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Mini golf, dog run to pop up in downtown Stamford park

September 7, 2018

STAMFORD — The “central park” city planners envisioned for downtown a century ago is here, but people may not know it.

That’s because most see it only when whizzing down Washington Boulevard in their cars.

From there, Mill River Park has looked like a construction site — massive mounds of dirt crawling with earth-moving trucks, surrounded by chain-link fence.

But that’s gone and, by Sept. 15, passers-by will see people playing mini-golf, bocce and ping pong; dogs running agility courses; children kicking balls on a “soccer pool” court; and — once the weather turns chilly — groups gathered around fire pits.

The 400 feet along Washington Boulevard are Mill River Park’s gateway, but the city has been using it as a staging area for an ongoing renovation that began nine years ago.

The city even used it to store dirt excavated from Bedford Street, where a new police headquarters is being built, said Arthur Selkowitz, chairman of the Mill River Collaborative, the nonprofit that contracts with the city to manage the park and multimillion-dollar renovation.

“I think it’s fair to say the collaborative has pined for that space to be completed for quite some time,” Selkowitz said. “We’re going to need it again as construction continues, but in the meantime, we want to make it interesting and useful and exciting.”

The “under construction” appearance had to change if people are to discover the park, said Nia Rhodes Jackson, director of visitor experience for the collaborative.

“We wanted to build something that would last two or three years, while plans are finalized for that section,” Rhodes Jackson said.

To decide what to build, the staff visited Boston and Philadelphia, she said. Turns out, cities create “pop-up parks” for an event, for a season, or to fill in while funds are raised for permanent structures.

The staff also conducted surveys, held a community meeting, and talked to park-goers, Rhodes Jackson said.

The result is a temporary area that will have a nine-hole miniature golf course, and a fenced-in dog park with agility runs.

“There are a lot of people walking dogs in the park, but on a leash. This will be off-leash,” Rhodes Jackson said. “A real community of dog-walkers is forming. We hope the dog park ultimately will help with community development and place-making.”

The pop-up park will have dual bocce courts, ping pong tables, and — if funds can be raised — a court for playing basketball, volleyball and other sports. It will include a court designed like a pool table, where players kick soccer balls into holes, rather than knock in wooden balls with a cue stick.

It will have a deck with Adirondack chairs and tables made of recycled material, and five fire pits where people can gather to make s’mores after skating at the ice rink, set to open at Thanksgiving.

“We’re calling that area the ‘back porch’ — a place to go and relax and unwind with fellow residents,” Rhodes Jackson said. “We’re trying to make a park with as many amenities as possible, where people from all over Stamford can connect.”

A boardwalk made of recycled wooden pallets will wind through the ‘back porch,’ all of it ringed with paper-bark maples, birch trees and juniper shrubs.

It has been assembled with contributions, Rhodes Jackson said. Companies that donated money and labor include Eastern Land Management of Stamford; Feinsod Hardware of Greenwich, owned by Stamford resident Jay Feinsod; Stamford’s Home Depot store; and Mayborn USA, which has offices near the park. Beverage alcohol company Diageo made a large monetary donation and 400 employees from its Norwalk and New York offices volunteered on Thursday, she said.

Pop-up parks are good indicators of what a community will want in a permanent park, Rhodes Jackson said.

“Other cities use them as testing grounds,” she said. “They show us what works.”

The collaborative is finalizing a design for the Washington Boulevard edge of the park and beginning fund-raising, Rhodes Jackson said. Ideas include space where farmers and food markets could be set up. She said the pop-up park will remain for the two or three years it will take for the permanent plans to take shape.

But “who knows?” Selkowitz said. “It may end up that everybody loves what’s going in there now, and we’ll find a way to make it more permanent.”

The city formed the collaborative to restore the rundown park and river, which was so heavily silted that the water barely ran. The city provides the collaborative with a third of its annual operating budget, most recently $640,000.

Other costs are covered by private donations and grants that total $28 million to date. The collaborative also gets 50 percent of the incremental tax increases that result when development enhances the value of properties surrounding the park.

Work completed so far includes removal of a wall and dam to allow the river to flow; regrading of the land to prevent flooding; planting of trees, shrubs and flowers; and construction of pathways.

A carousel opened last year, and a fountain and ice-skating rink will open this year. Work is about to begin on a new playground and splash pad, and a welcome center with science classrooms is under design.

Mill River now is swimming with fish and visited by hawks, egrets, cormorants, minks, muskrats, turtles and more.

Work is set on a two-year project to extend the park on the west side of the river from Tresser Boulevard south to Richmond Hill Avenue. The greenway also will be extended along the river north to Scalzi Park on Bridge Street.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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