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Project to bring rowing to public

Charles boathouse to promote access

An artist's rendering of the Community Rowing boathouse due to open next spring. An artist's rendering of the Community Rowing boathouse due to open next spring.

Right now, it's just a field of dirt. Over the next several months, though, a site near the Newton-Brighton line could become a veritable mecca for the region's rowing enthusiasts.

Community Rowing Inc. has broken ground on a massive $15 million project to build a new boathouse along the Charles River, on three acres leased from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The nonprofit group was established in 1985 by top rowers to promote rowing as a fun, leadership-enhancing activity. With nearly 1,200 members, it is the oldest public rowing club in the country and still one of the largest, the group says.

Much of the goal of the new boathouse is to take the sport of rowing out of the "Preppy Handbook" and into the daily lives of regular folks.

Of the sport's reputation as an elitist activity, club executive director Alyson Magian said, "Part of it is a lack of access and a tradition of rowing that's entrenched in prep schools and colleges."

Noting the organization serves rowers from age 12 through senior citizens, Magian said, "Rowing is not an elite sport. Anyone can do it and you can start it at any age and continue on for the rest of your life."

Of the 10 boathouses along the Charles between Watertown and Boston, Community Rowing is the only one that will be open and fully accessible to the public, said Magian. "We don't have it gated off to the water, unlike other boathouses," she said.

Indeed, increasing public access to the river is a big reason why the project got such strong backing from state legislators, Magian suggests. Until now, the site offered few recreational opportunities, serving primarily as a staging area for MWRA construction materials.

For the last 18 years, the organization has been operating from cramped quarters inside the nearby Daly Memorial skating rink, once owned by the Metropolitan District Commission. The rink is now run by the Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart.

Magian said they'll be out of the rink shortly after the Head of the Charles Regatta in October and into their new digs by the end of next April.

The project includes a 25,000-square-foot, two-story main building that will house 66 of the largest boats in the fleet, the fours and eights.

There will also be an indoor boat repair bay; a large function room for training that will be available for community rental; a catering kitchen; locker rooms; a weight room; two classrooms; meeting space; and a reception area.

The group's offices, now located on Pleasant Street in Watertown, will also be moved here.

A second building, about 3,400 square feet, will store more than 70 of the smaller boats, primarily the singles and doubles.

There will also be four new floating docks and ramps along the river's edge, as well as a mini-marina for 16 small motorboats used during instruction for safety. The public will be free to launch kayaks and canoes and even fish from the new docks, said Magian.

The boathouse gets high marks from the Charles River Watershed Association, an environmental watchdog group that worked on the project in the early stages to make sure it wouldn't further pollute the river or block community access to the water's edge. While there are still lingering concerns over increased traffic and dock positioning in the water, the association calls the project "very sensitive" to both the environment and public access.

"We have tremendous respect for CRI; they do a very good job," said Robert Zimmerman, the association's executive director. "They'll be the only boathouse on the river that will maintain a public right of way between the building and the water."

Once the project is complete, Magian expects to add courses for people with special needs and others who might typically be shut out of many outdoor activities. Because the facility will be fully handicapped-accessible, including the dock area, those who are blind, use wheelchairs, or have mental disabilities will be able to row.

Several existing offerings, such as "G-ROW," a free after-school leadership and academic tutoring program for about 40 girls primarily from the Boston public schools, will be able to bring on more students.

So far, about $10 million in private donations, including $2.1 million in state funding, has been raised, with another $2.5 million still to go. The organization is also in talks with a local college, though Magian declined to say which one, to sublease some of the boathouse to further offset the cost of the project.

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.

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