By the end of this summer New Haveners will be able to walk and bike along a short, refurbished trail that runs adjacent to the Mill River, and get a sense of what it may be like to travel from East Rock to Criscuolo Park without needing to get in a car or bus.
That future inched a little closer to reality on Wednesday night when the City Plan Commission voted unanimously to approve the site plan for the first phase of the Mill River Trail project during their regular monthly meeting on the second floor of City Hall.
Advocates for the Mill River Trail envision several miles of riverfront walking and biking paths that connect the Whitney Dam on Whitney Avenue to Criscuolo Park on James Street. The stretch that commissioners cleared for construction this summer covers a fifth of a mile on the east side of the river from 451 Grand Ave. up north to 90 John W. Murphy Dr.
Trail advocate and Make Haven Director J.R. Logan has worked on this trail project since 2014. He said a dedicated group of volunteers has collaborated closely with the City Plan Department, the Engineering Department, and the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) over the past few years to beautify the existing riverfront property, and to develop a vision and a plan for converting an overgrown and uneven riverfront trail into a lush, durable, and continuous connector of two adjacent but disparate neighborhoods.
“People are very excited about the prospect of being connected to the river,” Logan said, “both for historical and environmental reasons. But they’re also excited to get that connectivity, of being able to connect from Criscuolo Park all the way up into East Rock park.”
City Plan Senior Project Planner Donna Hall and Beka Sturges, associate principal at the local landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, explained that this first section of the trail will help test the viability of the Mill River Trail as a whole, presenting a scenic and accessible riverfront biking and walking path that stretches just north of Grand Avenue.
“You have a sense of getting closer to the water here than you do almost anywhere else in the city,” Sturges said. “We thought that this was a place where we could really gather enthusiasm for this project.”
This first stretch of the trail will be 1,023 feet long and eight feet wide, with access points on Grand Avenue and John W. Murphy Drive. It will run through riverfront public easements granted through city land agreements with the adjacent companies Radiall and Grand Paint, and will consist of a path formed by chip and seal, which is a topcoat pressed into an asphalt base (all of which sits on top of a compacted aggregate base), that will be lined with trees, shrubs, and wetland seed mixes.
Hall said the city was recently awarded nearly $290,000 in Connecticut Recreational Trails Grant funding for the project from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEO). She said the trail advocates plan to hire a contractor this summer to build out the trail at grade, and that the trail should be open and the vegetation planted by early fall.
Hall explained that the goals and design of the path are consistent with the city’s 2004 Trails and Greenways Plan, which identifies a number of other important citywide walking and biking paths, such as the Farmington Canal, the Harbor Trail, and the Fair Haven Trail. She said the fact that this trail runs through easements already requested and received by the city means that this first phase of the Mill River Trail is building off of a foundation of past intentional city planning.
“We are taking a public access easement that is already recorded,” she said, “that was already required as a condition of prior approval that you gave, and we are enhancing that trail and that public access through this project.”
Acting City Plan Director Michael Piscatelli pointed out that the DISTRICT high-tech hub project at 470 James St. is under construction as well, and that that project also requires its developers to build a part of the Mill River Trail.
“I’ve been on that stretch of trail with my bicycle,” Westville Alder and City Plan Commissioner Adam Marchand said with a smile. “A little rough in places, but it was fun. What is the maintenance plan for this stretch of the trail.”
Logan said that there are existing maintenance obligations that come with the easements from the abutting properties, and that the current group of dedicated volunteers should only grow when the trail is refurbished and active and open for use.
Hall confirmed that basic maintenance responsibility for most of the first stretch of the trail does indeed fall to Radiall, which she describes as a “huge supporter of this trail.”
“They are very excited to have something to maintain beyond just weeds,” she said. “They’re definitely on board with this sort of thing.”
“It’s eroding quickly and it has some moments where it feels sort of like a wasteland right now,” Sturges said about the current state of the Mill River Trail, and about the importance of beginning construction on it this summer. “This is trying to turn it into something that’s stabilized and lovely where people want to be, and then we’ll build off these improvements going forward.”