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A River Runs Through It

Believe it or not, the Mill River Park & Greenway is finally taking root—Find Out why some say Stamford’s own Central Park matters now more than ever.



“People were very mad at me,” says Arthur Selkowitz, chairman of the Mill River Collaborative. “I had editorials written about me. They called me the cherry tree assassin.” All because he wants to save Mill River, build green spaces around it and turn it all into the pride of Stamford.

From a nearby promontory, Selkowitz looked down at the river on a late-winter day. It was dark gray in the weak light, but thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, the water is flowing again.

Other things are happening along the river again, too, and not just the somersaults of kids in the new Mill River Playground near West Main Street. Rumors had swept town that otters were spotted at the river’s edge. But after the naturalists took a look, they decreed that those were minks frolicking in the shadows of Stamford skyscrapers.

How did minks get here? Mill River might have been a lovely tributary once upon a time, but after the first dams went up in 1640, followed by other walls and dams, its brisk waters turned into something more inert. No place, in brief, for capering minks.

But something happened last year when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tore the dams out, dredged the river and removed that infamous shopping cart planted in the mud. The newly flowing waters allowed river herring to migrate from Long Island Sound up to the freshwater where they like to procreate. Then eels followed the herring, minks went after the eels and great blue herons, snowy egrets and kingfishers soon followed.

But there were no more cherry trees. When the river was repaired and the old walls removed, the trees had to go. The only remains were the dying echoes of damnation from fist-shaking citizens who grieved the loss of a Stamford landmark.

 

 

Selkowitz, a retired advertising executive who once ran D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, is now devoting his considerable energies to getting people to understand what the river could be to Stamford. Doubts are easing but finances are tightening. And those cherry blossoms, he vowed, will return.

Points of View

For most of the more recent 450 years of industry here, the river was less a scenic treasure, more a convenient drainage ditch. “For a long time in our history, rivers were regarded as sewers,” notes Dan Malloy, the former mayor, “and that’s why the backs of buildings faced the rivers. As you drive through the mill towns of New England, the backs of the buildings always face the river.”

Mill River, the name given to the lower eight miles of the Rippowam River before it flows into the Sound, did actually host a number of mills and factories, the last one being a wool factory in the early 1900s. Among the dams was one built by a local ice factory.

Every once in a great while, someone would get an idea about converting it into something more sightly. There were proposals to beautify it as far back as 1860, when it was still lined with dozens of small factories. In 1929 a serious proposal called the Swan Plan was advanced, but the Great Depression scotched that. It wasn’t until Malloy took office fourteen years ago that serious feasibility studies began to happen. The captain of Stamford’s land use, Robin Stein, rode point, and a conservancy was created to depoliticize the effort.

Perhaps the struggling Mill River could not be turned into the River Seine or another Thames, but there were examples around the United States of cities getting a complete makeover thanks to a restored river. San Antonio took an unsightly sewer and turned it into the River Walk, now the pride of Texas. Indianapolis has its Canal Walk. Unsteady old Providence was completely transformed by a revived river and the surrounding Waterplace Park, which was finished in 1994.

The plan here is to build a greenway perhaps sixty feet wide along 2.9 miles of the river, from the Sound to Scalzi Park. A twenty-eight acre park will be built on both sides of the river, from Broad Street to Pulaski Street. If all goes as planned, the Big Apple Circus will be parked here by July for three weeks.

For a downtown that has virtually no parks, it could be transformative. There is also the hope that it will pull together the now divided communities to the east and west of the river. “We want people to feel closeness with the river,” Selkowitz explains as he outlines a future that includes a carousel, a winter ice-skating rink, festivals, an amphitheatre, concerts, jogging trails, chess tables, a fountain. “There has to be reasons to come to the park. And frankly no one can drown in this river. It’ll be the new nirvana.”

There are stretches of a walkway in existence now, along the RBS building, for instance, and up by Scalzi Park. But someday these walks will be unified and made attractive to exercise fiends.

It will take some doing to accomplish all that Selkowitz and his confederates at the collaborative—a mix of city employees and volunteers—have dreamed up. There are seven bridges that cross the river, and he wants most of them to be given an artistic treatment, complete with distinctive illumination schemes. He sees it as a “necklace of light” to beguile strollers.

Of course, the giant bridgework of the I-95 overpass will always be there to ensure that no one will mistake the park for Paris or London. Maybe somebody will figure out a way to make that an artistic achievement.

The collaborative, pushing to give everything an artistic touch, turned to the Olin Partnership out of Philadelphia, the estimable lanscape architects who did the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Manhattan’s Bryant Park. Perhaps the most amusing is the design for the restrooms, by Rogers Marvel Architects of New York. The rooms will be shaped like giant frogs with surfaces covered with greenery and huge skylight eyes.

Going Green

While Olin has suggested a whole new range of plantings to go into the park, the Army Corps of Engineers had a strong say in what’s being planted alongside the river.

Among the canopy-tree varieties that will line the upper banks will be river birch, witch hazel, pagoda dogwood, downy serviceberry and eastern redbud. The shrubs will include winterberry, arrowwood and blackhaw viburnum, American cranberry, black chokeberry and dwarf winterberry holly. “There should be a very good palette of colors and textures through the year,” says Milton Puryear, the collaborative’s project manager.

Even more help is coming from the vast army of volunteers who have pitched in. Last year’s planting of 9,000 new flower bulbs was made easier by 2,000 people who showed up to help dig. Among them were students from Westhill High School and corporate workers on team-building missions. (If you would like to get your hands dirty and volunteer, write to Vincent Piselli at vincent@millriverpark.com.)
The plan is for volunteer forces to help maintain the park for years to come, necessary for monitoring the weeds. Much of the plant life along the river had been pushed aside by the invasives, but the hope here is that diverse new plantings will gather strength and keep the weeds at bay.

Besides looking good, the plants will also aid the river. “The insects that lay eggs on trees also help determine what the aquatic life gets to eat,” Puryear notes. “It’s all part of a system. And getting the system back in balance is one of our objectives.”

A Daunting Task

The cost of all this is presently projected to be about $60 million, exclusive of acquisition costs. Of that sum, the Mill River Collaborative is charged with raising $20 million. “A daunting task, I assure you, in this environment,” says Selkowitz. “But it’s gaining momentum as people see the playground and progress.”

Puryear likes to cite one of the greatest examples of civic foresight in America: Manhattan’s Central Park. Its creation was not, of course, just a matter of fencing off 843 acres of idle land. Every swoop and corner of it was designed and created. Buildings had to be razed.

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted convinced city authorities in 1857 to put $13 million toward the project. He knew it was a large sum, but he assured city hall that the new mansions and apartments rising up on the park’s borders would deliver higher property taxes. The city, says Puryear, got its investment back in seventeen years.

That can happen here. Look at Hudson River Park, which runs along Manhattan’s West Side. It got a public investment of $75 million eight years ago for a two-block area near Greenwich Village. From 2002 to 2005, it yielded $200 million in additional property taxes.

Getting Started

The Stamford project began in earnest in 2004 with the Mill River renovation, funded by federal and municipal money. Then Congressman Chris Shays and Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman pushed to get the $8 million allocation to redo the river and let the water run. The river became “self-cleaning” again.

That, alas, is when the cherry trees met their fate. Junzo Nojima, a Japanese immigrant and restaurant owner, had planted the 100 trees in 1957. But cherry trees are not supposed to last forever. Researchers from the forestry service were surprised that they’d lasted as long as fifty years, and so it was judged acceptable to remove them. Nojima had died in 1983, and his house on the river’s eastern bank passed to the hands of his stepson, Sanford Yoshikami. (There was a bit of controversy last year when the city ponied up $1.2 million to buy the house, which is now being prepared for demolition to make way for the park.

While the two weeks of exploding cherry blossoms every spring has been a splendid blessing for the city, the few existing trails were in disrepair or crowded with overgrowth. The old park had a limited number of gateways too. “You might have glimpsed into it while flying by in a car,” says Whitney Hatch of the Trust for Public Land, “but access to it was always a mystery.”

Some of the local confusion and restiveness about the greenway project went away, says Hatch, after the Mill River Playground went up in 2006. “That made it more real for people,” he adds. “It proved the concept could work. It also showed the power of the volunteers.”
More than 1,500 volunteers turned up to build the playground, which faces Mill River Street. And it did become a true community play area, a place where the sight of jugglers and musicians on a summer Saturday is not a rare thing. According to the authorities, it has seen zero graffiti or vandalism in three years.

Malloy, who’s now in the midst of a gubernatorial run, gets a big grin from the park. “No one can say it doesn’t look better. I can’t tell you how many times people have stopped me on the street and said, ‘Now I get it. Thank you for preserving.’”

His successors in the Pavia administration have been supportive, but of course they’re under tremendous budgetary pressures now. “Cities today cannot do this alone,” Selkowitz admits. “It’s just not happening. You must have a public-private partnership.”

Naturally, there are other competitors for the civic dollar. What pushes the collaborative onward is what they see as the simple arithmetic of civic advance: Create a lively section of the city; attract new business and residential developments; collect more property taxes; make more improvements. It worked for Frederick Law Olmsted.

To ensure that the project doesn’t wither away in a fog of good intentions, the Mill River corridor can take advantage of tax increment financing, which means, essentially, that a portion of the property-tax gains will get reinvested back into the corridor. So far the collaborative has raised $2.5 million. The state has not contributed anything.

And some of the major corporations in the neighborhood (General Electric, RBS, UBS) are presently examining the proposals.
Fundraising had been stymied by an old city ordinance stipulating that a city monument could not be named for a person until that person had been dead for six months. This clearly won’t fly in our era of corporate sponsorship, so the rule was changed. “We’ll name anything!” Selkowitz says. “Trees, bushes, you name it.”

Back in 1929 the vision for the Swan Plan was to create a greenway all the way to the New York border. That is not likely
to happen in our lifetime, but the collaborative is determined to acquire more land locally. Selkowitz has his eyes on some senior housing and an apartment building that he would like to see relocated.

Then he looks over at the UConn branch campus, hovering close to the river. He’d like to see that campus expand. “We suspect that Washington Boulevard will be the next scene of development,” he says. “And the park will benefit. “My fear is that the city will lose its steam,” he continues. “We’re so close, but we need several million more.”

Selkowitz anticipates real progress by 2012. Meanwhile, he escorts developers on tours of the site at least once a month. Developers have, in fact, already contributed to the venture, in the knowledge that the quicker the park is finished, the hotter the land values will get.
“Now everyone gets it,” Malloy likes to crack. “Now everyone says, ‘Oh, this is much better. And you’re going to put the trees back?’”

Indeed, as spring continues to break, new plantings will be going in up and down the river. And when the new cherry trees eventually go in, there will be two varieties, so that blossoms will bloom in autumn and spring. It all might end up being twice as good as it was—at least.

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