'Concrete jungle' to waterfront entryway: Greenwich first selectman seeks to transform parking lot

Photo of Ken Borsuk

GREENWICH — The first selectman hopes to transform a downtown parking lot from a “concrete jungle” into an area with “more trees and grass and plantings,” views of Greenwich Harbor and perhaps even a commercial development.

The proposed changes are intended for the Island Beach parking lot, which is located just off Interstate 95 along Arch Street and allows permit and daily parking. Commuters park there, as do visitors heading to Roger Sherman Baldwin Park or taking the ferry to Grass Island during the summer.

“I want to see more green space,” said First Selectman Fred Camillo, saying it’s all part of his vision for enhancing the waterfront. “I want more trees and grass and plantings. We can do that and increase parking by pushing it for the back by building it into the grade” of the nearby Interstate 95 on ramp.

The town Purchasing Department is accepting bids through 11 a.m. June 4 for proposals that would improve the 447-space lot, that Camillo called “an asphalt jungle.”

This would allow the town to offer more parking in a critical area while also increasing the green space “so it’s not all asphalt,” Camillo said. If possible, he said he would also like to see ways to “extend Greenwich Avenue” into the lot, making it possible to build restaurants or businesses there.

“We could take care of the parking component by building something into the grade,” Camillo said. “This would not be a standalone garage. It would be something into the grade, worked into the on-ramp of I-95, and it could accommodate more spaces than we have now with a second or third level.”

This structure would be hidden and not blocking the water views, he said. “Now you’ve opened up most of the parking lot for greenspace and possible commerce. We’ve talked about this for two years and we think it would be beautiful,” Camillo said.

The proposal is in the concept phase, he said, but the town’s Request for Proposals is looking for a firm that can turn it into a reality.

The RFP calls for a partnership with a developer for “high quality mixed-use concepts” for the redevelopment. It encouraged developers “to submit creative proposals which will include commercial uses that generate strong economic activity such as shopping, dining and entertainment” while conforming with the surrounding area and neighborhoods.

If all goes according to the town’s schedule, a contract could be awarded to the winning bidder in August.

Camillo also pledged to seek public input on the initiative, saying “There’s still some ideas we haven’t thought of.” But one idea that is off the table, Camillo said, is a standalone parking structure, which he said he would “never, ever be in favor of.”

This is the best time for this project, said Camillo, which would be linked to improvements he has pushed for at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park.

“The first step of creating a waterfront district is to reclaim the park and give the people views of the water they haven’t had in 70 years,” he said. “The second part of this figuring out what we can do with this parking lot.”

In his budget plan for 2021-22, Camillo had proposed spending $1.25 million for continued design work on the park improvements, with a planned $11.2 allocation in 2022-23 to do the work. The Board of Estimate and Taxation removed the design money from the budget, but Camillo said he is pushing forward with his plan, calling it “long overdue.”

The RFP cites the town’s 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development, which calls for a strengthened connection “between upper and lower downtown.” It points out that the downtown area is bifurcated by the railroad tracks and Interstate 95, separating Greenwich Avenue from the Bruce Museum, Greenwich Harbor and the park.

The RFP “reflects First Selectman Camillo’s vision for this area,” Town Director of Planning and Zoning Katie DeLuca said Monday. It was issued without the knowledge or involvement of the Planning and Zoning Department, she said.

The public will have “plenty of opportunity to offer their thoughts on whatever plan comes to fruition,” she said.

“The community has many gems south of the I-95 bridge, including the Bruce Museum, public spaces offering spectacular views of Greenwich Harbor, the historic teen center building, and the park and event space at Roger Sherman,” DeLuca said. “So having a more inviting pedestrian travelway from the bustle of Greenwich Avenue to these amenities was viewed very favorably in the 2019 discussions that led to that language” in the POCD.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com