Friday, May 24, 2024

Jerry’s Pond has been fenced off since 1961. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City concerns about a nature reclamation project at Jerry’s Pond in North Cambridge scuttled a study that would have been its first step, and without first telling the neighbors who have worked on the plan for years.

The surprise announcement that the $600,00 was being redirected to another project drew a rebuke Monday from the mayor.

“I’m really disappointed by the lack of transparency,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui told the city managers seated before her at City Hall. “There’s a reason why members of the community are confused, and that just shouldn’t have happened. All of a sudden, folks who thought they were getting a grant read about a bridge.”

The group Friends of Jerry’s Pond has been working with the land’s owner, the life-sciences real estate developer IQHQ, on returning the pond to recreational use. For 62 years, it’s been considered blighted and surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The area is across the street from some 800 of units of public housing in which Siddiqui grew up, and improvements to the pond – sometimes called Jerry’s Pit – are considered a matter of environmental justice. “It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demonstrate to the families of Rindge Avenue that we matter and that our children matter,” said Pasang Lhamo, a resident of affordable housing who’s among the leaders of Friends of Jerry’s Pond.

The plans include better and safer bike and pedestrian pathways, an Audubon-staffed EcoCenter for environmental education and a Green Cambridge-run community farm. The residents’ group still hopes to see a Rindge Avenue Greenway take shape that will transform “the narrow, blighted strip along Jerry’s Pond into a world-class stretch of green infrastructure with landscaped parkland, 150 to 175 newly planted trees, walking paths, seating and fully separated bicycle paths”; in July, previous city manager Louis A. DePasquale agreed to study the greenway plan with $600,000 in federal Covid recovery grants.

Bridge or tunnel

That was overturned Thursday with the announcement that the money would go into design of a bike and pedestrian bridge over the Fitchburg Commuter Line to connect Rindge Avenue and Danehy Park. The reallocation makes the city “competitive for federal funding opportunities” to finish the bridge when supplemented by city money, City Manager Yi-An Huang said. 

Even people unhappy about the reallocation aren’t upset it’s going to a long-wanted connection between areas separated by train tracks – though many in the community and on the City Council say they’d prefer to see a tunnel from Rindge rather than a bridge.

City staff will look at an underpass and a bridge, with a meeting to be held within the next four to six weeks to “further illuminate both options,” deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said.

“There was another way”

Excitement over the connection to Danehy didn’t get the managers off the hook, with commentary that marked officials’ first serious public unhappiness with Huang since he took office Sept. 6.

“It just doesn’t feel good. If you all decided that this way of spending $600,000 didn’t make sense, why not go back to the Friends of Jerry’s Pond and say, ‘Let’s change the proposal to something we think is technically feasible’?” councillor Quinton Zondervan said. “Instead, it’s like whiplash.”

This diversion at the whim of the City Manager’s Office is why Zondervan said he voted against American Rescue Plan Act disbursements last year – he wanted councillors to have a say in the spending of $65 million directly from the U.S. government and another $23 million funneled through the state.

Not doing the Jerry’s Pond study muddies forever the issue of whether the greenway plans were feasible, while the managers’ approach creates uncertainty for nonprofits citywide, councillor Marc McGovern said.

“I’d worry a little bit if I were one of the other nonprofits waiting for Arpa money,” McGovern said. “We’ve been very slow in distributing that money and you’ve got all kinds of nonprofits that have been promised it and are sitting there waiting for it to come. To just kind of to say, ‘Oh, sorry, we’re going to switch,’ isn’t a good look. There was another way to do it.”

Concern among commenters

Among the more than 20 public speakers about Jerry’s Pond – including several from the Alewife Study Group, an organization that disagrees with the Friends of Jerry’s Pond about plans for the area – were some equally aggrieved by the decision and how it was made.

“It’s dishonorable,” resident Gwen Speeth said. “It’s what we tell our children: You make a promise, you keep your promise.”

Speeth said she was “heartbroken” that the city had gone back on its commitment and was “pitting environmental activist neighborhood groups against each other by suggesting that Cambridge can’t find the funding for this other project.”

Problems with plan

Huang said the decision to redirect funding wasn’t made lightly, and noted that last year’s letter from DePasquale said the spending would come only after a final review.

Consultants looked at the greenway idea and saw problems, according to O’Riordan and Kathy Watkins, commissioner of Public Works. The project, expected to cost some $20 million, was likely to have failed: “Given the nature of the hydrology in the area, that space wouldn’t be able to sustain the wetland plants and ecosystem that was being proposed,” O’Riordan said. 

While there’s no evidence the grounds of Jerry’s Pond have significant hazardous material, it’s urban fill that can’t be reused, and what’s excavated would have to be tested for contamination and carted away regardless, Watkins said. That 30,000 tons equals 2,200 dump trucks worth of material, Huang said.

There also is “a challenge of to what extent IQHQ is going to allow this work on their property – whether they’re willing to take on the liability and risk of some of the additional costs,” Huang said. O’Riordan underlined the resistance the city might face from the company: “We don’t have control of the space … and they’ve indicated they don’t support the proposal.”

Gratitude for group

Huang and O’Riordan said the city owed enormous gratitude toward Friends of Jerry’s Pond for what it’s accomplishing with IQHQ, 

Still, organization leader Eric Grunebaum said he was disappointed in the “opaque” process and apparent end of a project that, even at $20 million, would have been more than paid for with two years of taxes on the labs to the north of the pond. “We have a unique opportunity here,” Grunebaum said, adding to comments from Sunday that there are plenty of experts who think the project is feasible and important for the health of the neighborhood. “This is an opportunity to plant 150 to 175 trees along Rindge Avenue, and it’s not like there’s a lot of opportunities like that around the city.”

“The irony of this happening during Arbor Week isn’t lost on me,” Grunebaum said.