Right now, driving up Coogan Boulevard is a forgettable experience — it’s a plain, four-lane road carved into the hill south of Olde Mistick Village and the Mystic Aquarium.
But a group of students from UConn professor John Alexopoulos’ junior landscape architecture design studio have come up with a concept to change the road to a tree-lined, pedestrian-and bike-friendly area where cars could still travel.
With an eye toward reimagining the area, the group did a site walk around Coogan Boulevard a few weeks ago, starting in the Steak Loft parking lot, hiking over the crest of the hill on the narrow sidewalk, and returning through the village. Jason Vincent, director of planning for Stonington, led the walk and pointed out features of the landscape such as topographical changes, water issues, and traffic patterns. Also on the walk were Keith Brynes, town planner, Dave Hammond, who chairs the Economic Development Commission, and Chris Regan, property manager of Olde Mistick Village.
Led by student Weston Henry, 20, of Mansfield Center, the students presented their concepts Monday to Brynes, Hammond, Regan, and economic commission members Kevin Bowdler and Pete Robinson at the main University of Connecticut campus at Storrs.
“Our general goals were to reduce the four-lane road to two lanes,” he said, pointing to a large horizontal drawing showing Coogan Boulevard with two lanes separated by a bike and pedestrian path down the middle. “We also wanted to connect the things that are disconnected. We have all these hotels that are up on this side and Mistick Village and the aquarium over there, all of which are incredibly popular but almost cut off from one another by this huge busy road.”
Students proposed lining the walking and bike path with American elm trees “to bring back the historical feel” and to provide shade. On either side of the path would be native plantings, small flowering trees, and landscaping features to mitigate stormwater runoff.
Reducing the lanes to two would also accomplish the goal of slowing the traffic, making the area safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, said student Raul Irizarry, 27, of Hartford.
A change to more readable and expressive signage was also part of the students’ concept, especially creating a grand entryway that visitors would see when they exit I-95.
Also proposed was a wide, stepped walkway from the road’s crest down to the Olde Mistick Village parking lot, which might be used as a sort of amphitheater.
“That’s a really nice idea to soften that up with the terracing because that’s like a barren wasteland now with heat radiating up in the summertime,” said Hammond.
The four-way intersection at Clara Drive would be replaced with a roundabout, possibly with a large fountain or sculpture in the middle.
“It would make that intersection more memorable, more exciting to come into,” said Henry.
In the acreage near I-95, students envisioned placing large circular sculptures reminiscent of octopus suction cups.
Traffic would also be directed to the aquarium along the access road next to I-95 instead of along Coogan Boulevard.
“For the aquarium, a lot of those are day-trippers, the people who are coming off the highway just for the day and they don’t need to go through the grand entrance,” said Hammond. “That way we’re directing people through that high-capacity route to the aquarium.”
Hammond said the town also wanted to inspire investment across the street where Econolodge and the Howard Johnson were located.
Bowdler said that ideally the whole area should appear as one cohesive group of buildings and walkways.
“Whether residential or hotels, we want people to be able to live there or visit there and not even think about getting in their car to come across the street,” he said.
Regan said he’d like to see a pedestrian tunnel beneath Route 27 from the hotels.
“So they’re not going across the traffic because you’ve got 5.2 million cars that come off that exit a year,” he said.
Hammond, Bowdler, Regan and others also said they wanted to see a Mystic River water taxi with a stop near Coogan Boulevard, allowing visitors to travel to and from the area car-free.
The students’ redesign stopped at the intersection at Maritime Drive but Hammond and Bowdler suggested extending the concept all the way to Jerry Browne Road where Coogan Boulevard ends, connecting the bike and walking path to the upcoming Perkins Farm development.
With input from Stonington, students will make the requested changes during the coming week. Alexopoulos said he would send the finished drawings to Brynes, who will make them available.
Hammond said the presentation reflected “the power of ideas and thinking without restraint.”
“It could totally transform this area from a car-oriented place to a balance where there’s automobile access but opportunity for pedestrians and bicyclists and more of a village feel,” he said.