By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. ‘ There are a lot of ladders to climb before the city’s flood chutes are reimagined, but the process moved forward with a conversation on Thursday morning at City Hall.

The non-profit Hoosic River Revival hosted a presentation by its consultants to discuss some of the possibilities to take advantage of the stretch of river that runs through the Steeple City.

The meeting was attended by invited “stakeholders,” including abutters to the river, representatives of local non-profits and members of the HRR’s board and advisory panel.

Mayor Richard Alcombright also attended and noted that the proposals for the river are part of a larger downtown revitalization effort.

“This is just another iteration of the some of the thought processes,” Alcombright said toward the end of the presentation. “We talked about the whole Noel Field configuration, for example. We’re currently looking at that with a local design firm. That effort will work closely with you guys.

“This isn’t a three-year solution. This is a long-term solution. We’ve got three different groups looking at this in different ways.”

In addition to the Noel Field Athletic Complex and HRR, the city’s landscape could potentially be changed by the planned Greylock Market at Western Gateway Heritage State Park, the extension of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, and the proposed expansion of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art campus into the former Brien Center on Marshall Street.

Thursday’s meeting focused on the river and two conceptual drawings presented by Watertown-based designer Sasaki Associates and Cambridge engineer Inter-Fluve.

Sasaki principal Mark Dawson and designer Anthony Fettes walked the audience through a renovation that breaks the river down into four zones: the Mass MoCA area at the confluence of the Hoosic’s north and south branches, the “Civic Gateway” near the current Heritage State Park and City Hall, the “The Park” near the existing Noel Field complex and the “The Wild” from Hunter Foundry Road north to Disanti Field.

Inter-Fluve’s Nick Nelson gave a brief lesson in river geography and explained some of the changes that could naturalize the Hoosic while preserving the flood protection currently provided by the 60-year-old chutes.

For starters, the Hoosic, left to its own devices, would meander through the city, as it does along other stretches.

“Typical meandering streams have point bars at the inside of the bend and pools on the outside of the bend,” Nelson said. “Erosion happens at the outside, material deposits on the inside bend where water velocity is less.


“[The natural flow] provides habitat complexity. It provides areas for a range of aquatic species to grow.”


Sasaki proposes to create an “engineered meander” for most of the Hoosic’s run from Hunter Foundry Road to the Mass MoCA zone.


And instead of the concrete levees that now carry the river through the city, the designer envisions landscapes that slope down to the river bed with berms to protect against flooding.


“We have to maintain or improve the current level of flood protection,” Dawson said. “If we move the levee, we have to do that. … There is some important private land that might become part of that. We wouldn’t imagine moving the levee if there wasn’t an understanding with the private landowners.”


Alcombright and HRR President Judith Grinnell echoed the point about maintaining flood protection.


“Any project along the river has to maintain equal to or greater than flood protection,” Alcombright said. “The government won’t support this unless it maintains equal to or greater protection for now and years to come. … [Otherwise] it’s a non-starter on the government’s side of this.”


Likewise, any alterations to the current flood management system would need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the flood chutes.


After Thursday’s presentation, Dawson said those conversations with the Corps will begin very soon. And Sasaki has found the Corps to be a cooperative partner on past projects. Among the Sasaki endeavors that involved the Corps: theCedar Rapids River Corridor Redevelopment in Iowa and Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park.


Sasaki’s vision for the Hoosic in North Adams includes different approaches depending on the segment.


“The Wild” would include more foot trails and areas for bird watching, incorporating old river channels if possible.


In “The Park,” the designers presented two concept plans, each designed to make river access and river views part of the Noel Field complex experience. Under either plan, the river would have significant bends with multiple foot trails leading to the reimagined park from downtown and the MCLA campus.


In the bolder of the two concepts, the river would wend through the middle of the athletic complex, with the existing Joe Wolfe Field staying to the west of the river but newly configured softball fields built on the east side. Foot bridges would connect the bisected park.


“The Civic Gateway” would feature a terraced landscape down to the river, a floodable landscape that would accommodate a civic park that would connect downtown, Mass MoCA and the planned Greylock Market.


A more ambitious project for the Gateway segment would include tearing down City Hall, which would have a couple of benefits, according to Dawson, who admitted the idea might be controversial.


“We keep looking at Main Street in North Adams, and right now it ends in this complicated intersection, a high-speed intersection,” he said of the junction of Routes 8 and 2. “We want to connect Main Street down to the river and Mass MoCA in a strong way. Main Street [currently] doesn’t take advantage of that connection.


“When you look at Main Street and the [retail] vacancy rates, a generator of traffic is this building. There will always be people coming to City Hall. The cities we look at that are most successful have city hall in the middle. … I believe City Hall should be on Main Street. How that happens over 15 years, I don’t know. But as a strategy to unlock Main Street and connect Main Street to the river, you can think about moving these critical pieces.


“Right now, City Hall is surrounded by road. You go in and park and get out. That’s great for people in cars. It’s not the healthiest thing for downtown.”


Walkability and the creation of parks and plazas is at the heart of the plans presented by Sasaki. The most challenging area for pedestrian access to the river is downriver at Mass MoCA.


“That is probably one of the most constrained areas,” Fettes said. “There really isn’t much room at all. Buildings are pushed right up to the river. There is a very narrow right of way in the flood chute confluence.”


The chutes at that point are 45 feet wide and 13 feet deep with very little “wiggle room,” Fettes said.


Nevertheless, there are amenities that the Sasaki concept envisions for that segment of the river, including a walkway that could be closed off during high-water times, lighting and vegetation walls that cascade down the sides of the chute into the river.


All involved ‘ from Sasaki to the volunteer-led HRR to the city’s administration ‘ agreed that the river plan is initial, conceptual and worth further study.


“One thing that made this a good, productive meeting is I think you did your homework,” Alcombright told the designers. “You showed extreme sensitivity to the existing assets and identified the future things we’re talking about like the scenic railway and Greylock Market.


“And you’ve done it in a way that doesn’t stress what’s important: the [Route 8] business corridor. The idea we can still do this and maintain that business community is important to the city. We can’t afford to lose more businesses and tax revenues from business.”