ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW: THE Mill River Park

BY LAURA KAEHLER & JOHN MOTAY /Photographs by Rob Shaw

Photo by Rob Shaw

Photo by Rob Shaw

Stamford’s Mill River park Shines…

An Abridged Version of this Article was Published in The Greenwich Time on 2.25.19:

https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Architectural-Review-Stamford-s-Mill-River-13643632.php

 A Riverfront Urban Park Comes To Life

  Photographs by Rob Shaw

Although there are several entrances to the Mill River Park, I am using the one on Washington Avenue near Columbus Park in downtown Stamford.

I am walking down an inviting and alluring tree-lined walk that passes the Great Lawn that will eventually lead to the river’s edge. The design is similar to what was proposed in the Mill River Park Master Plan, which for the past decade, has served as a blueprint for what is undoubtedly one of Stamford’s most exciting, successful, and promising projects- the birth and growth of an urban park that may be as important to the vitality of downtown Stamford as Central Park was to NYC over 150 years ago.

 Today, this entry way is bustling with people; a few carry ice skates, others walk dogs, some walk in groups, others stroll alone. Although a diverse group, they have one thing in common-a steadfast refusal to let winter’s cold bite deprive them of their day in the park.  The scene brings a smile to my face. A decade ago, very few envisioned a River would be flooding this area. But, that time has come- given the efforts of the Mill River Park Collaborative, a public/private partnership that is helping to realize a long-held dream of a park in the heart of Stamford’s downtown along the banks of the historic Mill River.

 By the time the Collaborative, was formed in 2002, years of neglect and mis-management had destroyed the Mill River’s natural ecological systems and inhibited pedestrian access to the water. Surrounded by abandoned lands, too often washed out by the river’s floodwaters, the area’s only saving grace was a grove of Kwanzan cherry trees -a recognized symbol of the moribund park. (1)  In response, the Collaborative enlisted Olin Partnership, a renowned landscape architectural firm, to reconfigure the dammed river and to develop a design for an urban riverfront park. Since 2007, the Collaborative has been implementing and developing key aspects of Olin’s The Mill River Park and Greenway Master Plan.

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I’m standing at the banks of the Mill River. I got here by following a route that traversed the “riparian area,” which serves as a corridor between land and river. As I worked my way to the river, the path slowly transitioned from large precisely cut granite steps to a trail of irregularly shaped flat boulders bordered by plants and shrubs. I am greeted by the sound of the river’s flow. The water’s movement is hypnotic. Nia Rhodes Jackson, Director of Visitor Experience for the Collaborative, recently told me, if it were warmer, I would be sharing this space with fish, birds, and insects. But the moment is magical with or without the reptiles, fish, rabbits, red-tailed hawks, butterflies, and other wildlife that inhabit the park.

 It was not always this way. The Mill River had not flowed freely since colonial times and a century ago, when the dam was re-built, its banks were encased in concrete walls. Over time, as the “impounded” water that collected behind the dam clogged with sediment, the river’s flow was reduced to a series of cascading pools of polluted water, littered with silt, debris, and garbage.  Occasionally, this “eyesore” was “cleansed” by heavy storm-driven rainfall that surged the banks of the river, casting its spillover into downtown Stamford. The Master Plan called for the removal of this dam, which required the technical expertise of the U.S. Corp of Army Engineers. Once the dam was removed and the waters drained, the design team was confronted with the challenge of transforming the remaining “roughened river channel” back into a natural free-flowing river. Although the process of river restoration occurs naturally, it is a slow and cumbersome process. As the river carves its new path, erosion and deposition of its banks force it to question and redefine where and how it flows. However, a dynamic, unstable river, with shifting banks, is not appropriate in an urban park that wants to provide visitors with access to the water’s edge.

Therefore, the design team needed to find a way to by-pass or accelerate this “adjustment” phase and to engineer a natural meandering river with stable characteristics similar to what was there before the dam was constructed. But how do you do that?

Drawing on the pioneering work of Dave Rosgen, they used Natural Channel Design (NCD) to provide a theoretical and practical framework for their actions. This approach posits that rivers have a set of natural defenses built into their banks and beds that keep them stable and advocates for the systematic study of a river to discover the processes it naturally uses to maintain homeostasis. (2) As Dave Rosgen explains, “ “The best way to fix a disturbed river is by studying a stable section of a river and then recreating those same conditions in the area you want to stabilize.” (3) Therefore, the design team went up river and conducted “geomorphic investigations” to identify the physical conditions that contributed to the stability of the river. They looked at water levels, bed slope, maximum flow velocities, and the composition of material that formed the river’s bed and banks. (4) Using the information and insights gained from their study, they went to work reconfiguring and reengineering the previously dammed section of the river.

 During this phase of their work, they asked some important questions: Is it possible to engineer a river’s bed and banks so as to optimize its stability?  If so, what tools or structures can we use? From an architectural perspective, the process of asking these types of questions is the bedrock of good design. They are important because they demonstrate the ability to “think” proactively and to focus on ‘root causes’ rather than symptoms. And they help designers articulate a clearly defined vision of “where a project needs to go” and perhaps more importantly, “why it needs to go there.”

Without this type of thinking, architectural structures and spaces feel “incomplete,” “ill-conceived,” or downright “offensive.” But when designers have taken the time to “think things through” and to “figure out” how to use the project’s features, elements, and details to bring their visions to life, magic happens.  The space or structure becomes a place of comfort and joy that just “feels right.” The success of this phase of the project was, in part, due to the commitment the design team made to Natural Channel Design. Instead of relying on traditional engineering approaches to “river control,” the designers were able to craft an innovative solution based on a new way to think about river restoration.

 While both traditional river engineering and Natural Channel Design are concerned with managing sediment and eliminating erosion, they differ significantly in both philosophy and methodology. (5) Traditional river engineering is based on a perspective that views the river as an adversary that needs to be “tamed.”  If you have a surge in a river that is hurling water against its bank, the solution is to cover the bank with “protection.”  This approach, relies on what is called “stream bank armoring” and uses a host of weapons to control and stabilize the river, such as rip-rap, gabions, which are wire mesh baskets filled with rock and formed as boxes, concrete lined channels, bin walls, rock jetties, reinforced revetment, sheet piling, and concrete check dams (6). However, Dave Rosgen cautions that the use of traditional “hard” armoring techniques are expensive, environ-mentally disruptive, aesthetically unappealing and in many cases, unnecessary, if the river restoration project is based on Natural River Design. (7)

 Aligning with the river, the design team thought about what they could do to help stabilize the river’s shape and flow. They understood that by “leading” rather than “controlling” the river, they could reduce the need for “hard” armoring.” But this required them to adapt a mindset that was proactive, strategic, and focused on treating “root causes” instead of symptomology.

 Looking for the root cause of the problem, they questioned if the best way to “fix” stream bank erosion, was by reinforcing and padding the banks. A more effective solution would be to eliminate the source of the problem, which they identified as the “dysfunctional” way the river channel was configured. Recognizing that as long as the river was programmed to scour its banks with surging waters, the only tool they would have to “fight” the ensuing erosion would be stream bank armoring. In response, they searched for a more “holistic,” comprehensive, and proactive solution. To fix the problem, they needed to find a way to redirect the river’s waters by altering the in-stream dynamics that contribute to it’s shape and flow. Specifically, their design solution called for reconfiguring the river so that its waters would flow towards the center of the channel rather than towards its banks.

Changing the character and direction of the river’s surge

But how do you change the behavior of a river? To reconfigure the dynamics of the river, they used tools and techniques developed in the 1990s by adherents of Natural Channel Design. These “river structures,” are designed to work with the natural dynamics of a river, and include cross vanes, J-hooks, and W-weirs. These tools reduce stream bank erosion by “reprogramming” the river to divert its surging waters towards the center of the channel, which, in turn, decreases the amount of stress placed on its bank. (8) The strategic use of these river structures helped them chart a course for the river that assured channel stability.

 Next, they shifted their focus from the riverbed to its banks with the goal of creating stable landforms designed to decrease erosion and sediment transport. The successful use of river structures allowed the design team to relay on “softer” techniques like bio-engineering and vegetation, instead of traditional “armoring” to increase the strength and structural integrity of the banks. Bioengineered techniques, which included dense strands of “living vegetation” wrapped in natural “coconut fiber blankets”, live stakes, and branch layering (fascines), were implanted on the banks. (10)

Another natural technique they used were live plantings; a palette of floodplain adapted plants shrubs, and trees provided a network of roots that served as a natural source of erosion resistance. The technical success of this effort was put to the test during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy- the river’s flow absorbed the onslaught of rain and run- off and downtown Stamford remained flood-free.

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The completion of their river restoration marked the transformation of what was once an “eye sore” into “eye candy.”  They successfully crafted a new, free flowing section of the Mill River, which lowered the flood plain by three feet.  Additionally, by focusing on root causes, their design solution moved beyond the symptom based-thinking of traditional river engineering and, instead, prescribed an intervention designed to correct the source of the problem.       

With The River Restored They Began To Craft A Park

The next step required replacing tons of polluted topsoil, the remnants of a gas station, dry cleaners, and tire store that once operated in the area. Eventually, as the toxic mix of chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons, and other waste materials were removed, native species of fish and wildlife reclaimed their rightful positions in and along the banks of the free-flowing river.

 Finally, they added the necessary elements of an urban park that transformed the area into a vibrant, evolving green space where people could relax, play, learn and connect with nature. They oversaw the creation of acres of land and river scape, added meadows, pedestrian and bicycle trails, lawn areas, planted native shrubs, wildflowers, and trees (including the largest cherry grove in New England), and for the first time in decades, provided walking paths to the water’s edge.

Adding Beauty

According to Ms. Rhodes Jackson, political concerns related to choosing sculpture and artwork for display in the park contributed to the Collaborative’s decision to let “the natural landscape and the architecture of the buildings add the aesthetic value.” And perhaps the building that best illustrates this concept is the Brownstein/Selkowitz Pavilion, which houses the Nissen Carousel.

The Carousel’s 30 hand-carved and hand-painted figures, including 15 animals chosen by the children of Stamford (check out the otter) are designed to bring families from Stamford and Greenwich to the park. It is housed in a polycarbonate structure with an interior that is punctuated by a sculptured dome, capped by three circular skylights.

Thirty distinct layers of cross-laminated timber (CLT) supported by wood and steel columns give the ceiling its architectural character and structural integrity. (11)

As the carousel slowly accelerates, I really don’t care that this innovative use of engineered wood, a renewable resource, is aligned with the Collaborative’s goal of promoting environmental stewardship. I’m having too much fun riding my sea otter!

Since it’s opening in November, people have been flocking to the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Skate Center and Fountain. Even though it is larger than the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, I still questioned why they didn’t build a regulation size hockey rink. Dudley Williams, President and CEO of the Collaborative, explained that the current design of the rink assures that pressure for fees from rentals to local hockey teams for “ice time” won’t ever threaten or limit the hours for recreational skating. So recreation supersedes sport – another design decision aligned with the Collaborative’s vision for a park where people can relax, play, learn and connect with nature.

The park continues to grow; this summer the newly reconfigured playground will add a splash pad. The Whittingham Discovery Center, which will house a restaurant, skate rental facility, and an environmental learning center should be completed in 2020.

I am confident that future design scenarios will be successful since the Collaborative demonstrates a solid commitment to attending to stakeholder needs. For example, recently, the decision was made to reconfigure the play-ground. Parents and children were asked to review “state of the art” equipment and the idea of a “splash pad” generated high levels of interest. The Collaborative developed a preliminary design and presented it to the families, but many of the older kids were not impressed with the water jets that barely packed the punch of a “kitchen faucet”.  The designers were forced back to the drawing board to incorporate high-volume sprays that would excite and engage these young thrill-seekers. Talk about satisfying client needs!

Even Better If…

Although there are many wonderful things about this park, there are some areas for improvement. For example, “The Great Lawn and Overlook,” which is on the east side of the river, is an expansive stretch of green grass with benches and seating along pathways and overlooks. The area is designed to serve as a setting for waterfront entertainment. However, looking westward, on the far side of the river, the background is a mishmash of structural noise- a hotel and parking lot, car care places, apartments, which really detracts from the moment. Eventually, when the recently planted trees mature, this problem will self-correct, but until then, clearly defined natural boundaries that separate the park from the city remain an issue (especially in the winter).

Several people I spoke with made reference to the lack of convenient parking. Although there are many parking spaces and garages in downtown Stamford, more signage is needed to clearly communicate this information (remember, Central Park has no assigned or attached parking lots).

When walking from one side of the river to the other, the only available route is via Broad Street or Main Street. However, the reverie and relaxation I experienced when I stood at the river’s edge was quickly shattered by the street noise and congestion.

What’s needed is a pedestrian bridge that would allow people to cross the river while remaining within the quiet of the park. Although Lucinda Sanders, CEO & Partner at Olin, cautioned that a bridge could have an adverse environmental impact on the park’s delicate ecosystem, (12) I would encourage the Collaborative to explore the feasibility of building one to better integrate both sides of the park.

Sometimes Success Can Be Your Own Worst Enemy

I started this article by describing the path I took to enter the park as “similar” to what was initially designed in Olin’s original Master Plan. Why wasn’t it exactly as designed? The Plan, developed in 2007, included a highly visible “Grand City Entrance” from downtown Stamford that extruded from Columbus Park across Washington Boulevard.

At the time, the real estate market in the vicinity of the park was in a slump, allowing the Collaborative to acquire needed tracts of land at reasonable prices. To accommodate their vision of a “show-worthy grand entrance”, they hoped to purchase the property at 1010 Washington Boulevard. They reasoned, who would want a piece of land that is both next to a river that floods and a downtrodden park? However, the recreational, societal, and financial benefits of the project quickly paid off. Crime in the area decreased. After the flood plain receded, insurance rates dropped. Businesses surrounding the park grew. Their new park revitalized the area. The real estate market rebounded and 1010 Washington Boulevard’s rising value quickly outpaced the growth of the Collaborative’s budget.

 So in a tragic, ironic twist of events, the Collaborative became the victim of its own success. Consequently, today the Mill River Park has a “city entrance,” it’s just not the “Grand City Entrance” the designers once envisioned. Although unfortunate, it does little to detract from this wonderful newly designed urban space.

 Footnotes:

1.      Olin Partnership, Mill River Master Plan, 2007; revised and updated by Nia Rhodes Jackson, 2014.

2.      Rosgen, Dave (1996). Applied River Morphology. 2nd ed. (Fort Collins, CO:  Wildland Hydrology.) 

3.      Rosgen, Dave. A Geomorphological Approach To Restoration Of Incised Rivers. Proceedings of the Conference on Management of Landscapes Disturbed by Channel Incision, 1997 in S.S.Y. Wang, E.J. Langendoen and F.D. Shields, Jr. (eds.)

4.      Olin Partnership, Mill River Master Plan, 2007; revised and updated by Nia Rhodes Jackson, 2014.

5.      Rosgen, Dave (1996). Applied River Morphology. 2nd ed. (Fort Collins, CO:  Wildland Hydrology.) 

6.      Rosgen, Dave Proceedings of the Conference on Management of Landscapes Disturbed by Channel Incision, 1997 S.S.Y. Wang, E.J. Langendoen and F.D. Shields, Jr.

7.      Dave Rosgen, Phone Interview, Jan 18, 2019

8.      Rosgen, Dave, The Cross-Vane, W-Weir and J-Hook Vane Structures...Their Description, Design and Application for Stream Stabilization and River Restoration Wetlands Engineering and River Restoration Conference, 2001

9.      Allen, H. & Leech, J; Bioengineering for Streambank Erosion Control. Prepared for US Army Corps of Engineers, 1997.

10.   Olin Partnership, Mill River Master Plan, 2007; revised and updated by Nia Rhodes Jackson, 2014

11.   Olin Partnership, Mill River Master Plan, 2007; revised and updated by Nia Rhodes Jackson, 2014.

12.   Linda Sanders, Olin Partnership. Phone Interview, Jan 10, 2019.

Greenwich Architectural Review is written and produced by Laura Kaehler Architects. Please fee free to direct questions and comments to lek@keaherarchitects.com

203.629.4646.

Articles are written by Laura Kaehler and John Motay. Photographs are taken by Robert Shaw.