“Bring the Water Back to Waterside”

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STAMFORD — A new state-of-the-art Harbor Education Center is coming to Boccuzzi Park, but the building is just part of a project to create public access to Stamford Harbor and Long Island Sound.

“Long Island Sound has one of the highest barriers to entry of any natural resource, I would say, in the country,” said Leigh Shemitz, president of SoundWaters, the Stamford-based organization that focuses on protection of Sound through advocacy and education. “To actually be able to get out there and use it and be a part of it…you actually have to have a boat and have access and have skills.”

This is where SoundWaters comes in. The organization offers a number of programs primarily for school-aged children and teenagers to introduce them to sound.

In July, SoundWaters is set to open a brand new $8 million marine research and education center called Cohen SoundWaters Harbor Center.

The center is not the only improvement planned for the region. The access road to the property will be replaced with a road that aligns with Congress Street and extends to the new center, where a parking lot will be constructed. Near the water, a crumbling parking lot and an old chain-link fence will be replaced with sand dunes and a small beach with new tree plantings in the wetlands.

Eventually, if the city secures sufficient funding, the adjacent playground, baseball diamond and tennis courts will also be upgraded, and a wading pool will be installed near the shore, according to plans.

When complete, the redeveloped park and waterfront will create a rare access point to the Sound for Waterside residents. It’s a longtime goal for Shemitz, who recalled a motto she shared with Elaine Mitchell, former Waterside representative on the Council of Representatives.

“Elaine Mitchell and I, years ago, we talked about ‘Bringing the Water to Waterside,'” Shemitz said. “There should be a way for people to actually get there.”

The new 12,000 square foot facility will allow SoundWaters to expand its offering, she said.

It will house three programs: Young Mariners, which teaches young students life skills through sailing; Harbor Corps, which offers training in maritime trades for young adults; and Research Intensive, a college-level marine research program for high school students. The center will also include launch access for SoundWaters fleet of sailboats, as well as publicly available kayaks and paddleboards.

Long-term, the idea is for Stamford high school students to use the facility as part of the school district’s planned “career path” program, which is expected to begin in the fall, she said. . The program was created to help students better transition into post-secondary life and gain real-world work experience.

The organization currently serves approximately 30,000 students each year. Shemitz said the hope was to increase that number to 45,000 with the new building.

Inside, the new structure includes a workshop area with access to an outdoor patio where boats can be lifted and brought into the space for repairs. Next to the workshop is a laboratory for students in the intensive research program, as well as a large space on the second floor for the Young Sailors program.

A filming room with a green screen is also planned, in part because in the time of COVID-19 the organization conducted programs virtually and found it needed a more high-tech environment. .

SoundWaters has a collection of approximately 100 sailboats, an 80ft schooner and a 24ft boat called a “research vessel”. Boats are used for a variety of different programs as a way to get people on the water.

But sailing isn’t really the purpose of the organization’s mission, Shemitz said.

“You would think we really care about sailing,” she said. “In fact, we really don’t. It is a means to an end. »

This “end” is to provide education about the Strait, help young people find maritime jobs, and prepare high school students for careers in marine biology, to name just a few of the goals attached to SoundWaters programs.

As work continues on the new building, the city is also investing in improving Boccuzzi Park, including restoring the beach in the form of sand dunes and public water access. Part of the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is a $2.9 million request for park improvements currently before the city’s finance board.

At a recent Finance Council meeting, City Engineer Lou Casolo said the money would be used to build a new road through the property, a new cul-de-sac and a ” dunescape”, a landscape that includes sand dunes.

It was the Dunescape Zone that brought the site to the public earlier in the process after a city assessment found the soil was contaminated with arsenic, leading to cost overruns for the city.

The dunescape would be placed where a ruined parking lot currently stands. This lot is one of the property’s biggest eyesores, officials said, because rising tides have caused large craters on the surface. Separating the lot and the water is a decrepit chain-link fence, which would also fall as part of the project, according to plans.

But in order to avoid a massive soil remediation project, city officials said they plan to build the sand dunes above the surface of the parking lot, leaving the asphalt to act as a cap on the harmful materials that may be underneath.

“I’ve never designed a dune landscape on an existing parking lot before, but it might be possible,” Casolo told a Finance Council meeting.

He later said, “I think we’re only going to get deeper from an environmental standpoint if we start tearing down the parking lot.”

The brand new center and revamped park and beach will be a far cry from the beginnings of SoundWaters, which was created in the late 1980s in response to a series of articles in The Stamford Advocate about the deteriorating state of the harbor .

For about a decade SoundWaters had a boat but no real home. They were essentially a “ship and a cabin”, as Shemitz described it.

In 2000, the organization finally found a home in the form of the historic Holly House on Cove Island where it still operates. The Cove location will remain, even when the new center officially opens, Shemitz said.

The new port center is funded in part by the state of Connecticut, which is spending $2 million on the structure, and the city of Stamford, which is contributing $800,000. About a year ago, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation awarded $3 million for the project.

The remaining cost of approximately $2 million comes from private sources; Shemitz said there was about $1 million for fundraising.

“It should ultimately be a destination,” Shemitz said of the center, park and shoreline. “If we all do our jobs very well in the city, the parking lot will end up being too small, because all of a sudden people will want to come here.

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