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Stamford Revives 100-Year-Old Plan For Its Own Central Park

Courtesy of Mill River Park Collaborative
The revised masterplan for Mill River Park and Greenway, created in 2014.

Over the past two decades, the City of Stamford has resurrected long-forgotten plans to create its own version of Manhattan’s Central Park. The revitalized Mill River Park was recently named one of the “Great Places in America” by the American Planning Association.

The Mill River flows past the office buildings, luxury apartments, and busy streets of downtown Stamford.

Credit Meg Dalton
The view of Mill River from Broad Street in downtown Stamford.

Trent McCann stands on the grand steps overlooking the river. He’s leading one of his monthly guided tours of the park.

“Today we are here to talk about history. Mill River has mirrored the industrial history of the world in its existence as a central point in Stamford,” McCann said.

McCann works on education and volunteer programs for the Mill River Park Collaborative, the public-private partnership that transformed the park.

“My boss likes to tell a story that if you were in the Long Island Sound, you could tell what color shirts they were making that day based on the color of the water.”

Textile, grist, and wire mills lined the river starting in the 1600s. Before then, the native population called it the Rippowam River. Over time, settlers transformed the river with a series of dams that trapped trash and pollutants in it.

How often does a city the size of Stamford get the opportunity to create a major green space in the heart of its downtown?

“There were mattresses and shopping carts in the river and weeds growing all through it. It barely ran,” said Arthur Selkowitz. He remembers the river looking like that, because he’s the driving force behind the park’s transformation. In the late '90s, then-mayor Dannel Malloy recruited Selkowitz to turn Stamford’s dream of a downtown park into a reality.

Credit Meg Dalton
Arthur Selkowitz, chair of the Mill River Park Collaborative, stands on the grand steps of Mill River Park.
Credit Meg Dalton
One of the pedestrian paths coursing through Mill River Park.

“Before Mill River Park, there was less than an acre of green space in downtown,” said Nia Rhodes Jackson, who runs programs for the collaborative. Since Mill River’s revival, downtown Stamford has gone from virtually no green space to more than 15 acres. Mill River’s dams are now gone, and the river flows freely. Native plants and animals are returning.

“Groundhogs might be common in some places, but there’s nothing like when you bring a kid that lives in the urban core of Stamford into the park, and they see one of these animals. And are like, ‘Mom, look at that!’ and it’s like, ‘What is that?’”

Credit Meg Dalton
Nia Rhodes Jackson and Dudley Williams of the Mill River Collaborative.

Residents are connecting to nature and each other in new ways. The river used to separate downtown Stamford’s business district from the West Side, one of Stamford's lowest income communities. Now events like food festivals and a recent Halloween Spooktacular are bridging the divide.

“We come here for everything. We go for the fit club. We have fun at the carousel,” said Patrese Lewis, who lives right around the corner from Mill River in the West Side. She and her 6-year-old son Roman came to the park to trick or treat, something she wouldn’t have done five years ago.       

“It was really a mess, a disgrace, but they fixed this park up real nice.”

Credit Meg Dalton
A child rides his bike around the fountain in the park.

Lewis said this has changed her view of Stamford. The park has been critical to creating "a better community, a better way of living, of getting out."

The Mill River Collaborative wants to continue improving the quality of life in Stamford. Later this month, it’s opening a new ice rink that will rival the one in Central Park.