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A hotly contested little half acre of New London's waterfront

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 02/24/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 02/23/2013 11:42 PM

So, here we go again.

That was one reaction I had to news last week that plans are coalescing around the idea of building a new Coast Guard museum on the little half-acre of city-owned property next to Union Station.

Evidently the National Coast Guard Museum Association has zeroed in on that site, and association representatives were in town last week, showing around some plans.

The idea of a downtown New London museum is an exciting one, and I know a lot of people will be glad to quickly get on board.

But the troubled history of that little half acre, the subject of two referendum petition drives and a lot of political skirmishing among some of the city's more entrenched power brokers, makes this particular setting for a new museum seem like anything but a done deal.

Adding to the controversy, it looks like the museum organizers would like to build a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks, to connect the museum to the rest of the downtown.

Before the notion of selling Riverside Park to the Coast Guard surfaced in recent years, plans to sell that half acre of land and the proposal to build a pedestrian bridge over the tracks were some of the more contentious issues in the city.

Two of the big stakeholders in the fight have been the owners of Cross Sound Ferry Services and the owners of the magnificent Union Station.

The train station owners went to court to fight the taking by eminent domain of some of their land, which the city wanted to use to build an overpass.

The station owners had a lot of good reasons why a bridge was a bad idea.

I suspect their central objection was probably that it would be built too close and diminish the grandeur of the Henry Hobson Richardson train station, by any measure the architectural anchor of the downtown.

The ferry owners, on the other hand, have long wanted to connect their waterfront terminals with the city's parking garage.

They also once agreed to pay $346,000 to buy the city's little half acre next to the train station, which they now lease for parking, until city voters quashed the deal with a referendum petition.

As the new museum project gains steam, I can see some of the same objections surfacing again.

Will the ferry owners be wiling to give up their lease on the half acre and go along with all the access and right of way permissions they may have to give as abutting property owners?

Will they endorse or undermine a museum? And will the train station owners object to a tall museum and big overhead pedestrian bridge that could encroach visually on their handsome landmark? The pedestrian overpass has to be almost as tall as the station, to clear the overhead electric train wires.

Most important, will Mayor Finizio be able to bring together these various factions and put on track a project that has the potential to make or break his administration?

I would suggest the best way to begin is to put things out in the open as soon as possible.

Make public the plans that so far have been shown only in back rooms.

Let all the principals who have a stake in the project consider the plans in detail and then say whether they want to help or stand in the way.

And bring in the public soon to hear what people think about a project that has the potential to transform downtown New London.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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