Cumberland’s forgotten park

Cumberland’s forgotten park

The Valley Falls Heritage Park along the Blackstone River near Town Hall is barely visible from the street, but is full of unique attributes and should be restored and preserved, say town officials. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Leaders seek new focus on Heritage Park near Town Hall

CUMBERLAND – The Valley Falls Heritage Park looks like it’s seen little or no maintenance in decades, its railings chipped, graffiti everywhere, and the only signs of use being a grill and some belongings left by local homeless people.

What some describe as a hidden gem, with winding walkways and bridges crossing various waterways, is obscured by ever-advancing tree limbs and brush.

The Town Council last week formally adopted the detailed Valley Falls Heritage Park Conservation and Management Plan, a nonbinding agreement setting the framework for the renewed care and preservation of the park along the river off Broad Street near Town Hall.

Conservation and management will be a partnership between many stakeholders, explained Planning and Community Development Director Jonathan Stevens, who called the park “such an incredible parcel” of property. He said this plan would help bring more stewardship and awareness to the park.

Imperative, he said, is cutting the lower limbs of the tall trees here to open up the view of the park and the “incredible vistas” of the falls and bridge. Graffiti has proliferated here, he said, as vandals “tag away with impunity.” The idea, he said, would be to paint with a simple static color so that future addressing of graffiti can happen with a simple refresher job.

Obscured views make people nervous, said Stevens. Having the tree warden in Central Falls work with the town and volunteers on a DEM-approved plan to open up sightlines, as he has indicated he would like to do, will restore confidence among those seeking to visit.

Vegetation management “is the number one issue,” said Stevens. Particularly because the park is below the grade of the bridge and Mill Street, it’s so important to make sure the tall trees are “limbed up” so observers can see the expanse of the park.

“It’s a hard property to manage, in all fairness to everyone,” he said.

Other improvements would also be made as part of the plan, said Stevens, including to signs, railings and other furnishings, removing a granite block to open up access, and appropriately reducing the height of the old mill foundation currently standing some 16 feet tall.

The conservation and management plan states that the Valley Falls Heritage Park celebrates the history of the American Industrial Revolution with the adaptive reuse of the original site of the Valley Falls Company textile mill, a forerunner to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, as a park, featuring interpretive signs and remnants of the original granite infrastructure.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu and others asked last week what kind of guarantee there would be that the park is maintained if work is done to restore it. The park can start off “bright and shiny,” said Beaulieu, but once the weeds take over, it’s hard to keep up with it.

Stevens responded that the council’s support of the management plan lays the groundwork for a memorandum of agreement between stakeholders, and a meeting could be convened at a later date to discuss all issues related to the park. Without the plan, he said, everyone would just be “freelancing. He said “specific targeted initiatives are very important.”

Randy Tuomisto, of the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone and Cumberland Land Trust, told the council that the trust’s efforts have largely been devoted to the northern part of town, but members are trying to target an area on the southern end. “Significant stewardship is required to bring it up to the standard that it was in its heyday,” said Tuomisto, and his groups are willing to take on that work.

Also an avid cyclist, Tuomisto said the park could be a really great stopover spot for cyclists coming down the nearby bike path. It’s currently a hidden and underutilized gem, he said.

The newly adopted plan describes the park as a beautiful public setting with scenic vistas of the Blackstone River, walking trails, and diverted river water constantly churning through sluiceways.

District 1 Councilor Stephanie Gemski said she fully supports everyone coming together to beautify the park and keep it maintained, particularly as the Valley Falls area has historically been somewhat neglected.

The park’s modern redevelopment was inspired by the late M. David Bouley, Cumberland’s planning director in the late 1980s and early 1990s, attracting more than $1.5 million in state and federal investment, but the park has suffered from excessive vegetative overgrowth, obscuring the views and discouraging public use, states the synopsis behind the plan.

It notes that Broad Street is scheduled to receive $16.5 million in reconstruction work this year, including tree plantings and other aesthetic improvements.

Stevens said a number of partners, including the town, the Cumberland Conservation Commission, the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone, Blackstone River Heritage Corridor, the National Park Service, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management have all expressed interest in working together to restore the park.

The old mill property sat behind chain-link fencing until the Cumberland Historic District Commission championed a vision for the reuse of the site as a park. The DEM transferred the land to the town in 1988 and provided initial funding for its restoration. In the early 1990s, the town partnered with agencies to transform the site into a public park using $1.7 million in funding, including interpretive signs telling visitors about the history here.

In 2017, the town applied for a grant to prepare a National Historic Register District nomination for Town Hall as well as the Valley Falls Post Office and Heritage Park.

Beaulieu described the park as a charming and quirky spot, but asked what will be done to help address the fact that people aren’t generally drawn to go there. Would they be going on a historical walk? Visiting a waterfall?

Stevens noted that former Mayor Dan McKee used the park for a musical fair, telling councilors, “It is a pedestal for anything you want it to be.” With the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council set to move to a newly restored space nearby, “I think there could be synergy that allows this to have a new purpose,” he said.

Gemski made the motion to approve the plan, and Beaulieu seconded it.

Comments

The blankets, sleeping bags, lean-to’s, shopping carts, tarps and TRASH have not been “left behind by local homeless people” that is an active homeless community used daily and nightly by numerous people. My complaints to the Town hall have been met with the response “there’s nothing we can do about it”! It is a disgrace, it is a health hazard and the town officials should be ashamed of themselves for advertising this as a Forgotten Park.....clearly they have not walked through it in the past couple of years..... No one with any regard for personal safety would dare walk through that poor excuse for a park. While you are at it Johnathan Stevens, walk a couple of hundred feet north on Broad St and you will find the RIPTA bus shelter with blankets, duffel bags, tarps and yes....nightly residents.

We need to provide a shelter for the Homeless so they don’t have to sleep in the park. No one in “ their right mind “ would be sleeping there.

Love this Park.

i stopped in there once 12 years ago when it was better, now not so much... it needs to be cleaned up like they are talking about, make it look nice and feel safe again...