WESTFIELD – The Conservation Commission approved a notice of intent for work on the Westfield River Levee and mitigation at the Whitney Street playground area at its meeting on June 8, despite some concerns raised by residents.
The project, to be funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), will widen the crest of the levee to 16 feet across and add a 10-foot wide asphalt multi-use trail. On landward portions of the levee that abut residential neighborhoods, a concrete wall and four-foot railing will be built.
Mitigation at the Whitney Street Playground parking area will include removal of a gravel path that will be loamed and seeded, and five trees planted. Conservation Coordinator Meredith Borenstein said right now it’s a mown grassy area with a drive. She said the majority of the project will be on the levee.
Commission Chair David A. Doe said he went to both ends of the project, which spans from Ellsworth Street to Williams Riding Way. He said there were concerns in a public letter about access and also about the size of the sidewalk. “Ten-feet wide asphalt on top of this levee with no shade will be really hot in the summertime,” he said. Currently there is a two-foot wide gravel sidewalk.
Doe asked City Engineer Mark Cressotti if there is a requirement that it has to be asphalt and 10-feet wide. Cressotti said for MassDOT to build it, it has to be asphalt. He said the current standard is 12 feet for a multi-use trail, and the city already got an exemption to 10 feet.
Doe said another concern is access to the trail by abutters due to the construction of the concrete wall.
Cressotti said the city had a public hearing where that comment should have been made, but it was not. He said the city is looking to cut off the movement of the toe of the sloped wall on the landward side by putting in a retaining wall.
Cressotti also said the boundary line between private abutters and the levee has been problematic for years, because neighbors have encroached, putting fences and structures into the toe and slope of the levee. “We have consciously put in a wall,” he said, noting the wall and railings would protect both the residents and city. He said the city would be making the levee stronger, widening it, putting in a wall, and there would be opportunities to plant landscaping for screening of residents.
Cressotti said requests for a path up and over the levee is not desirable as far as levees go. He said they are looking to accommodate access to the river, but also to enhance the experience of the levee, and the bike trail over the levee would not be the first one in the Commonwealth. He said the project will enhance flood protection in the city, provide transport and exercise to an underserved part of the city, and increase understanding of the levee and the river. “There are a lot of benefits to it,” he said.
Cressotti said they have tried to create access from the residential side up to the levee at Whitney Field, the overlooks, the Esplanade area, Andover Street, and the St. Paul connection that goes down to the river. He also said the area has been posted as no swimming by the Board of Health due to safety and public health issues.
Resident Dianne Vedeo expressed concern about the blacktop going on top. She said most of the walk will be in the sun, so it will be very hot for people walking with little children and dogs. She also said the levee was built to Army Corps of Engineers standards in 2007 and 2008. “Not that long ago this was an excellent solution,” she said, adding that the new project will wreak havoc.
Vedeo said the kayak takeout in the mitigation area used to be well-used, and that part of the river has prime swimming holes. She said neighbors to Whitney Playground are also concerned about cutting the park off if they plant trees there. She said nobody is addressing making it better for people by adding picnic tables and trash receptacles. “The attitude needs to be improved,” she said.
A member of the Westfield River Watershed Association also asked whether the kayak access would remain or be eliminated, and whether there would be better parking at Whitney Playground after the mitigation efforts. She said she is also interested in safe swimming holes and about the no swimming signs, and would like to talk to the city about implementing some safe swimming areas in the Westfield River.
Cressotti said concerns about Whitney Playground should be addressed to Parks & Recreation. He said the public comment period on the project is closed, but the Secretary of the Interior is still listening, and comments may be addressed to him.
The public hearing was then closed, and the project approved by the commission.