Restoration effort seeks transformation of Hoosic from ‘community eyesore’ to asset

BY JOHN TOWNES – An ambitious plan that was initiated in 2008 to restore the Hoosic River in North Adams is moving into a new phase that is expected to take physical form within the next two years.

The project is intended to modernize the river’s flood control system in an environmentally sustainable way, and transform the land along its banks into a parklike urban amenity that will contribute to local revitalization.

In the first phase, over the next five years, a half-mile section of the South Branch of the Hoosic that is currently channeled within an earthen levee and concrete chute, is slated to be restored to a condition that is more like a natural meandering stream. This will be surrounded by a park setting and wildlife habitat along its banks.

While the schedule will depend on a combination of factors, the planning and permitting processes are currently underway, with a goal of starting the first stage of construction in 2017, and with completion in 2020.

This, however, will be just the first step in a larger long-term project to restore and enhance the river throughout the city. The overall goal is to transform the relationship between the river and the city it runs through.

Because of the scale of the project, the strategy is to improve the river progressively in phases. ‘We’re focusing on doing a complete restoration of one specific section of the river, as a pilot project, and then work on other sections after that,’ said Judy Grinnell, founder and president of the Hoosic River Revival (HRR), a nonprofit community-based organization that was launched in 2008 to spearhead the effort. It is working in collaboration with the local, state and federal governments on the project.

Currently many sections of the river within North Adams are aesthetically uninviting and environmentally detrimental. Large portions ‘ about 2.5 miles ‘ are channeled through a 60-year-old flood control system that includes concrete chutes, high earthen levees and other alterations.

The Hoosic also is a physical barrier that intensifies the separations that exist between some sections of the city center.

A brochure for the HRR project describes the current state of the Hoosic River in the city as ‘a community eyesore’ that is ‘unattractive, unhealthy, inaccessible and considered a safety risk.’

The HRR pamphlet (available at www. cites the concrete flood control system as an example of the ‘brute force engineering’ that was prevalent in the era in which it was built.

There are also issues surrounding the condition and structural integrity of the flood control system. With walls that are leaning and other potential problems, there have been concerns about the system’s ability to withstand the pressure of a major flooding event.

The restoration project is aimed at rectifying these problems by, ironically, restoring the river to a more natural state.

The HRR’s mission statement describes the purpose as being ‘to reconnect the North Adams community to a clean, beautiful, and safe Hoosic River and to enhance the river’s recreational, cultural and economic vitality while maintaining the level of flood protection provided by the flood chutes. We see the river lined with parkland and paths, connecting our historical and cultural highlights, and serving as a gateway to our many hiking and biking trails.’ The overall restoration effort is a long-term project that will take many years ‘ and many millions of dollars ‘ to complete. It will also involve coordination with other local revitalization plans and goals, as well as extensive environmental studies and planning, in addition to the actual construction work. Rather than waiting for an ultimate plan for the entire river to be put into place, the current effort is aimed at restoring individual sections, starting with the South Branch project. The pilot project officially is being undertaken by the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, which considers the River Revival an Urban River Priority Project. The division is working with HRR and the City of North Adams.

Urban river

The Hoosic is a three-state, 70-mile river that flows north, west, and northwest. It begins at the Cheshire Reservoir, and is fed by a network of tributaries and branches in the northern Berkshires, southern Vermont and eastern New York. The portion that goes through North Adams has two branches. The South Branch extends north from Cheshire Reservoir to North Adams, roughly paralleling Route 8. The North Branch enters North Adams from southern Vermont and runs east to west in the northern section of the city center near Beaver, Canal and River streets. The two branches converge near the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). The Hoosic continues west through Williamstown into Pownal, Vt., and then to New York, where it eventually empties into the Hudson River at Stillwater (near Troy). Most sections of the Hoosic River pass through rural areas and woodlands, and are in a more natural state. The portions in North Adams, however, are very urbanized, and the river was a major source of the city’s industrial development. The Hoosic was significantly altered by the series of artificial flood control structures that were built in the 1950s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These were originally installed at the request of the community after a series of major floods in previous decades. While this system offered protection from flooding, it made the river both inaccessible and visually bleak. It also has had environment repercussions. The chutes raise the water temperature to a point where it is uninhabitable for fish and other aquatic life. ‘Our otherwise wild, trout-filled river becomes a barren, wildlife-deprived trickle as it passes through North Adams,’ the HRR pamphlet states. ‘The looming walls are unattractive and serve as a real barrier for aquatic species, who find the walls difficult to access and completely inhospitable.’ Grinnell launched the effort to reclaim the river after visiting a river restoration in San Antonio, Texas, and seeing the positive effect it had on that city. She received an endorsement for the plan from then Mayor John Barrett, and recruited a founding group that established HRR, which is now an officially designated nonprofit organization with a 15-member board of directors and numerous volunteers. Grinnell noted that current Mayor Richard Alcombright has also been very supportive of, and helpful to, the project. The river restoration also ties in with a variety of other ongoing revitalization efforts in North Adams being pursued by the city and various civic organizations. It is intended to augment the planned extension of the Ashuwillticook bike and pedestrian rail trail from Adams into North Adams, an expansion of MASS MoCA, the new Berkshire Scenic Railway tourist railroad, and plans for a network of walkways connecting different sections of the city. In addition to enhancing the quality of life for the local community, the river restoration is seen as a key facet of economic revitalization. The project is expected to add construction and other jobs. It is also seen by proponents as making the city more attractive for visitors, businesses and new residents. During HRR’s initial years, members held meetings in the community to generate support, and to gain input and ideas from local residents. It also pursued fund-raising and conducted preliminary studies of the options for restoration. Last fall, HRR chose the location of the first phase, a half-mile section of the river’s South Branch extending from Foundry Road northward to the bridge connecting the former Sons of Italy building to the Western Gateway Heritage State Park. This section, in the southern portion of the city center, includes Noel Field, a park with several ball fields, and adjacent residential and commercial areas. The goal of the project will be to improve access, habitat, river health and aesthetics while enhancing flood protection. ‘We chose that section for the first phase for a number of reasons,’ Grinnell said. She explained that its physical characteristics were the most conducive to the work, which made it a logical starting point for the overall project. Also, it has a large proportion of public land, and the presence of Noel Field made it an appropriate setting for the recreational and parklike aspects of the project. The basic plan is to replace the existing levee and create new bio-engineered streambeds with gently sloping banks, using wood, dense plantings and other natural materials to replicate the original conditions. The river will also be reconfi gured into a more meandering path, including an oxbow. It will be designed to provide fl ood control by utilizing natural processes such as reestablishing the river’s connection to historic fl oodplains as a relief valve for fl ood waters. This additional space also creates habitat for fi sh, wildlife and plants. The project will incorporate the sports fi elds into the site, as well as a walkway, bike path, play areas and access for canoes and other watercraft. $20 million project Last year, then Gov. Deval Patrick signed an environmental bond bill that included nearly $9 million for the fi rst phase of the Hoosic project. Subsequently, $500,000 of that was released for the initial planning stages. While that was a major step that moved the project forward, Grinnell also cautioned that the $9 million bond funding is not a guarantee, and actual release of the funds will require approval from the current administration of Gov. Charlie Baker. Grinnell said the overall cost of the fi rst phase of the project is estimated at some $20 million. ‘We’ll have to raise about $12 million from other sources,’ she said. She added that proponents may also seek federal funding for the project. Grinnell recently visited members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., to explain the project and enlist their assistance. She said they expressed strong support for the project. HRR is also applying to foundations and other organizations for grants, and is seeking contributions from businesses and individuals interested in supporting the project. In March, Inter-Fluve Inc. and Sasaki Associates were selected to lead a team developing an initial conceptual design plan. Inter-Fluve is a leading nationwide fi rm in river and wetland restoration projects. Sasaki Associates, an urban planning and landscape architecture fi rm based in Watertown, is a prominent designer of waterfront projects. Other participants in studies and planning include HR&A (a consulting fi rm that also developed the downtown revival plan for the North Adams Partnership), and the western Massachusetts fi rms of Tighe & Bond, Holmberg & Howe, and Stockman Associates. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers is involved, both in an advisory role and as the authorizing agency, with the responsibility for approving changes to the existing fl ood control system. Grinnell said that the Hoosic project is one of the fi rst examples of a new approach the Army Corps of Engineers is taking to fl ood control systems. ‘They can no longer build fl ood control systems for communities like they did in the 1950s,’ she said. ‘There is more of an emphasis on partnerships. And, rather than the old systems of chutes and levees, projects now have to be green and environmentally sustainable, and related to overall community development.’ Before proceeding with the fi rst phase, it was necessary to evaluate the structural integrity of the existing fl ood control system throughout the city. This is to ensure the structures are physically sound and capable of handling any major fl oods that may occur before they would be replaced. Grinnell said that if serious problems had been found, it might have been necessary to readjust the priorities and schedule to shift the focus to repairing and stabilizing the existing system. However, studies this summer indicated that the chutes are basically sound, although they do have some issues, including leaning walls. ‘The concrete is in good shape and the design was fi ne,’ she said. ‘Some of leaning is thought to be due to
faulty construction.’ She said representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers noted that further studies should be undertaken, but also gave approval to continue with preparations for the fi rst phase in the meantime. Grinnell said that the specifi c time line of the fi rst phase will depend on a variety of factors, including funding. According to the projected schedule, the initial planning and the review and permitting process will proceed over the next few years. The initial restoration work on the river and banks is slated to start in 2017, followed by relocation of at least one of the sports fi elds, construction of the paths and additional play areas, and installation of amenities and landscaping. It is expected to be completed and opened in 2020. The subsequent phases will be pursued over time. Grinnell said that each section will be handled differently, because they all have differing specifi c conditions, potential issues and goals. These include integration of the project with the existing physical features of the urban core, and the replacement of the concrete chutes, among others. ‘This is a very large and complicated project that is like a giant puzzle,’ said Grinnell. ‘It involves many environmental and safety considerations, and will require a great deal of planning and fi nancial resources. But the results will make a large and positive difference for North Adams.’

HRR was recently featured in the Berkshire Trade and Commerce monthly! Click here to learn how HRR plans to transform the Hoosic River from a ‘community eyesore’ to an asset!