June 14, 2023
A proposed new overlook deck of the Neponset River on Edgewater Drive near Holmfield Avenue. The site is just one aspect added by the DCR in what has been a partnership between neighbors and the state agency in righting the disinvestment of the Mattapan riverfront over several decades. Rendering courtesy of DCR
The street name ought to indicate that the Neponset River is flowing nearby, but few Edgewater Drive neighbors knew there was a stretch of waterfront at the end of their street off River Street near Mattapan Square until several residents began calling for improvements to what’s obscured by heavy undergrowth and a dilapidated stone wall: a walking path and a canoe launch. But change is now in the works due to a partnership between neighborhood leaders and officials from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which took initial ideas from the residents and expanded their vision. “What we wanted as a neighborhood was to have safe access to a path along the river and for neighbors to be more interested in seeing the river as a resource,” said Vivien Morris, chair of the Edgewater Neighborhood Association. “As a person who lives three houses in from the river, I know a lot about it, yet if you go down a couple more houses, honestly, people didn’t know the river was there because the river couldn’t be seen at all. Now it will be exposed to so many people and that open space will be there and seen. To be able to walk along the river is so good for physical health.” Morris, who is also a leader in the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition (MFFC), said that after a DCR final design meeting on May 30, the neighbors believed they had everything they wanted, and the DCR even “took it beyond that.”
A rendering of the new play structures at Kennedy Playground along Edgewater Drive. The site will have a river motif with fish and woodlands themed structures. Morris said that extra effort by the state is all about equity. It was no accident that in the past, the only part of the river trail left unkempt was the part abutting a majority community of color, she said. LaRay Brison, who is also a member of the neighborhood group, said Morris tapped her in 2019 to start getting community support, mostly due to her professional background in landscape design. She said not everyone was on board at first, but that the pandemic showed most neighbors that they needed more open space that is accessible, particularly at the riverfront. “Because the population is increasing here in Mattapan and Hyde Park, both are being more densely populated and people are concerned what the new path might bring – more people and safety issues,” she said. “There are people that are concerned about the path. Not everyone is completely happy with it, but most are happy. The goal is to meet people where they are and to find that middle ground.” Aside from safety concerns, other issues that need to be figured into the conversation include property line definitions, a new walking trail along the river that DCR has proposed, a new Kennedy Playground for youth, an adult fitness area, multiple river overlooks, a lowering of the stone wall in certain areas, new wall opening/access points, better access to the canoe launch via new granite stairs, and a new pedestrian bridge over the river at Osceola Street in a future phase of the project. With new DCR Commissioner Brian Arrigo now on board now, the project has taken on additional energy and has a distinct timeline in place for Phase 1 work. A DCR spokesperson said they would be gathering comments on the final design through June 30 at https://www.mass.gov/forms/dcr-public-comments. Following that, they will issue a notice of intent to do the project to the Boston Conservation Commission, with the hope of having a hearing this summer. They will also initiate work on utilities and paving within the city’s right of way. When that’s completed, DCR will advertise the project for bids in the late fall, with an eye to beginning construction as early as next spring. The new pedestrian bridge has a little more lead time, though public meetings and comment periods have already taken place. The next step in that process is to complete a bridge type study, hopefully by the end of August. DCR is aiming to have a 25 percent design meeting for the bridge in the fall of 2024. The new plan and the timeline are refreshing news for Helena Tonge, president of the Belnel Family Neighborhood Association, which is named for the road located just west of the Edgewater Drive group. She said they got involved after Morris and Brison reached out and the DCR committed to extending the path. She said her family moved to the neighborhood in 1974, and she grew up at a time when the riverfront and trail were maintained and accessible. For her, it was a sense of adventure to jump on a bicycle with friends and explore their way up to Mattapan Square. That has been missing for youth in the area for several decades now. “It’s about the kids now that missed out on that kind of childhood we had – riding our bikes and going over to Mattapan Square and just exploring,” she said. “We were kind of immersed in the outdoors as kids here. It was awesome. I want kids to be able to just go out and explore that area again. I see we have a kid-friendly neighborhood here and that isn’t common in Boston. The sense of being able to explore and having trails right in the midst of your community – this is it. Everyone is going to love this.” Having taken care of her late mother during the pandemic, she said having an overlook would have really benefited her mother in her last months. “I can only imagine how happy she would have been if I could have pushed her up to one of the new overlooks and she could have watched the water,” she said.