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State-funded $20 million pedestrian bridge in New London gets green light

New London — With local land-use approval secured for a nearly $20 million pedestrian bridge linking downtown to the future National Coast Guard Museum, talks continue with state officials about the release of funding for the project.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission earlier this month granted conditional approval to plans for a 400-foot, glass-walled pedestrian bridge spanning Water Street to the city’s waterfront and the future site of the estimated $100 million National Coast Guard Museum.

While the Planning and Zoning Commission took up the site development plan as a standalone project, an agreement between the state and the National Coast Guard Museum Association shows the bridge and museum projects are intertwined.

The state has long pledged up to $20 million for the pedestrian bridge with the understanding the bridge and museum projects would proceed together.

The museum association signed a financial assistance agreement with the state Department of Economic and Community Development that requires assurances that the museum will be built and links fundraising for the museum to the release of state funding for the pedestrian bridge project.

The DECD commissioner, per the agreement, will take into consideration the museum association’s capital campaign before it releases the funding for the pedestrian bridge.

“No funding shall be disbursed for the construction of the (bridge) Project until such time that DECD has received from the Applicant Sufficient Documentation that ... Applicant is prepared to proceed with construction of the Museum Project and the (bridge) project...” the agreement reads, in part.

The agreement also mentions the intent is that groundbreaking for the museum and pedestrian bridge projects should proceed “simultaneously.”

DECD Commissioner David Lehman issued a statement saying in part that there are ongoing discussions between the DECD, the museum association and city about the status of the museum project.

“DECD remains firmly committed to supporting this transformational project which will benefit the City of New London and surrounding Eastern Connecticut communities, and will continue to closely track the fundraising efforts of the NCGMA,” Lehman said.

“Ensuring there are sufficient private funds to complete the project, alongside the Federal and State funds, is very important to the success of this of the public-private partnership,” he said.

The National Coast Guard Museum Association reported nearing the halfway mark to the estimated $150 million being sought to complete the entire project — $30 million for museum exhibits and programming, $20 million for the pedestrian bridge and $100 million for construction of the museum.

The museum association, in its 2020 Year in Review, reported $73 million has been committed toward the project. Fundraising, much of which has gone virtual, is ongoing.

The association has planned a three-phase construction schedule that starts with waterfront improvements and bulkheading, and has targeted 2024 as an opening date for the museum. The association is in the permitting phase of the waterfront project, with hopes of starting work in the fall of 2021.

The museum and pedestrian bridge are slated to be constructed sometime between 2022 and 2024, each with 16- to 18-month construction schedules. The construction manager for both projects is North Stonington-based AZ Corporation.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved a site plan and a coastal site plan at its Nov. 19 meeting.

Plans show the elevated bridge linking the third level of the city-owned parking garage to three towers with stairs and elevators on the opposite side of Water Street. One tower would be located at the front of Union Station, another at a train platform to the rear of the station and a third to an area beyond the railroad tracks where the future museum would be built.

Cross Sound Ferry additionally has plans to build a new high-speed ferry terminal near the museum site.

The bridge was pitched to the Planning and Zoning Commission as a freestanding structure that would provide safe access for pedestrian traffic to the city’s transportation hub and waterfront.

New London Planning and Zoning Commission member Ronna Stuller, during the Nov. 19 meeting, explained that while she was a supporter of the Coast Guard Museum, she was not thrilled by the prospect of an apparent “decoupling” of the two projects.

“I don’t think it's a good idea to take people off the street without it being a gateway to the museum,” she said of the bridge. She also said she had concerns about construction happening sequentially, rather than concurrently — a move she said could be disruptive to downtown businesses.

Commission Chairman Barry Levine disagreed with the rationale and said, “I don’t think it's possible to have a site plan coupled to development on a piece of property that's not subject to the site plan.”

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which reviewed the application, concurred that the bridge is consistent with the goals and policies of the Connecticut Coastal Management Act and would improve public access and connectivity “between the city’s parking garage, major maritime transportation hub, coastal waterfront parks, and other local recreational and commercial amenities.”

Laura Natusch, executive director of New London Landmarks, shared thoughts on the bridge’s impact on the city’s historic resources. As a group of preservationists, she said her agency advocates that new developments be sensitive to historic surroundings and developers take pains to eliminate or reduce adverse effects when possible.

New London Landmarks had conversations with the State Historic Preservation Office staff and with the National Coast Guard Museum Association and was satisfied the project has been designed to eliminate, reduce and mitigate adverse effects to historical resources such as Union Station, Natusch said at the meeting.

The bridge had been moved north of the original planned site to separate it visually from Parade Plaza and Union Station, while avoiding demolition of any portion of Union Station.

With just the bridge without the museum, Natusch said, there would be some damage to the historical setting.

“However, understanding that the state of Connecticut is not going to release the funding unless the National Coast Guard Museum Association has met mutually agreed-upon fundraising benchmarks, we support this proposal and urge the commissioners to do so as well,” she said.

The pedestrian bridge will become the property of New London once completed.

g.smith@theday.com

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