By Lauren R. Stevens, Berkshire Eagle Contributor
WILLIAMSTOWN >> North Adams owes it existence to the Hoosic River. Could a restored river help lead the city into the future?
River flooding created rich agricultural soils, especially on the south branch. Falling water provided power for mills, especially on the north branch. The river was a convenient, if unhealthy, way of disposing of trash. With the passage of time, pollution and flooding came to haunt the city, met by sewers and flood control structures.
In late March consultants gave a preliminary report to Hoosic River Revival and the public, sketches on how the South Branch might be naturalized as a pilot project and how that might effect urban infrastructure.
Nick Nelson of Inter-Fluve, a river restoration firm, described how the Hoosic works as it flows through town. Tony Simotes, not to be confused with the South County thespian, led the audience through two scenarios, the second “bolder” ‘ his word ‘ than the first. He and project director Mark Dawson are members of the urban planning and landscape design firm, Sasaki Associates.
The focus is the south branch from Hunter Foundry Bridge, upstream (south) of Mister Tire, to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, about 1.5 miles. The southern part of that stretch is enclosed in earthen berms; the northerly in concrete chutes.
The river the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened and enclosed is not a healthy place for fish, nor for the people who live beside it. Just as the river was taken from its flood plain, the people were walled out of the river. Simotes’ second option suggested engineering curves, widening the berms and providing ways for people to approach the water.
The river would be reconnected to its flood plain and to various wetlands. Storm water ponds would take runoff from Rte. 8. Overlooks would give people an opportunity to watch the wildlife. Farther north, the Hoosic would wind around the softball fields, which would be lowered, so fans could sit on the banks to watch games.
Likewise, the bike path from Adams, riding along the berms, might dip down inside the concrete walls. The area within the chutes might be widened; step-downs might provide people space at low water. “We want the city to embrace the river,” Simotes said. Such alteration might actually add to flood storage capacity, but in no case decrease it.
Then it seemed to the consultants, looking from the perspective of the river, that the stub-end of West Main Street and the bridge that carries it were confusing and antithetical to creating a relationship between river and city. The best use of the riparian land might be to create a riverside park where West Main and City Hall now stand, moving City Hall to an empty building in the middle of town.
DOWN TO THE RIVER
“There will always be people coming to City Hall,” Mark Dawson predicted, explaining that in a Main Street site it would serve as an “attractor,” bringing people downtown. The new park would be a public space, with activities such as farmers’ markets, concerts and art shows that would bring people together ‘ down by the river side.
Can we, who polluted the river and then walled it in, now restore it to a more natural state? And could a restored river help transform a city?
Those are the questions, at least as it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.