Efforts to upgrade the path and park along the Charles River, east of Watertown Square, started more than seven years ago, and Monday morning workers officially broke ground on a project that will improve the path, the park and add a special feature for the visually impaired.
The park sits just blocks from Perkins School for the Blind, and a chorus from the school kicked off the ceremony by singing the National Anthem. The school is just one of several groups who helped make the project a reality, said Jack Murray, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The $1.4 million project is a partnership between the state, the town, private organizations, foundations and more. The Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Foundation donated $175,000, the Town of Watertown added $100,000, the Bilezikian Foundation added $50,000, Perkins School for the Blind gave $25,000, the Watertown Commission on Disabilities put in $15,000 and the Watertown Community Foundation added $5,000.
One of the new features of the park will be a Sensory Garden and Braille Trail, which will allow the blind and visually impaired to learn about nature. Dave Power, CEO and President of Perkins, said he expects students to take field trips to visit the new trail.
“We have a horticulture program … but there is nothing like having a sensory garden inside a real park where you can learn at your own pace,” Power said.
A guide wire will help students navigate around the sensory garden and braille trail. Perkins has a similar wire at their track, so it will be a familiar tool for students to use.
Tom Vasquez grew up across Charles River Road from the park and he looks forward to the path being restored to the way he remembers it. In recent years, the path along the Charles River has deteriorated, and in spots fallen into the river. The project will clear a path through the woods along the river.
“I have lived here 55 years, and my father grew up here and still lives here,” Vasquez said. “He remembers how it used to look and it is getting back to what it used to be.”
Herb Nolan, Deputy Director of the Solomon Foundation, remembers when he first started trying to do riverfront improvements along Watertown, eight years ago when he took a bike tour of the Charles from Watertown to the Charles River Basin in Boston with DCR Planner Dan Driscoll and then-DCR Commissioner Stephen Burrington.
“I cam back and thought would be a great idea to work in Watertown. People would get behind it and it would take 18-24 months,” Nolan said. “One recession and three commissioners later, we are here (for the groundbreaking). Good things take time.”
Maeve Vallely Bartlett, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the project will help meet Gov. Patrick’s vision of governing for the next generation.
“Not only will it improve it for the next generation, it will improve it for everyone, even if they are impaired,” she said. “It will be a vitally important link to nature and for the community itself.”
State Sen. Will Brownsberger thanked the state Legislators from Watertown and the Town Council for supporting the project. He had a special shout-out for Driscoll, the DCR Planner who has worked on river improvements around the state.
“He has been committed to connecting the dots over the longterm so we have a park system we can be very proud of,” Brownsberger said.
State Rep. Jonathan Hecht thanked the DCR for its stewardship of a large amount of Watertown’s open space. He also singled out the Solomon Foundation and Nolan for staying committed to the making the park and path improvements a reality. The Solomon Foundation is also assisting with the improvement of the path and redesign of the Greenough Boulevard in East Watertown, which Nolan said he hopes to start next year.
He said they are just some of many heroes – a list too long to name everyone.
“There are so many people who came out for meeting after meeting, year after year,” Hecht said. “So many contributed their own expertise.”