MERIDEN — The vision for expanding the Meriden Green that Public Works Director Howard Weissberg unveiled to the City Council last week would increase the footprint of the 14-acre downtown span by another four acres east, with new amenities, including a walking loop, sensory garden, pedestrian bridges and boulder crossings lining Harbor Brook.
The preliminary plan Weissberg presented showed the quarter mile walkable loop, trails and sensory garden occupying the vacant lot along Pratt and Cedar streets. The dirt-covered lot has been vacant since the Mills Memorial Apartments complex was demolished more than two years ago.
As part of the expansion, Mill Street would eventually be reduced into a cul de sac, with the span intersecting with Pratt Street removed.
Like the previous development of the Green, the proposed expansion is a flood control project first, Weissberg said.
“To keep Mill Street in we would have to have a bridge that essentially spans the entire Green area,” he said. “... One of the things that we always looked at is — Can Mill Street remain? And the answer based on the flood control mapping is if we wanted to keep the flood limits as shown, it has to go away, or build a very significant structure to accommodate it.”
The flood limits, shown in a 100-year-year floodplain map, span past the area along Pratt, Cedar and Mill streets and the existing Green. Since the Green’s development, flooding in the area has been greatly reduced.
“There are a number of goals with developing this parcel, much like we did with the original Meriden Green,” Weissberg said, explaining the goals also include creating an attractive and accessible public space with amenities.
“Anything we do has to be maintainable. We don’t want to put additional burdens that we cannot maintain down the road. We don’t want to design a project that looks great for the first year, but then we don’t have the funds to maintain it,” Weissberg said.
City officials and consultants looked at several possibilities, including a playground, basketball court or skate park. The fact that some required fencing eliminated them as possibilities, because of the flood control aspect, Weissberg explained.
So officials looked at the possibility of installing a sensory garden. Weissberg feels this concept would work well in the area because it can be adapted to the environment, with no impact on flooding, and can be used by the entire population.
Weissberg described a sensory garden as “an environment where you have areas that stimulate every single one of the senses individually.”
His department worked with the Board of Education and its special education department for guidance.
“Sensory gardens can help people with differential abilities,” he said. “They can be designed to work with people who have mobility impairments, sensory processing issues, dementia, by creating a series of spaces that can be explored independently…. They can also obviously be beneficial to everybody. This was one of the things we felt we were really hitting all of the cylinders in trying to address every segment of the population.”
According to preliminary estimates Weissberg presented, the total project is expected to cost around $5.35 million. It would be completed in phases over a multi-year span. A significant portion, around $2.3 million, would go towards site preparation, grading, Harbor Brook channel work and turf work. Another $1.35 million would go toward bridge construction, paving and sidewalks. Officials suggested an advisory committee to oversee the expansion project.
Before the committee can be formed it would need to be proposed to the City Council, through its Public Works - Parks & Recreation Committee
Weissberg said the first step in expanding the Green is replacing the Cedar Street Bridge. Officials are looking to advertise the project in the spring. Once the bridge has been replaced, the city can move forward with the next step — removing Mill Street.
“We don’t want to remove Mill Street until Cedar Street is completely stable and doesn’t risk being closed at some point in the future,” Weissberg said. “Our game plan for this is probably a year and a half, two years away if everything breaks right in terms of funding, in terms of getting the Cedar Street Bridge completely done.”
Mayor Kevin Scarpati and city councilors spoke favorably of the proposal.
“I think this is a wonderful idea,” Scarpati said.
City Councilor Michael Rohde echoed Scarpati’s remarks, telling Weissberg, “I know you’ve been working on this for a long time. I think it’s going to add to what’s already been a signature resource for the community.”
CIty Councilor Dan Brunet asked about the cost burden of maintenance long after the project is complete.
Weissberg said that was a huge concern in designing the proposal.
“Whatever we design, we wanted to make sure we can design it for long term maintenance. We wanted to make sure all of the concepts are attainable long term, and that they don’t require a huge investment in year 10,” Weissberg said in response to Brunet’s question.
City manager Timothy Coon, at the outset of Weissberg’s presentation, noted, “This is not a project that is going to start with shovel turning next week. There’s still work that needs to be done. But this is one more step along the path to creating an even more successful Green than we have now.”