What could have been a large gas station is now a 1.25-acre park, providing green space in a part of Shelton that has seen massive corporate development during the past 25 years.
While many people may quickly drive by Constitution Park in their vehicles, to neighbors it’s a welcome place for solace and recreation — and a buffer to the fast-paced world that surrounds them.
“It’s a pleasant place. It’s peaceful,” said Regis Dognin, who lives across the street and was part of a group of neighbors who banded together to fight the gas station proposal in 1994. “It’s just a great place to watch the world go by,” he said.
On Sept. 26, Dognin, other neighbors and city officials came together to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the park, located at Constitution Boulevard South, Long Hill Avenue and Kneen Street Extension.
They reminisced about their zoning battles and all the subsequent work involved in turning the parcel into a municipal park.
“It shows what a neighborhood can do when it comes together,” said Board of Aldermen President John Anglace. He called the park “a beautiful gateway to the neighborhood and an asset to the city.”
People, Dognin said, “come here for every reason under the sun — to walk, to exercise, and to play volleyball and touch football.”
“I love to see the kids playing ball here,” said neighborhood resident Tom Jensen.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to this neighborhood,” said Chris Durrschmidt, whose late father, Max, was one of those most involved in creating the park.
Pre-Constitution Boulevard days
Many of those gathered could remember a time before Constitution Boulevard South was built, and the entire area was undeveloped and wooded.
“This place was a forest,” said Dognin, who moved there in 1972, just before the Route 8 highway opened up.
“I used to cut through here to get to school,” recalled Alderman Anthony Simonetti.
“We’d sled down the hill before Route 8,” said Chris Durrschmidt.
Has lawn, path, benches, lampposts
Constitution Park consists of a large lawn; landscaped areas with trees, plants, flowers, and rock croppings; a pathway with five benches donated by community members; and a 60-foot-high flagpole.
“Everyone loves the flag,” Dognin said.
The flagpole is dedicated to the late Max Durrschmidt, a founder of the Friends of Constitution Park.
At the anniversary event, Mayor Mark Lauretti read a proclamation he issued that highlighted how nearby residents had wanted to enhance their neighborhood with a pocket park.
These residents’ efforts, in collaboration with city officials, “led to a beautiful and useful park adorned with colorful flowers, park benches, walking paths, and lighting,” Lauretti said.
Dognin said he can’t imagine how a 24-hour gas station with eight pumps, a convenience store, second-floor offices, commercial lighting, and 30-car parking lot would have impacted the area.
“This is just a world apart from what could have been,” he said of the park.
‘A neighborhood dream come true’
Constitution Park, just off Route 8’s Exit 13, had been dedicated on Sept. 26, 2004. “It is truly a neighborhood dream come true,” stated a park chronology written for the dedication.
The construction of Constitution Boulevard South led to much development, such as corporate offices and medical facilities. The road is the widest street in the city, being up to 80 feet across in sections.
Development compromised many natural resources, with brooks relocated to underground pipes, ponds filled in, and the tree canopy replaced by asphalt.
The gas station battle had followed an earlier one involving the Laurel Ledge residential development, with neighbors successfully fighting to make that project less intense than originally proposed.
Gathered more than 1,600 signatures
The neighbors’ battle against the gas station picked up the support of many elected officials, including Lauretti.
Opponents presented zoning officials with 1,600 signatures on a petition against the plan, and more than 150 opponents showed up at the public hearing.
“I remember walking up and down the street to get signatures,” Jensen said.
Creating a park was not easy. The city had to swap land elsewhere in Shelton with developer Chris Bargas to make it happen. The park also needed to be engineered, designed, funded, and built.
“It was a tremendous effort by so many people,” said Alderman Eric McPherson.