It was a site to behold: A group of close to 50 people, many swatting at mosquitoes, brushing off leaves and twigs, and picking prickly seeds from their clothes stumbled out of the brush and back into civilization along River Street in Mattapan. This was the scene last Thursday as officials from the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s led a walking tour for a planned one mile extension of the Neponset Greenway, the popular riverside recreation trail that currently ends at Milton’s Central Ave.
Last Thursday evening’s tour featured a walk along one of several siting options for the greenway trail —in this instance, a thin, bushwhacked path behind Ryan Playground in Mattapan. The five options proposed for the trail would either run along the river entirely on either the north or south side, or cross over somewhere downstream. About 100 people attended a similar tour on the southern route on Monday evening that included several rides on the Mattapan High-Speed Trolley line, which parallels much of the river.
The extension to the Greenway is more akin to adding a missing link in the trail. The one mile addition would connect Pope John Paul II Park to the Neponset Valley Parkway in Hyde Park. There are other gaps in the trail, specifically at Fairmount Ave. in Hyde Park, but some residents consider the broken connection at Mattapan to be yet another symptom of an underserved community.
The extension project is still very much in a conceptual phase. DCR officials say that they are trying to determine a consensus for the trail route before seeking funding for the actual construction. Planners expect the project to cost between $3 million and $5 million and are confident to receive in stimulus funds when the project reaches maturity. As such, the DCR has not settled on a timeline for a build-out.
Cathy Garnett, a longtime DCR official who serves as project manager, said “At this point, we are working to find the best solution. Our goal is to get a good configuration…that’s our deadline. If we don’t design a trail that people are happy with, then we’ve failed.”
For the DCR, siting the trail presents several complications in addition to picking a side of the river. Three out of the five plans will have to cross the MBTA’s Mattapan-Ashmont trolley line, posing safety risks to pedestrians and bicyclists who would be using the trail. MBTA officials have stated that they would prefer to use existing crossings, namely at Central Ave. and at Capen St. Proposed trail routes also pass through what may be archaeologically significant land in Mattapan. Along with resident concerns, the DCR will have to consider all of these in the choice of siting the trail, a decision that is, ultimately, up to the DCR.
“In a perfect world, a suitable path would just pop up. That’s probably not going to happen in this case, so we have to try to address as many of these issues as reasonably possible,” said Joseph Orfant, director of DCR’s Bureau of Planning and Resource Protection.
There are strong arguments — both pro and con —from residents on both sides of the river. Many Mattapan residents want at least part of the trail to run on their side of the Neponset make the case for health and service equity for their neighborhood.
“This is a great opportunity for the state to make a major investment in our community,” said Vivien Morris, chair of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. “People in this community are negatively characterized. That’s disturbing in 2010.”
On the other hand, some Milton residents are chiefly concerned with safety, privacy and convenience. Some Milton citizens fear that a trail running along River Street would pose a safety hazard due to high traffic.
A particularly controversial option to cross between the two sides of the river at the Capen Street MBTA trolley station was demonstrated on Monday’s tour. The crossing would position the trail very close to some homes and would require a bridge to span the river. Both of these factors have some Milton residents worried about their property values, safety during bridge construction, and privacy from trail visitors.
Some residents also expressed concerns that the trail would breed crime, a position that some Mattapan advocates interpreted as negative stereotyping.
Boston residents argue that such concerns are unfounded. Many residents from either side of the river agree that a highly trafficked trail is a safer trail.
Another important hurdle for the project lies at the Mattapan Square terminus of the trail connection, where the trolley and bus station sits as a potential obstacle. Many trail advocates who spoke to the Reporter on Monday said they are hoping to avoid a route that would force walkers and bicyclists to take a turn onto River Street. Instead, they hope that the MBTA will agree to a grade crossing which would allow the path to avoid River Street and stay closer to the actual river itself.
In one sign of just how intent state planners are on making this extension a reality, Garnett revealed Monday that the DCR last month made an attempt to buy an old furniture store building that sits on land adjacent to the Neponset River and the Mattapan Square MBTA station. The empty store has become an eyesore in recent years and DCR planners envisioned making the site a visitor’s center for the trail on the Mattapan end. City records show that the property is controlled by One 674 Blue Hill Av LLC, based in Bonita Springs, Florida and was last valued at $215,000. Garnett would not disclose how much was offered to the owner, but confirmed that a tentative deal fell apart at the last minute. Garnett would not say how much the DCR offered to pay for the property.
A number of stakeholders who took part in the tours pushed an option that would cross over the river, providing service for both communities, or a hybrid model with trails on both sides. At the very least, the Greenway project presents a unique opportunity for two communities to interact and realize that they are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin.
“I think the process has been good,” said Mary Burkes, a member of the Mattapan Civic Improvement Association. “This shows that [the DCR] is listening to all of us, to an extent.”
“These communities are so close to each other but they tend to stay away,” said Dorchester resident Ellie Spring. “Hopefully, this process will show these different communities how they are actually connected.”
The DCR last month extended the public comment period on its five proposed routes until Aug. 14. Public comments on the extension can be sent to DCR by email at DCR.Updates@state.ma.us or by phone at 617-626-4974. For more information on the alternatives, visit the DCR website at http://www.mass.gov/dcr/news/publicmeetings/greenwaysgeneralpast.htm.