STONINGTON — Residents had an overwhelmingly positive response to plans to beautify the Velvet Mill district of Mystic at a meeting held by the Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee and the Board of Selectmen Saturday morning at Stonington High School.
Officials and project architects discussed the topographical and environmental challenges of turning the former industrial area into a park that would also accommodate a privately funded boathouse for the Stonington High School crew team at the meeting, which drew about 100 people.
Stonington Director of Planning Jason Vincent facilitated the meeting, which included a presentation by Chad Frost, architect at Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture, who discussed both the landscape design and the cleaning of debris, management and preservation of the surrounding shoreline.
Frost explained the history of the 1.2-acre park site that was created by the buildup of coal slag from the J. Rossie Velvet Company, which opened in 1898.
During a slideshow, Frost presented a pictorial history of the site and company, emphasizing that, “connection between the mill and site is the most important. We really want to play that up. That’s the story we want to tell by our park design.”
In his firm’s designs for the park, he plans to provide unobstructed visual access to the former mill, which now houses the Seaport's research operation.
Debris such as coal slag (a remnant of the mill’s active days) in the soil as well as glass around the shore area, Frost stated, were his main concerns, and he said that in order for the park to be enjoyed by patrons, the shoreline needed to be cleaned up as well as fortified for erosion first.
Frost discussed two buildings on the land as being riddled with structural damage, poorly-sealed windows, and asbestos, a previous point of contention between the committees and public that, “would cost more to repair than to tear down and build something else.” He stated that his team would begin meeting with the Connecticut Historic Preservation Office to discuss how the state would prefer the team to proceed.
The plan for the park will also include a boardwalk and non-motorized boat ramp, providing direct access to the shore for residents.
Mike O’Neill, director of rowing at Stonington High School, presented a comprehensive background of the crew program, including the benefits to students and their families in the areas of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and financial benefits of participation, as well as emphasizing the need for a boathouse for his students as a place to meet, train, launch, and safely store boating equipment.
O’Neill discussed with attendees the process of finding an architect who could meet the team’s need for space and stay within its financial parameters, as the crew building will be privately funded. He shared the designs he felt would combine utility and aesthetics. Architectural plans are not yet final.
The Implementation Committee and Board of Selectmen then opened the floor “looking for validation on the master plan,” Vincent said.
More than a dozen residents voiced their comments and concerns, which included questions about parking, traffic congestion and expenses for restrooms and maintenance, but many Mystic residents complimented the town and architects on the major effort being made to both beautify and preserve the history of the area.
“Thanks to First Selectman Simmons for his leadership, his dogged persistence, and the engagement of everyone here," said Scott Bates, a member of the Implementation Committee, during closing remarks. "It speaks volumes about what kind of a town this is, and I say this with gratitude that I’m glad to be working on this project with all of you today.”
Selectwoman Kate Rotella wrapped up the meeting by saying she felt the park plans, and all the work that had gone into researching the project, was “wonderful."
"The plans for the boathouse are wonderful. And I believe this park is a wonderful public-private partnership,” she said.
The Implementation Committee will meet tonight at 7 p.m. at the police station to discuss the project's details and whether to submit a plan of action to the Planning and Zoning Commission.