Wilton is one step closer to potentially seeing improved public spaces in Wilton Center.

Last week, the Schenck’s Island/Merwin Meadows (SIMM) Committee was presented with final concept master plans for both town open spaces by Milone and MacBroom, the engineering and landscape consultants hired by the town for the project. The consultants, Mike Doherty and Suzanne Schore, developed these plans after assessing input from the public, and the concepts will provide the basis for what the town can do to improve each of the parks.

The committee can now begin prioritizing–evaluating what the best suggested uses and features are at each park, as well as figuring out costs and plans for how to fund the projects.

Putting the plans together is the culmination of over two years of work on the part of the SIMM committee. Milone and MacBroom facilitated workshops to solicit feedback from residents at two public meetings last April and May. According to the consultants, the plans they presented reflected a drive to improve what features exist and create public spaces that will increase use by residents and visitors.

Schenck’s Island

Milone and MacBroom presented multiple varied suggestions for possible feature improvements and additions at Schenck’s Island. [Editor’s note:  any photographs are purely conceptual and meant to illustrate what’s possible for each feature.]

  • Increasing lawn and reducing meadow size:  Creating a “great lawn” for picnicking and community events; also including providing an accessible path connecting town center, parking, with the open lawn and other features of the park. This likely would require investing in an “engineered lawn” that would better withstand traffic. Town officials, including First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and environmental affairs director Mike Conklin noted that some of that work already has been done to date, both through town resources and as part of Trout Unlimited‘s river work.
  • Platform for a dedicated bandshell:  For an amphitheater area, a concrete pad would be installed with a bandshell (and possibly electricity) to serve as a performance space. Options could range from something simple to accommodate a small band and theatrical performances to something more architecturally elaborate.
  • Improved parking lot and park entry:  Among the options this includes are installing light fixtures on Old Ridgefield Rd. and lighting in the parking area; improving entry signage, including on Old Ridgefield Rd.; enhancing parking by increasing spots to 18, including handicapped spaces.
  • Nature-themed free-play area:  incorporate the natural slope for naturalized play elements, “… things that look like they fit into the natural space.” According to the consultants, this could include “whimsical log structures” and things that encourage free play to “…add another layer of activity to the space, aside from people just walking or fishing; it adds another reason why kids would want to come to the park.” They noted that there are manufacturers who specialize in this type of play equipment.
  • Meadow observation tower:  This roofed platform with an accessible ramp would provide a unique point of view across the meadow area for bird watching, educational gatherings and general enjoyment of the park (art programs, star gazing, etc.). The overlook could include informational signage to explain how the park was planned to accommodate the wildlife in the park. This would include ramped entrance for accessibility to a platform perhaps 6-8 feet up from ground level, but could also incorporate a higher level accessible by stairs or ladder. Again, this could be simple or something more architecturally interesting–the consultants said even possibly involving a design competition. 
  • Managed meadow area and trails:  In addition to maintaining and enhancing the existing trail system, this would include providing educational signage to explain different environmental management techniques, improvements, plants and wildlife. This, they said, could help improve awareness for the public that doesn’t realize a management plan exists for the meadow and riverfront. Management of the space would also be structured to encourage ways for the public to enjoy the space while simultaneously controlling for ways to protecting certain areas, including river access and wetlands.

The project would also involve continued improvements and river restoration by Trout Unlimited as well as ongoing landscape management by Wilton’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The Milone and MacBroom consultants reiterated that the plan was put together with an eye to not overdeveloping the space, providing lower cost options and building in low maintenance for upkeep.

Merwin Meadows

The majority of the work Milone and MacBroom proposed involves renovation to the park, “…a little updating and some reconfiguration, but the park is basically staying in the framework it is today, but adding elements to attract people and give the feeling it’s being looked after.”

  • Bath house:  upgrade interior and exterior, for current code compliance and make aesthetic improvements–new paint, cosmetic upgrades, replacement of wood, electrical and plumbing, look at accessibility make sure the doors and walkways are made accessible, give it a cleaner look. Together, Conklin and the consultants concluded that the facility did not need additional bathrooms or more robust concessions; in addition to being more cost prohibitive, anything larger would be difficult in the floodway where Merwin is located. In addition, the likelihood of a significant increase in visitors is not high, so the consideration of expense and environment outweighed any more significant changes.

    In addition, officials decided against upgrading the showers to add hot water. As Conklin explained: “This is the town swimming hole. People are not going out after this to an event. The reality is, it’s a swimming hole.” As the consultants added, it’s “…maintaining, cleaning up and giving cosmetic TLC to make it functional.”

  • Playground improvements:  This was an area that the Milone and MacBroom consultants felt would offer the highest return in value, by providing a new, and more universally accessible playground with refreshed, more exciting elements and structures. They also suggested increasing seating and shade trees. The current playground area could be enlarged slightly, and they also suggested moving the swings from where they are currently located to the playground area.

    The pavilion would remain the same, and necessary roof replacement can be done in-house.

  • Interactive Water Play Area:  A dedicated play area for younger children with interactive elements that allow them to dig, spill, build dams, splash, twist, learn, socialize, etc.It’s not a spray pad and would require no plumbing; rather it’s more of a nature play area with sand diggers and concrete channels or stainless steel troughs, built in pumps, etc. They recommend keeping the existing sand mound which got positive public feedback.
  • Pickle Ball court:  Milone and MacBroom say they heard “…a fair amount of people talk about pickle ball courts.” Installing two concrete courts with adjacent seating would be a great addition to encourage adult activity and attract more people to the park. It would be located in space just off the soccer field, close to where the pedestrian bridge will be installed, so as to take advantage of the bridge access and improved parking near the train station. 
  • Parks Department Storage Yard Screening:  creating better covered storage for the equipment and materials in the grounds crew area would be multi-purpose:  better preserve the life of the equipment; improve the esthetics of the area; and prevent non-source pollution (mulch, runoff, etc.) from washing into the river.

Vanderslice noted she had not heard concerns about the storage yard previously and suggested that Conklin and Parks and Recreation director Steve Pierce collaborate on a presentation to the Board of Selectmen, noting, “it seems like an important thing we should talk about.”

She also said that some things on the Merwin Meadows plan, like the storage yard improvements, would really be considered as issues of town-deferred maintenance. As such, cost for that maintenance would likely be considered under town budget rather than part of any park improvement funding proposal

The one idea on either plan that wasn’t included was a dog park–something that is often mentioned by residents as a feature they want in town. However, because of the proximity to playgrounds and recreation areas, neither Schenck’s Island or Merwin Meadows could accommodate one.

Vanderslice noted that for the town to consider having a dog park, it would need to be something planned, organized and proposed by residents–as well as privately funded. “You need some group from the community to come forward and say, ‘We’ll work with parks and recreation.”

Park Improvement Funding

As part of their work, the Milone and MacBroom consultants put together very rough cost estimates for the work they were suggesting. While they called the numbers conservative and concept budgets, if the town opted for everything on the checklist of improvement ideas it would be looking at around $900,000 for Schenck’s Island and $800,000 for Merwin Meadows.

“The original idea was a $1 million plan over five years–now we have two $1 million ideas,” Vanderslice noted.

Discussions for funding the park improvements have always included major fundraising from the public as well as grants. Vanderslice reiterated that with the SIMM committee.

“I think there is community wide interest and support in work at Schenck’s. We started with the Chess Park to show people the river. I hear all the time how people love seeing the anglers. I think there’s support, the community with their tax dollars might be interested in doing some improvements. The observation tower and the musical platform are fundraising opportunities. It all depends on the budget and how much can we do within tax dollars,” she said.

The committee also noted that Trout Unlimited will continue doing planting near the river at Schenck’s, although the major work on resculpting the river is completed.

Vanderslice suggested the committee take the ideas to the Parks and Recreation Commission both to begin prioritizing what is town responsibility (i.e. maintenance and for town budget) and what would be considered for fundraising, and to begin formulating a multi-year plan.

In addition, town officials would begin to look into grant opportunities available soon, including a 50-50 match for resident donations through Sustainable CT. With Wilton’s recent award from the environmental organization, the town is now eligible for such funding.