Mayor’s vision includes new recreation facility
By Elizabeth Sheeran
It is the largest open public space in Somerville. But Foss Park is not even a city park. And it has been plagued by a legacy of sub-par facilities, spotty maintenance, and vulnerability to crime.
Now Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone has ambitious plans to take control of the state-owned park and transform it into a first-class recreational site, complete with a year-round indoor state-of-the art fitness and recreation facility. And he wants to do it sooner rather than later.
“For Somerville to be a great place to live, work, play and raise a family, residents need easy access to dynamic, wholesome recreational spaces,” said the Mayor, who listed Foss Park as a key initiative in his 2012 inaugural address. “It’s been a stated goal of mine for the past few years to take control over Foss Park, one of the largest open spaces in Somerville. We’ve been working closely with the state, and this is a very serious step forward.”
Foss Park, which covers 15 acres along McGrath Highway between Broadway and Interstate 93, is currently under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which is responsible for its management and maintenance.
The Mayor’s goal is to reach an agreement with DCR this year to transfer operational control to the City of Somerville, in the same way the city took over Veterans Rink in late-2010 and Dilboy Field last summer. City officials say it is too early to comment on any specific details of negotiations with the state. But under both prior agreements, the DCR upgraded the facilities before turning them over to the city.
At the same time, the Mayor has also had preliminary discussions with the Somerville YMCA, to explore the possibility of a new multi-service recreational facility to be built on the grounds at Foss Park. But no matter what Somerville has planned for the park’s facilities, the first step will be to transfer control from the state to the city.
Current facilities at Foss Park include a playground, as well as an outdoor pool and adjacent pool house, which are only open during the summer months. The rest of the park consists mostly of playing fields, used by Youth Soccer, Little League, and the Somerville High School soccer and football teams.
“The park’s definitely getting used,” said Somerville Recreational Superintendent James Halloran. “Unfortunately, it’s in terrible shape. Really, it’s a dirt field.”
Matthew Condon has lived across the street from the park for two decades. “On a windy day, there’s a dust storm blowing across McGrath Highway,” said Condon, a long-time member of the Friends of Foss Park, a residents group formed together 10 years ago after a woman was sexually assaulted in the park.
Members of the group, whose stated mission is “crime prevention through park restoration,” say Foss Park was not even on the state’s radar when they first started lobbying to get officials to pay more attention to it, but the situation has gradually improved, particularly over the past five years.
Condon lauded a joint policing agreement reached between the state and the city. And neighbors said DCR staff will now respond to their regular calls to address issues like graffiti or trash, even though it can still sometimes take weeks to get problems addressed. Condon said it’s telling that the DCR website does not even list Foss on its directory of state parks.
Peter Ungar, president of Friends of Foss Park, said the park still does not appear to be included on any kind of regular DCR maintenance schedule, since seasonal maintenance often does not happen unless residents call to request it.
“The DCR has come a long way, but it’s still got a long way to go,” said Ungar.
Both Condon and Ungar said the City of Somerville is the best candidate to manage the park longer term, given its track record so far on facilities like Veterans Rink and Dilboy Field. They said that is especially important now, since new residential development in the nearby Assembly Square area will increase the number of residents using the park.
“I know it’s the city that’s going to make the investment for the citizens of Somerville and not the state,” said Ungar.
City Parks Director Arn Franzen said bringing the park under city control is the key to unlocking “the potential for Foss to be a much better park than it is.”
“Somerville has so little open space to begin with, and there’s this huge parcel that’s sitting there. If the park was under city management, we could do so much more with the programming,” said Franzen.
William Murphy, executive director of Somerville’s YMCA, said a new multi-use recreational facility at the site could be a win-win for both the city and the Y. He said the Y was looking at various options for replacing its aging building on Highland Avenue, but it would most likely join the recent wave of YMCAs in the state that have formed public-private partnerships in order to build new facilities.
“Both the city and the Y recognize that we could really use a state-of-the-art fitness facility for the city, and we’re looking at working together to get it done a lot faster than we can do it on our own, or than the city can do it alone,” said Murphy.
For residents, a year-round facility at Foss Park would be just one more step in the right direction.
“When there are a lot of good things going on, that flushes out the bad elements,” said Ungar. “It’s what’s needed to be done to keep this a safe and welcoming family-friendly area. It’s what the area demands.”