Farmington Canal Trail's 'final link' work gains approvalPublished Date: 7/8/2019
NEW HAVEN — The overgrown, litter-strewn pathway that for decades has lingered as the last remaining uncleared link in New Haven of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail will finally by next spring see construction to enable it to be used by the public, according to city officials.
When work is completed, probably by 2021, bicyclists, runners and walkers at last will be able to use the trail from the Science Park area through its tunnel beneath Temple Street and Whitney Avenue, on street level on Orange and Olive streets, then on Water and Brewery streets to Long Wharf Drive.
Advocates for the popular trail, which runs 80 miles from New Haven to Northampton, Mass., are delighted by the news. But they wonder why it has taken so long.
“We’ve been heartily annoyed with the lack of meaningful negotiations on this project for many years,” said Bruce Donald, director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance and the CT Greenways Council.
The final obstacle had been the city’s inability to reach an agreement with Konover Commercial Corp., owner of the Grove Street Garage, to obtain an easement for the trail portion that runs adjacent to and beneath the garage. That agreement was finally signed in May.
“Three or four years ago somebody should’ve rattled their sabers to go to eminent domain,” Donald said. He asserted that if city officials had forced Konover representatives to give over the land, “It really would have broken the deadlock.”
Three years ago, Donald wrote a letter to New Haven Mayor Toni Harp warning that approximately $8 million in federal funds long earmarked for the design and construction of the trail segment might be lost if the city didn’t complete the easement agreement. (The city will contribute about $2 million more.)
Harp wrote back to Donald in September 2016, saying: “It has been difficult to acquire donated easements on the one block section of the trail between Orange Street and Whitney Avenue.” Harp said city planners, like the trail advocates, “are extremely frustrated by the delay in negotiations.”
The New Haven Register left phone messages seeking comment at the New Haven office of Konover. There was no response by this story’s deadline.
Lisa Fernandez, president of the Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association, said, “The public interest has been massively abused by these delays.”
She also objected to a 2017 deal by which the city agreed it would reimburse Konover to the tune of about $25,000 for the company’s costs incurred in resolving the easement dispute. Fernandez called this “an abuse of public trust.”
However, Anne Hartjen, senior project manager for New Haven City Plan, said in an email: “The $25,000 stipulation for legal and engineering fees was never distributed, as Konover did not provide bills to back up their request.”
Michael Piscitelli, the city’s interim economic development administrator, has been working on completing the trail for several years, following the multi-decade efforts of Karyn Gilvarg until she retired as city planner. He said the city has a deadline of Sept. 30 to finalize all the pieces in order not to lose that federal funding. The details that must be nailed down include putting the project out to bid.
Piscitelli said “we have a high level of confidence” the deadline will be met.
He believes the construction work will begin by next April. This would mean that people walking across the small bridge on Whitney Avenue near Audubon Street who for so long have looked down on the shrubbery and garbage covering the unused trail (where glimpses of old sleeping bags, fragments of a chair and a pillow can be seen) will see workers clearing that path.
The design plan, done initially by Dean Sakamoto and updated more recently by the Milone & MacBroom firm, calls for panels on the stone walls that will tell the story of the canal. It was operated as an actual canal transporting goods from 1828-48, then became a railroad line until flooding forced its discontinuation in 1983. After that a coalition of rails-to-trails advocates spurred its development for recreation.
Piscitelli said the construction of that last link probably cannot be completed next year. But he added, “It’s fair to say that in 2021 we’ll see people using it as a functional trail.”
Piscitelli’s optimism is shared by Hugh Hayward, transportation principal engineer for the state Department of Transportation. His department is overseeing the process for the city.
Hayward said the deadline will be met. “It’s been a long time coming,” he noted. “It’ll be nice to fill up that final link of the trail, that gap.”
Aaron Goode, who heads the New Haven Friends of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, said in an email: “I’m delighted and relieved that it looks like this phase will finally be moving forward.” But he added that in light of the years of delays and setbacks, “I certainly won’t be popping any champagne corks until the shovels are in the ground.”
“There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from the delays, errors of judgment, missed opportunities and false starts that have obstructed and entangled Phase IV for more than five years,” Goode said.
Goode, like Donald, criticized Konover, saying “a single obstinate property owner endangered a worthy project that has enormous benefit for the public.”
Goode said the acquired property is significant “because it helps re-connect New Haven’s commercial and residential core with its historic waterfront and with a new community boathouse.” He noted the final segment is located at or near the nexus of several trail systems: the East Coast Greenway, the Harborside Trail, the Shoreline Greenway Trail and the Mill River Trail.
“As the nucleus of this developing trail network,” Goode said, “the completion of Phase IV will help create a solid foundation for regional bicycle-pedestrian connectivity that southern Connecticut can build on for decades to come.”
Donald said two factors are making the development of this final segment finally happen: the work of trail advocacy groups and the approaching deadline to use the funds. “To renege on millions of dollars in federal funds would be unconscionable. That’s what finally broke the camel’s back.”
Donald noted there are only a few undeveloped parts of the trail in Connecticut, including in Plainville and Southington. But he said those also are moving toward being available. “It would be horrifyingly crazy if New Haven’s part didn’t go forward after all these years. It really has been a long time.”
But he added, “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for people.”