WATERTOWN — It started as a grand vision: renovated pathways bordering the Charles River in Watertown, small outlooks for pedestrians to see the waterway, a Braille trail for Perkins students to access the riverfront.
Now six years in the making, the vision has been fleshed out on paper. Community stakeholders have organized. Permits are in place. All that’s missing is the money to make it happen.
Councilors Steve Corbett and Cecilia Lenk are hoping to jump-start the stalled $1.6 million project with private funds matched by a commitment from the town.
“The idea would be to come up with a local contribution to use as leverage with the state to say, this is how serious we are and we’re willing to buy into it,” Corbett said. “We’re not going to put up any money until we have a commitment from the state, but here we are telling them what we want built and it makes sense to use it as a way to leverage them to make it happen.”
Long road to renovation
Herb Nolan had a vision for the riverfront. A former Watertown resident and avid open space advocate, Nolan saw the mile-long stretch extending from Watertown Square to Cambridge as one of the areas along the Charles most in need of improvement.
“I lived in Watertown as a student and I recognized the value of the upper portion of the riverfront,” Nolan said. “It’s a beautiful part of the river that hadn’t gotten as much attention as it deserved.”
Nolan is an associate director at the Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Fund, which was founded in 2005 and focuses on parks and open space in the greater Boston metropolitan area. Even more specifically, Nolan said they concentrate on specific areas with “tremendous potential for improvement.”
“The Watertown riverfront is being used quite a bit but could be used a lot more,” Nolan said.
So in 2006, Nolan convinced Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) Commissioner Stephen Burrington, DCR planner Dan Driscoll, and David Solomon to bike the length of the river from the lower dam in Cambridge all the way up to Waltham.
“We became convinced that the Watertown riverfront had the most potential for restoration,” Nolan said. “Neighbors close by, the Perkins School, Watertown Square – it had all the ingredients of a great park.”
That’s when the organizing began. Nolan said he knew that any project of the scale they were hoping to achieve wouldn’t be possible without support from the neighbors, the community at large, the town, and the state.
“(The Solomon Fund) said they were interested in funding a design plan, so we got a group to meet and talk about it,” Corbett said. “We loved the idea that they were making this offer and the whole process sort of evolved from there.”
From the start, Corbett said then-councilor Jon Hecht and John Donohue were involved, along with then-Community Development and Planning Director Greg Watson, Watertown Conservation Commissioner Chris Hayward, Perkins School for the Blind President Steve Rothstein, the Watertown Savings Bank, Sasaki Associates, and representatives from the Watertown Community Foundation, among others.
“A lot of people have been at this for a long time,” Hecht said. “The Watertown Community Foundation came along to organize resident groups to be involved in not only thinking about planning and initial improvements, but to also do the regular maintenance, both now and later one when it’s done.”
Drafting a Plan
The Solomon Fund invested somewhere around $150,000 to draft the designs, Nolan said. Using Sasaki Associates, an internationally renowned Watertown-based design firm, Nolan said they were able to get hours of design work at a hugely discounted rate.
A public involvement plan included residents, town officials, town employees, state officials, and other invested parties in a nearly two-year process to draft the designs.
The final plan features a renovated entryway at Watertown Square with granite steps leading to the river, bank stabilization, wetland restoration, overlooks along a restored pathway, a beach and deck area, several fishing stones, a demo court, and uniquely for Watertown, a Braille trail to allow accessibility for visually impaired visitors.
Rothstein said the Braille markings and rope railing would give Perkins students access to the trail that they don’t currently have.
“For most of our students, they don’t use the riverfront a lot now,” Rothstein said. “There’s no traffic light outside of Watertown Square and for many students, because of mobility issues, it’s not very accessible.”
With all of the proposed improvements, the final price tag on the project is roughly $1,635,000, according to plans drafted by Sasaki in 2008.
“I can say what we wanted to do is far beyond what DCR would fit into their normal budget,” Corbett said. “What we want them to do is to go far beyond what they would normally expect to do.”
Since 2008, money for capital improvements is scarce, let alone money for the type of $1 million-plus project proposed for the riverfront. Still, stakeholders say they are hopeful.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Hecht said. “The DCR is very much behind the project, the community has been behind it. The town has shown its commitment … We’re just hoping it’ll be sooner rather than later.”
In order to make the funding more feasible for the state, Hecht said they broke the project down into four phases.
“It’s just so tough to find large amounts of money to invest in any kind of capital improvements at this time,” Hecht said. “Sasaki has been great in helping us put together a phasing plan so DCR can see if they can’t do the whole project at once, maybe they can cobble together some money from various sources to go in different phases.”
In the meantime, work has being going on behind the scenes to raise private funds to help support the project, Corbett said. He’s been working to solicit the financial support organizations and foundations to help fund the private part of the partnership.
To date, Corbett said the Solomon Fund, Perkins School for the Blind and the Foundation on Disability have agreed to contribute some portion of money to help finance the project. And, on April 10, Corbett and Lenk are scheduled to petition the Town Council to support a matching grant from town funds.
“When a community steps up the way that Watertown is stepping up and gives the state confidence that it’s not only something the community really wants, but that the community will be there to support and maintain and really use the park in the long run, that’s really helpful,” Hecht said. “We’ve got a good case, we just need to keep at it.”
Interested in helping with this project? Contact Watertown Community Foundation Riverfront Coordinator Jennifer Ross at 303-250-6396 or email@example.com, or Steve Rothstein at 617-972-7200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.