferry terminals.

Cross Sound Ferry partnered with the city to develop plans for a bridge back in 2001. Those plans never came to fruition, but a 2013 announcement that the National Coast Guard Museum would be built behind Union Station led to a state pledge of up to $20 million for the project.

Plans submitted to the city’s planning office show the bridge connecting the Water Street parking garage with the north- and southbound train platforms and waterfront area east of the railroad tracks.

Once completed, the National Coast Guard Museum intends to transfer ownership of the bridge to the city, which will maintain and operate it.

“The curved form of the bridge reaches north as it spans Water Street, preserving the space immediately around Union Station. The bridge’s form and orientation on the site will enhance the urban fabric of Parade Plaza by giving definition to the north edge of the open public space, while at the same time safely linking the public spaces across the greater site,” the description of the bridge in the application reads.

The bridge’s glass facade “ensures sweeping views of downtown New London,” and the glass includes a “frit pattern” designed to mitigate bird collisions. Louvers and passive fans will help provide natural ventilation in warmer months.

At the urging of Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Barry Levine and with the commission facing statutory deadlines for review of the project, the commission on Sept. 17 unanimously voted to require a public hearing on the proposal. Levine said site plan reviews don’t always require public hearings but it's been the practice of the commission to require them on big projects.

“What I shared with this applicant during a couple of workshops was putting a bridge over Water Street is a big deal and I think the public should be informed about it and have an opportunity to weigh in,” Levine said at the Sept. 17 meeting.

The commission also granted itself a 90-day extension for review of the project since the 65-day statutory timeline for action on the application would have ended on Oct. 24. He said the commission would have been forced to deny the project or face a default approval without the extension.

The commission additionally has required that the planning department refer the application to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for a 35-day window to provide comment.

New London Zoning Official Michelle Johnson Scovish said the referral to DEEP had been a subject of debate between her department and an attorney representing the National Coast Guard Museum Association, part of the reason for the delay in bringing the project to the commission.

Robert Ross, executive director of the Connecticut Office of Veterans Affairs, said he expects the project to clear all land-use approvals by the end of the year, though a timeline for the start of construction is not yet clear.

“Our view from the beginning is that the pedestrian bridge supports the National Coast Guard Museum. These two projects have to advance together,” Ross said.

Work associated with the Coast Guard museum on bulkheads at the city’s waterfront is expected to start sometime next year.

Ross, designated by former Gov. Dannel Malloy as the liaison between the museum effort and various state agencies, said it has been a collaborative effort to get to this point. Agencies involved have included the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Museum Association, state Department of Transportation, state Department of Economic and Community Development and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“All of these big state agencies have really come together to figure out how to make this happen,” Ross said.

The bridge plans, Ross said, have evolved through the years to accommodate recommendations, some surrounding its proximity to Union Station.

Mayor Michael Passero said he knows of no other transportation hub with street-level crossings like New London’s.

“We arguably have (one of) the biggest intermodal transportation hubs all here in one place. And yet the pedestrians are on their own,” he said.

Passero said he views the bridge construction as an economic recovery project for the region, an asset to the downtown “and I think it’s going to be a bit of an architectural landmark in its own right.”

“I think this is a great first step to build confidence for the people out there that still doubt the museum is coming,” he said.

g.smith@theday.com

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