Plans to revive Watertown’s riverfront are ready, but money’s in short supply
A lanky man sits on a park bench, looking out over the water. He delicately maneuvers his fishing pole, slowly wrapping up after a long morning of throwing his line into the Charles River and coming up empty-handed. Disappointed, he said he regretted trying his luck at this spot in Watertown.
“I should have gone to Crystal Lake in Newton,’’ said the lifetime Watertown resident, Kenny Caccitello, pointing out that waterside parks in Newton and Waltham feature more luxurious grounds and fishing options. “I almost never come here.’’
Caccitello is not the only Watertown resident to notice his community’s run-down waterfront parks. Local leaders, officials and constituents have been pushing a proposal that calls for $2 million in funding from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to build walking and biking pathways, clean up debris, create scenic waterfront views, clarify informational signs, and construct a dock area on the river between North Beacon Street and Galen Street.
Despite the proposal’s widespread support and high priority, there is no money to start renovations, according to the state agency’s Charles River Basin project manager, Rick Corsi.
“If we had the funds to build it, we’d move forward with it,’’ Corsi said. “It’s been an area of the Charles River Basin that has needed attention for a number of years. The only thing holding us back is lack of money.’’
Corsi said he did not know whether or when funds for the project - which would take approximately 12 months to finish - would come through.
“That’s the sticky part - funding has been so tight in the Commonwealth the past few years, we really can’t speculate on when funds would become available right now,’’ he said. “But it’s good to have a project that’s ready to go out to bid. It’s already designed, we would just need to play catch up.’’
While the DCR waits for funding, some Watertown leaders have come up with their own plans to revitalize the waterfront.
The Watertown Community Foundation has hired Jennifer Ross, a recent Brandeis University master’s program graduate, to work part-time as Watertown’s riverfront coordinator to stimulate interest, awareness, and activity along the Charles.
“There are some areas in Watertown where the riverfront is run down - there are trails eroding and obstructed views,’’ Ross said.
“These areas are not utilized as much because they’re not as accessible. There are not a lot of picnic tables and park benches, so we want to build that up.’’
Compared with other municipalities in the vicinity, Ross said, the Watertown riverfront falls short in vigorous activities.
“I’m sure people use the riverfront on an individual basis, but if you’re comparing it to Cambridge - where the river is really prioritized by the town of Cambridge - people can appreciate and use it, and bike and run along that area,’’ she said.
Ross says it’s time to make revitalization of the waterfront more of a priority for Watertown residents. She intends to help in that effort by doling out nine $500 grants provided by the foundation to organized groups that would use the space.
“The idea is to make it a more organized effort to build a sense of community at the riverfront,’’ she said.
“It could be for a yoga instructor’s salary for classes, or for organizations to have an intergenerational picnic. The idea is to get people down on the riverfront, and have attention brought to areas that need to be revitalized.’’
Ross said that improving the waterfront would not only serve people who enjoy the outdoors, it would help bring a greater sense of community to Watertown.
“There would be social activities, and educational uses like nature walks,’’ she said. “There’s so much history in Watertown. It’s creating more of a sense of community, which is important to residents as well.’’
Another supporter of the the waterfront’s revitalization, Perkins School for the Blind president Steven Rothstein, has worked since 2007 with town councilors, waterfront advocates, and other local leaders to help draft the DCR proposal.
“Right now, there’s no crosswalk for over a mile, so it’s hard for people to actually get to the river,’’ Rothstein said. “We also want to build an accessible path for someone who’s blind or for someone else with disabilities to use.’’
Rothstein’s attention to the renovation efforts is rooted in his interests for Perkins School students, whose campus is located right off the Charles River.
“We want to use all the natural resources, but the river we don’t use as much as we like because of these issues,’’ Rothstein said.
“Sometimes we take the kids as far away as Duxbury. But if this were more accessible, they could use it more.
“It is critical for students to enjoy the outdoors, and it’s also a beautiful community resource,’’ Rothstein said. “Many staff, students, and alumni live in the area, since we’re one of Watertown’s largest employers, and it would allow people to get out and exercise and enjoy the beautiful riverfront.’’
The benefits of Charles River restoration can be seen in the success of riverfront businesses in nearby communities.
Bruce Smith, executive director of Community Rowing Inc. in Brighton, said after the DCR provided his company with a land lease and permission to build a public facility for river access, revenue shot through the roof.
“Now, there’s a three-acre public facility with park land and pathways, and it’s a destination for people,’’ Smith said. “Our business has more than quadrupled in the last three years, and that’s in a down economy. People love to be close to the water. It makes them feel better.’’
Kate Bowditch, director of projects for the Charles River Watershed Association, agreed.
“When you revitalize areas by rivers by providing obvious pathways and corridors to the river, and places for people to picnic and eat lunch and take a stroll, there’s a growing body of evidence that says this increases property values and business,’’ she said.
“It’s a good reason for a community to invest in riverfront restoration.’’
But Watertown officials make it clear that any major revitalization of the riverfront must be done with state funds.
Councilor at Large Susan Falkoff and community development and planning director Steven Magoon said while they think the riverfront revitalization would prove beneficial to the community, Watertown cannot afford to kick in any funds to help the cause.
“This is not an issue of spending town funds, because the town does not own the property - it’s an issue with the state government,’’ Falkoff said. “It’s a great project, and the community organizing people together has been really well-done and terrific, but the town government per say has not been involved because it’s not a town issue, really.’’
“The entire construction cost is a big number and certainly something the town couldn’t afford to do, so it doesn’t make sense for anyone to contribute a small amount that’s not enough to get the project moving,’’ Magoon said.
“On the other hand, once we get project funding lined up, I’m sure the town would be participating in a meaningful way from then forward.’’