Will the pond under Lord Pond Plaza see the light of day?

  • The parking lot of Lord Pond Plaza in Athol. The BSC Group, the Boston-based consulting firm, presented three proposals to transform the shopping center into an area that is more pedestrian friendly, from both an environmental and safety standpoint. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 5/2/2021 3:41:53 PM
Modified: 5/2/2021 3:41:52 PM

ATHOL — About two dozen people took part in a public forum to discuss the “greening” of Lord Pond Plaza in downtown Athol. The meeting, held last Wednesday, was facilitated by BSC Group, the Boston-based consulting firm which drew up three proposals to transform the shopping center into an area that is more pedestrian friendly, from both an environmental and safety standpoint, than the existing iteration of the plaza.

Alternative One calls solely for the creation of more green space, Alternative Two calls for additional green space and partial “daylighting” of a stream that runs under the Lord Pond parking lot, and Alternative Three creates more green space while opening even more of the stream to daylight.

The alternatives were developed as part of the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness plan Athol is creating in order to respond to environmental emergencies.

“The intent of this program is to increase the resiliency of communities to the effects of climate change,” said Jeffery Malloy of BSC. “We found that Lord Pond Plaza is really a significant source of vulnerability within the community.”

In addition, he said, Lord Pond Plaza serves two of the most vulnerable populations in Athol; the elderly and those in the 16- to 29-year-old age group. It also happens to be a significant heat island in the downtown area.

“Most simply,” he explained, “on a 90-degree day, it could be 115 degrees (at Lord Pond Plaza). This is because there’s a lot of pavement in this area, so there’s a need to green the area in order to mitigate, or offset, that urban heat island effect that occurs.

“So, there are really important climate mitigation opportunities through this project, both a social perspective, an ecological perspective, an economic perspective — it’s just a really important project to be doing.”

Responding to an inquiry, Casey-Lee Bastien of BSC said Alternative One would cost just over $2 million to complete, with about $1.75 million likely coming from the town of Athol. Alternative Two would cost just under $2 million, with the town chipping in about half. The cost of Alternative Three is estimated at nearly $3 million, with the town providing close to $1 million.

He explained that, while the overall cost of alternatives two and three are significant, the town portion is less because more environmental concerns are being addressed than in the first option and, therefore, more grant funding is available.

“The more nature-based solutions that are applied,” said Malloy, “opens you up for more funding opportunities to offset the cost to the town.”

Selectboard Chair Rebecca Bialecki and board member Mitch Grosky both expressed support for the most extensive of the three proposals.

“I think it really brings in the environment,” said Grosky, “and I think it has the potential to become a real showplace for this town, and to really add a great deal to the experience of living in this town.

“I want to listen to my constituents, but I want to go on record right now that I really love the idea of turning the area into a combination shopping area and basically a nature park for all kinds of activities.”

“I’m leading toward two or three,” said Bialecki. “Those are both projects where the cost you’re putting out and the benefit you get outweighs number one, for me, because there are many more options for getting funding for it. And it opens up that stream that is there.”

Conservation Commission member Bob Muzzy said, “I’m in favor of number one, for not daylighting the stream. But I have a question on number two, when you do daylight it: you said it was about 12 feet down. So, that means the bankings are either going to have to be pretty steep or you’re going to have to widen it out quite a bit. What are you going to have for guardrails on that to keep vehicles from going into that ravine?”

“I like to use earthworks whenever I can,” Malloy responded, “as a subtler way of breaking (guardrails) up. Also, anything to terrace and baffle, because any time we can reduce the slopes by zig-zagging their way down, then we get a much better infiltration. There’s also the possibility of putting a retaining wall on one side and pushing the stream against that.”

Mary Holtorf, Chair of the Downtown Vitality Committee, said she hopes that the stream can be daylighted, but did express some dissatisfaction with alternative three.

“I really think the plans are missing a lot of detail on what the potential is,” she said. “To me, even with the daylighting of the stream, this just looks like a glorified parking lot. We don’t have a downtown common. We don’t have a large public open green space in our downtown, and I don’t see any of that here. I just see a parking lot with a lot of trees.”

Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith said comments made at the public meeting and emailed to his office would be factored in when deciding how best to proceed during the next phase of the project. He added that the preferred plan would be refined and again presented to the public sometime this summer.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com

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