By Joe Cohen
Standard-Times Staff writer
NEW BEDFORD — Friday night and Saturday belonged to the upper Acushnet River dreamers and true believers in an old industrial neighborhood where pessimism about economic development and revitalization have often trumped bold initiatives.
Although small in number, those attending the New Bedford Upper Harbor Community Visioning Workshop came together for three hours Friday night and seven hours Saturday to talk about opportunities they see in the area north of I-195, bordered on the east by the Acushnet River, the west by Acushnet Avenue and the north by Wood Street.
There was sizzle — plans shown for a state-of-the-art boathouse and community center designed by MIT students and touted by city officials as something that could realistically be developed in the near term. They said it would open the upper river to rowers, canoe and kayak paddlers and small-boat sailors. The dramatic, soaring architectural design included much glass, special lighting at night and extensive space for community access.
And there was substance — plans for economic development of businesses large and small and a reconnecting of the neighborhood to the waterfront through a variety of means for neighborhood residents and people from throughout the region.
More than 100 people attended the session’s kickoff Friday night in a party-like atmosphere accompanied by beverages and light fare along with the unveiling of the boathouse plans.
About 60 attended Saturday, listening to presentations, breaking into work groups and coming back together to report on ideas for jobs and small business, waterfront access, environmental issues, neighborhood historic character and reuse, and recreation and events.
The workshop was sponsored by the city, MassDevelopment and the New Bedford Economic Development Council and supported by a grant from the Garfield Foundation of Marion.
Attendees included current and former city officials, state and federal representatives, consultants, people representing city-based organizations including whale boat rowing clubs and a smattering of local residents that included dreamers, the curious and the skeptical.
The setting itself was inspiring — a more than 100-year-old mill building extensively modernized to house Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corp. where 175 employees turn out very high quality men’s clothing that sells for as much as $1,100 a suit.
Anthony R. Sapienza, president of Joseph Abboud and head of the NBEDC, talked about his company’s commitment to the neighborhood and the irony of the neighborhood’s current relationship to the water. Mr. Sapienza said the neighborhood has an extensive Portuguese influence, an ethnic group with very strong ties to the water. Yet recently-born generations in the Acushnet Avenue area are literally cut off from the nearby waterfront by old mills and industrial sites.
Mayor Scott W. Lang said the river has been “inaccessible for 100 years.” In addition, “developers said it is a dead river,” Mayor Lang said. He said that will change.
Talking about New Bedford’s advantages, Mayor Lang said, “What makes us different, what separates us from other places — location. The ocean, outer harbor, inner harbor, upper harbor and river. We are going to use every inch of that water, we are going to maximize resources.”
Mayor Lang called the workshop a “key turning point” with “fresh ideas and energy” from the MIT design students and others. “We have the attributes people dream about,” Mayor Lang said.
The workshop produced dozens of ideas, all of which will be filtered by the NBEDC and consultants and laid out in a report expected in three months.
City Councilor Steven Martins, who represents Ward 2 which encompasses much of the Acushnet Avenue area, agreed there is a lot of potential for the neighborhood. “It is good to see the community involved,” he said, noting he has “my own ideas for Ward 2.”
“We are not here for self-interest,” said Councilor Martins, “but to share a vision. The community is spending its Saturday to get its ideas put forward.”
The workshop attracted people from outside the neighborhood, including from the Town of Acushnet across the river. One such person, Richard Medeiros, said the public needs to get more involved and become aware of the changes that are underway.
“Years ago it used to stink,” he said about the Acushnet River, “Now, it is cleaned up. People don’t know about this.”
There still are serious environmental issues related to the river. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cleaning up PCBs from the river in a decades-long process that, even if speeded up to meet the city’s plans, would still take more than a decade. Sewage also pollutes the river during periods when the city’s wastewater system becomes overtaxed, creating a potential health hazard. Officials said that problem will be addressed.
“We are going to take an integrated approach,” Mayor Lang said at the workshop’s closing. “There will be no instant gratification,” he said, but planning will lead to finding funding, there will be “buy-in” by residents of the city, and the access to the river will be gained and the neighborhood revitalized.
Contact Joe Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
February 17, 2008
By Joe Cohen