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Norwich seeks bids for next step in Uncas Leap park project

Norwich — The city is taking the next step in a long, slow process to create a heritage park on city-owned grounds overlooking the historic Uncas Leap waterfall and rocky gorge.

The area is the site of a 1643 battle between two Native American tribes and where early and later European settlers launched their water-powered industries.

The plan to create the Uncas Leap Heritage Park has been in the works for the past several years and started coming into form in 2017, when the city used grant money and hired planning consultant Milone & MacBroom to design a master park plan for a 1.4-acre site along Yantic Street adjacent to the falls.

A decaying former brick mill building was demolished and a second rundown, vacant modern duplex was torn down outside the park property to provide parking for visitors. That will allow the city to tear up the gravel parking area in the main park property to allow for more green space and a walking path through the property.

Last week, the city advertised for bids for the “deconstruction” of a partially collapsed 9,000-square-foot 1840s granite mill building in the proposed park area. But this is no ordinary demolition. The plan calls for the winning bidder to remove the roof, clean out the debris inside the structure and remove the upper story granite blocks from the exterior walls. These blocks are to be stored on site for a future plan to line them up along the sloped yard to create an amphitheater, city Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin said.

The deconstructed mill will have part of the granite walls intact and shored up with metal bracing. For now, the mill ruins still will be closed off from the public, McLaughlin said. But eventually, the interior will be open for visitors to meander through the ruins and get a commanding view of the Uncas Leap falls and gorge.

Park planners had considered trying to save the entire building as a heritage center, but the cost and condition of the building led to the deconstruction plan.

“Reutilizing the building will create a more attractive view,” City Planner Deanna Rhodes said. “Deconstruction will be an homage to what was there before, the mill history, and also will provide the viewshed that makes that whole area so significant.”

Bids are due by Nov. 30, and city officials will lead a pre-bid tour of the property for prospective bidders at 10 a.m. Nov. 4.

The deconstruction will be funded with a portion of the $500,000 state Department of Economic and Community Development Urban Act grant for the park development. Rhodes said the grant will not cover the entire cost of developing the park, and the city is seeking other funding sources for future phases. Once the deconstruction is done, the next step will be to tear up the gravel former parking area to plant a more inviting greenspace, Rhodes said.

The property, which attracts frequent visitors, tourists and curiosity seekers when the Yantic River turns into a raging torrent following major storms, was closed to vehicle parking once the off-site parking lot was completed. Eventually, the city will create a couple of handicapped spaces and a bus turnaround on the main property, but it mostly will be open for pedestrians.

Across Yantic Street, the city is working on a separate project to rebuild a steep, narrow, crumbling concrete staircase that connects Sachem Street above with the Uncas Leap area. The city allocated $90,000 in the capital improvements budget in 2019 to replace the stairs.

McLaughlin said his department is considering possible options to reconstruct the stairs, which is “fairly expensive.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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