By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — Imagine green spaces, walking paths, community gardens and parks winding through city neighborhoods along the Spicket River.
What once was a dream has become a reality as the Spicket River Greenway, a 3.5 mile “Emerald necklace,” is officially opened today during a ceremony at Immigrant Place Park at the corner of Chestnut and Short streets.
A ribbon cutting ceremony will be followed by tours of the greenway which includes youngsters from the Greater Lawrence YWCA and Lawrence YMCA childcare centers, students from the Leahy School, and members of the Lawrence Senior Center.
At the event, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas will announce the introduction of the Groundwork USA Trust Act, legislation that will help urban communities turn blighted areas into public parks or other usable green spaces by creating jobs in communities with high unemployment.
The Groundwork USA Trust Act was developed with the help of Groundwork Lawrence and will create federal funding for the 20 existing Groundwork programs around the country and enable other cities to launch similar projects.
”This project creates an amenity for pedestrians, bikers and walkers,” said Heather McMann, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence. The non-profit organization worked with the City of Lawrence for more than 10 years planning and building the Spicket River Greenway at a cost of $10 million.
The network features six parks, Dr. Nina Scarito Park, Misserville Skate Park, William Kennedy Playstead, Manchester Street Park, and Immigrant Place Park. A seventh park will be built at the former Oxford paper site.
”It’s amazing to see what was there before and what is there now,” McMann said. “This is such a wonderful space for neighbors and the potential for its uses are endless.”
The Open Space plan was created after the 2000 Census showed a need for more green space in North Lawrence due to its dense population.
”This makes it a desirable route for walkers, runners and bicyclists,” said James Barnes, executive director of the City’s Community Development Department.
Led by representatives from the city and Groundwork Lawrence, the project was formalized in 1998. With the help of area residents, it was mapped out in 2001. Shortly after, the city, Groundwork Lawrence and others began renovating empty lots into parks, community gardens and walking trails.
Groundwork Lawrence has held a citywide Spicket River cleanup for the past 11 years. Through this effort, more than 6,000 residents, students, and local corporations have cleared more than 110 tons of debris and over 3,650 tires from the banks of the river.
Barnes and McMann said it’s important to involve the community not just in the planning and design of the parks, but also its upkeep.
In addition to beautifying the areas where they are located, McMann said some of them such as the William Kennedy Park helps absorb storm water and lessen flooding in the neighborhood.
The Hayden Schofield Playstead on Lawrence and Myrtle streets, which had been susceptible to flooding for years, was also part of the renovations. An elevated walkway was built from Lawrence Street as 0.1 mile of the playstead’s portion of the Greenway is located above the playing fields. The path is an abutment with a chain link fence considerably used as a walk way.
Barnes is glad the project was completed on schedule.
In 2010, the Massachusetts Gateway City Parks program awarded the city a $2.65 million grant for the project. The money was used for the design and construction of the Spicket River Greenway.
“We didn’t have any obstacles, but challenges,” Barnes said.
One site, the former Covanta incinerator facility on Manchester Street was contaminated with mercury, lead and other pollutants. Today, the Manchester Street Park is home to community gardens, picnic tables, benches, green space and a playground.
Another former brownfield is where the Oxford Paper Mill was once located and is now being converted into a 3-acre park.
Spicket River Greenway parks Dr. Nina Scarito Park is located on 2.7 acres on Brook Street and it has a playground, basketball courts, community garden and picnic area. William Kennedy Community Park, on Hampshire Street, is a 1-acre green space next to Central Catholic High School with a playground and open space. Misserville Skate Park came about after a group of skaters who called themselves Sk8 Kids, petitioned for it. The park is next to the Leonard School and boasts recreation area with basketball courts, a mini-turf field, walking path, lawns, trees and plantings, and a picnic area next to the river. A courtyard garden with raised beds is use for outdoor classroom activities and schoolyard gardening. Manchester Street Park, the 5-acres features a playground, swings, a pond overlook and 30 community garden beds. Immigrant Place Park, corner of Chestnut and Short streets, was renovated in 2012 and includes a butterfly garden, outdoor classroom and performance space, river overlooks and bike racks. New trees were also planted on the site.