Walden upgrade in early stages
Forum tonight to cover options
State conservation officials will present preliminary plans tonight for a new visitor center at Walden Pond and improvements to wheelchair accessibility at the national historic landmark in Concord, including along the path to the Henry David Thoreau cabin site.
Officials from the Department of Conservation and Recreation will discuss two potential sites for a new center and other visitor improvements to the Walden Pond State Reservation at 7 p.m. in the Harvey Wheeler Community Center, 1276 Main St. in Concord.
Nat Tipton, a resource management planner for the agency, said the state has been looking at ways to improve visitor services there for years.
“This isn’t a recent wish, but something that’s been talked about for a long time,’’ Tipton said.
In addition to looking at plans for a new center and improving accessibility, Tipton said, the state will also be addressing traffic concerns and developing a plan for times when high water levels flood the beach and trails.
“There are a whole host of issues we’re exploring right now,’’ Tipton said.
He said the planning process started in January with the Boston-based consulting firm of Crosby Schlessinger Smallridge LLC. Two public meetings have been held, with the most recent one in March. Tipton said officials took public feedback from the meeting to guide them in the planning process.
Currently on site is a building that serves as the park’s headquarters and a book store for the Thoreau Society. It has a kiosk with maps and a conference room, but officials say more space is needed for interpretive displays and programs, as well as for large groups to gather in cold or rainy weather.
The new visitor center would have office space, a kitchen area for staff, a conference room and more space for educational and historical displays. Tipton said most of the interpretative programs are about Thoreau - who he was, how much time he spent there, why, and what he found.
Programs are offered at the park year-round.
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 1845 to September 1847. His experiences there provided the material for his book, “Walden.’’ The state reservation comprises the 102-foot-deep glacial kettle-hole pond, and 462 acres of protected open space. In the summer, the reservation is a popular swimming destination, while in the spring and fall visitors hike the trails that ring the pond, and visit the replica of Thoreau’s one-room cabin. The original site of Thoreau’s cabin is a half-mile walk.
“The intent is to have an area where large groups can come and we can have programming inside,’’ Tipton said. “The main thing we’re trying to achieve is an area for interpretive displays and a centralized location where people can learn about what’s on the property. It would serve as a starting point for an individual visiting.’’
One potential location for the center is near the current park headquarters building, off Walden Street (Route 126), and the second is a parking lot near the Thoreau replica cabin.
Ken Bassett, a member of the Walden Pond Advisory Committee, said members are torn between the two sites. He said the site near the replica cabin is a more central location, while the one near the existing building is more out of the way.
“Some people feel a quieter location is more appropriate for Thoreau,’’ Bassett said. And yet others think a more central location would expose visitors destined for the beach to some Thoreau history, he said.
Richard Smith, a historian with the Thoreau Society and a historical interpreter who works at the book shop there, said the current center could use an upgrade. There are no displays or signs to help people better understand the park’s importance, he said.
“A lot of people come to the pond not knowing the history of the town or Walden Pond,’’ Smith said. “In one way it’s nice we’re quaint, but something bigger would help visitor services.’’
Smith said tour groups often cancel when the weather is bad because there is no indoor space to accommodate them. While a new center would allow officials to better serve visitors, Smith said, the agency also has to make sure that the new facility fits the serene and simple surroundings of Walden.
“We’ve got to balance the ecology and environment with the mission of interpretation and history,’’ he said.
Tipton said officials at tonight’s meeting will also go over options for providing universal access to the property. Currently, there is no way for an individual in a wheelchair or walker to easily reach the main beach area, due to a steep incline, Tipton said.
The plans will show a path from Route 126 to the Thoreau cabin site, and from Route 126 to the bath house and beach.
The roughly half-mile path from the road to the cabin site will be improved for better wheelchair access.
Other issues to be addressed at the meeting include traffic backups on 126 that can extend to Route 2, and the pedestrian crossing from the parking lot across Route 126 to the beach.
After the meeting, state officials will take the feedback and continue working on the plan. There is $2 million in capital funding for the center that must be used by June 2014.
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.