The failure of the Smiler's Wharf project in Mystic

On Tuesday the proposed Smiler’s Wharf project in Mystic joined the long list of ambitious developments that never got past the artist rendering phase. In a letter to the Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission, the development team formally withdrew its application for a necessary zone change, citing vehement public opposition.

The letter was signed by Harry Boardsen, John Holstein and Abby Holstein Boardsen, the principals in the project.

The withdrawal notice assesses various blame for why the project ran into such strong headwinds. It claims unfair treatment by some critics in the community and the news media. It also dismisses as “simply wrong” a letter from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that urged the Stonington commission to reject the zone change, which helped fuel opposition.

However, in the end it was the scale of the project, its location in a flood zone, and its plan to displace an existing boat repair and storage facility — in the face of state law that seeks to encourage and maintain such water-dependent uses — that generated strong opposition and doomed the proposal.

The developers were asking the commission to rezone 7.5 acres of the 11-acre Seaport Marine property off Washington Street from marine commercial to a Neighborhood Development District. To be built out in phases, the project was to include a 200-seat restaurant; 16 townhouses; a six-story, 25-unit apartment building; a five-story, 45-unit hotel; several units of multifamily housing; 120 boat slips; and a nearly 17,000-square-foot pavilion that would have served the marina and provided space for private and community events.

That’s a lot.

Except for the relatively new Red 36 restaurant, built by the same development group, all existing buildings would have been demolished to make way for Smiler’s Wharf.

It seemed that for many in Mystic, which is bustling with business but also often choked with traffic and short on parking in the summer season, such a massive development would have constituted a turning point from a shoreline village popular with tourists to a tourist attraction and visitor playground, a village in name only.

Neighbors abutting the Seaport Marine property feared their summer-season existence would go from challenging to intolerable if the project moved forward as planned. They considered buildings as high as 72 feet tall, elevated to rise above flood waters, as grossly out of scale with the neighborhood, even as the developers noted other Mystic structures are nearly as high.

Which is not to say there were not some attractive elements to the Smiler’s Wharf proposal. The plans included a boardwalk and open-air plaza that would have improved public access to the water. Inclusion of the planned pavilion would have provided a large, indoor space for Mystic events. Also envisioned was a kayak rental and launch facility.

The 120-slip marina was targeted at attracting large pleasure boats and their deep-pocketed owners who would have pumped money into the local economy, with local shops and restaurants the primary beneficiaries.

Badly botched, however, was an unsuccessful effort to tap $10 million in state support for the public access and shoreline reenforcement portions of the development. Rather than announcing upfront the request for funds as a public-private partnership, the developers proceeded quietly on parallel tracks, seeking the money directly through legislative bonding authorization and by way of a state Department of Economic and Community Development grant. When news reports about the fiscal requests surfaced, it had all the appearances of the developers and their political backers trying to slip something through.

Our expectation is that the developers will eventually return with a scaled-down version, focusing perhaps more on residential, maintaining some of the existing marine business, and reducing the need for bulkhead construction and other flood-control measures. But that's their call.

If they move ahead with an alternative, the developers will need to do a better job of involving the community in the planning from the start, something they claim to have tried to do this time, but with little success.

And they should probably try another name and retire Smiler's Wharf along with those renderings.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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