By Jane Regan and Stephanie Wittenbach
SOMERVILLE, Mass., Dec. 5 – Residents, city and state officials all say that Foss Park, one of the city’s biggest open spaces, needs a facelift. And likely much more. And anyone who has played ball or walked a dog there knows about the dustbowls, lack of drainage and other challenges. Last year the state finally announced a $1.2 million dollar project that includes building a new artificial turf field, field lighting, walkway upgrades and drainage improvements.
But what else is in the works? And what else is possible?
The field is only one feature of the nearly 14-acre park, which is owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). It also has a pool, a playground, basketball and tennis courts, several baseball diamonds and other open spaces.
Earlier this fall, city officials and state representatives hosted two meetings to hear from residents what additional kinds of improvements or changes they might like to see. The goal of the meetings was to “gather community feedback so that our elected officials and staff can continue to advocate for improvements to be made that reflect the needs of our entire community,” according to Deputy Director of Communications Jacklyn Rossetti, writing in a Nov. 19 email.
But the key word is “advocate.”
At the moment, the only improvements actually planned for and funded are the state’s updates to the playing field.
“We are getting that field which is a really great thing, but that’s all we’re getting right now,” Ward 1 City Councilor Matthew McLaughlin, who was at the Nov. 13 meeting, stressed in an interview. “There’s no real funding mechanism right now to address all the concerns besides the field.”
Residents Share Ideas
About 20 people showed up at the Nov. 13 meeting at the East Somerville Community School. The City had translators on hand for Haitian Creole-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking residents, but as the meeting kicked off, nobody from those communities appeared to be present. (Officials promised to do outreach.)
Luisa Oliveira, the city’s new Director of Public Space and Urban Forestry, launched the meeting by talking about the park’s history mentioning a few of the many challenges there. For example, the park is surrounded on three sides by highways. Also, about 16 percent of the park’s 113 trees are dead (2) or in poor condition (16) and the ash trees are being menaced by the Emerald ash borer beetle.
For almost 90 minutes, different city staffers then addressed the major issues: the playing fields and other sports installations, the natural environment and traffic, and took notes as people weighed in.
Participants mentioned things like the need for dog-friendly spaces, more trees and even a pathway that reaches Stop & Shop supermarket. Pool users asked for more shade by the pool. A tennis player noted that the city has far too few tennis courts and that those that do exist are underused and poorly maintained. Some asked for locker rooms, water fountains and seating by the fields and bathrooms. A few residents stressed the need for grass, rather than more turf, and for more natural spaces. And some also mentioned problems they’ve seen, like leftover syringes, homeless people and trash.
Pop Warner president President Roger Desrochers was a vocal participant. He oversees five football and cheerleading teams, he said, and made the case for more playing turf fields which can be played on for more hours than grass and which recovers more quickly after rainfall.
“We’re building this huge great city here in Somerville that is bringing families from all around,” he told the room. “If you build this park to where people will be proud, you’re going to bring more and more kids and our youth programs are going to start to build up again.”
“We have a lot of youth sports in this city that should be using it ,” Desrochers later said in an interview. “There’s no other big park in the city, rectangular, that our team can use. My kids haven’t had a goal post to practice kicks in, in ten years.”
Who will pay for other improvements?
As the meeting wound down, one woman asked: “Is there more money available?”
Senator Pat Jehlan (D), seated beside Rep. Mike Connolly (D), admitted that DCR did not have “a lot of money,” but added that she might be able to find funding for some of the less expensive suggestions, although not “next year.”
Connolly agreed, noting that the state budget is “in a state of austerity,” but that the meeting was important because hearing peoples’ ideas and concerns will “help us understand how we can advocate.”
The lack of funding for the improvements listed during the meeting was “the elephant in the room,” McLaughlin then pointed out. Foss Park is part of his ward.
“Who’s paying for this and who’s owning the property after it’s paid for?” he asked the room. “If we’re going to put millions of dollars into this property we have to have some say in what goes on with it.”
While the city could not afford to buy the park, McLaughlin noted, perhaps it could be given control.
The City is currently has an MOU with DCR that allows it to maintain and control Dilboy, which is also owned by the state, according to the Rossetti.
“The City would like to make improvements to Foss park in partnership with DCR to better serve residents,” Rossetti wrote in a Dec. 4 email. “Dilboy and Foss are are our largest parks and as a densely populated community we have a significant interest in improvements made to both facilities. This is why we continue to work closely with our state partners and advocate for improvements that will best meet the needs of our community.”
After the meeting, McLaughlin reiterated his position. He was willing to entertain the idea that the City fund some improvements, but only if it that comes with control.
“I don’t want us to spend $10 million for trees or something and then the trees die and we need DCR to take care of it,” he said in an interview. “Everything we put in financially, we need to be able to have control over.
The Public Space and Urban Forestry Division will be drafting a report based on feedback from the two meetings.
Councilors-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch, Mary Jo Rosetti and Bill White were also all at the Nov. 13 meeting. To watch a video of the entire evening, to check out summary videos in Portuguese and Spanish and/or to comment, please visit the city’s Foss Park webpage.