MERIDEN — Building the political will and securing the funding to complete a project like the Meriden Green is a monumental undertaking, members of the American Society of Landscape Architects said Wednesday.
“The fascination with this and the complexity is a minor miracle,” said Thomas Graceffa, owner of Thomas Graceffa Landscape Architects in Rockford, Illinois. “It’s difficult to get these types of projects going. Between the politics and the funding, you have to be persistent and know what you’re doing.”
About 60 people attended a presentation and tour of the Meriden Green on Wednesday that detailed the city’s journey to solve its flooding problem while revitalizing its downtown. Guests saw pictures of downtown submerged in 3 to 4 feet of water and emergency personnel surveying the damage in boats.
The Meriden Green project has received several national engineering and architectural awards. On Wednesday, the landscape architects asked questions about the scope of the project and how the city found ways to fund it.
Overall, the 14-acre flood control and economic development project cost $14 million to tear down a 1970s-era shopping center, clean the soil, uncover three brooks, rebuild channels, and turn the area into a park. The cost of the entire flood control project, which includes repairing culverts and bridges upstream, is estimated at $40 million.
State Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, recalled the City Council’s early work on ideas for the former Hub.
“We saw a need to do something about the flooding,” said Santiago, who served on the City Council from 2005 to 2012. “A lot of people didn’t think (the park project) was going to happen.”
After hearing many pitches for ideas, the Flood Control Implementation Agency agreed to make the area a park to encourage economic development, Santiago said.
“There weren’t any businesses coming into Meriden,” she said, “We weren’t attracting businesses.”
The city also wasn’t getting any funding for its ideas from the state. Lawmakers, including former Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, a Meriden Democrat, requested bonding funds but were denied.
“When we got a Democratic governor, a lot of money started coming into the city,” Santiago said. “The last 20 to 25 years have been a journey. There were naysayers, including politicians who always wanted to go back to the way downtown was.”
The city also received federal funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its brownfield cleanup and flood control efforts. Other funding sources included the state Department of Economic and Community Development, the state Department of Energy and Environemental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the state Department of Transportation.
State Sen. Leonard Suzio, R-Meriden, called the project the third reinvention of downtown Meriden. Suzio outlined the city’s efforts in the 1960s to transform and pave over the three brooks that led to serious flooding problems.
“It’s exciting to see this transformation,” Suzio said. “We really didn’t have a green. Controlling our water and preserving our resources is very important. This is the beginning of a new era for Meriden.”
Suzio’s support for the project today contrasts with his suggestion eight years ago to combine the city’s two high schools and build one high school on the site. The idea was roundly rejected.
Project designs were drafted by representatives from BL Cos. with Milone & McBroom leading the engineering work. LaRosa Construction was the general contractor on everything from clearing and separating soil to lowering the $2 million pedestrian bridge off four flatbed trailers and assembling it on site.
Mark Arigoni of Milone & McBroom said his first project after graduating from the University of Connecticut was the Harbor Brook project. On Wednesday, he presented its history to the small crowd.
Aris Stalis, the chairman for advocacy for the Landscape Architecture Society, wanted to see the Meriden Green after hearing so much about it. Stalis owns Aris Land Studio in Bridgeport.
“It’s thinking long term,” Stalis said as he toured the Green.”You’re planning for the future. This touches on a lot of assets of our lives. Storm water retention, the habitat. It’s very comprehensive. We’re really successful when people don’t think we’ve been there.”
Ben Florsheim, outreach director for U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy’s office, also addressed the group. He said Murphy touts the Meriden project when addressing economic development officials in places such as Waterbury and in the distressed Naugatuck Valley, Florsheim said.
“We need to rethink the way we use community spaces,” Florsheim said. “These old legacy spaces, we need to rethink them and revive them. Meriden is the one place it has really come together in a significant way.”
The old mills in many New England cities and towns provided the backbone of the early U.S. economy, he said.
“These facilities generated dollars to build the South and the Midwest,” Florsheim said. “It’s important that these dollars come back.”