Dispatch From Upper Falls - The Upper Falls Greenway

It’s time to turn a trash strewn wasteland into a park – for free !

For as long as anyone can remember there’s been an abandoned railroad line running through Upper Falls.  The Depot Café on Chestnut St was originally the train depot for this long gone train line.  Once upon a time this rail line connected with what is now the T’s Riverside line at Newton Highlands.  Today the abandoned tracks start behind National Lumber on Needham St near Newton Highlands and continue behind Needham St, across the Charles River, across Rt 128 and on into Needham.

A local volunteer group, The Newton Bicycle Pedestrian Task Force, has put together a plan over the last few years to convert this trash strewn neglected strip into the Upper Falls Greenway – a mile+ long park for safely walking, jogging and bicycling.  Better yet, they have a plan to do this at no expense to the City of Newton.

The plan works like this.  The T, who owns the property, would give a long term lease to the strip to the City of Newton for $1.  The city would then turn the property over to Iron Horse Preservation, a national non-profit that has been converting railroads to recreational paths all over the country.  Iron Horse comes in and removes the old obsolete steel tracks and the railroad ties.  They sell the scrap material and use the proceeds to pay for grading and simple paving (crushed stone surface) of the new path.  Once done, Iron Horse turns the completed park over to the city, which would then be responsible for only the ongoing maintenance of the trail.   

The only major obstacle to this plan is the clock – and it’s ticking.  Iron Horse will do a conversion like this for free under two conditions.  You must have more than one mile of track (we do) and they must already have their heavy equipment in our state for another job (they do).  They’ll be working in Mass for the coming year on another project so we would need to take care of our end of business within the year.  Most of the work that needs to be done from the city’s end is regulatory/legal work.  While a year may seem like a long time, when dealing with multiple regulatory and the city agencies it can sometime seem more like the blink of an eye.

I started a petition a few weeks ago as a way to gauge whether there is neighborhood support for the idea and the results so far have been startling positive from nearly everyone I’ve spoken to, including abutters, Upper Falls residents, our local aldermen, the incoming Upper Falls Area Council members and people across the city.

The last few years have been a difficult time due to the economic climate and associated budget woes.  Many worthwhile projects and initiatives cannot even be considered due to financial constraints.  The Upper Falls Greenway though is a rare opportunity to quickly and cheaply build a substantial new park and do it with near unanimous public support.  Let’s make this happen !

If you’d like to sign the petition, particularly if you are an abutter or an Upper Falls resident, send me an email at JerReilly@yahoo.com.  If you have any comments, concerns, or questions just post them below or contact me directly if you prefer.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bruce Richard November 14, 2011 at 09:44 PM
Riverside T station is planning an expansion that includes office space and some residential apartments. Any thought of this rail line being revived in that area should be set aside; the MBTA is not interested. However, a walkway/bike path that connects the Riverside passengers and new residents to the businesses along Needham Street certainly makes good sense.
Jerry Reilly November 15, 2011 at 02:12 AM
@Bruce - Just to be clear. The proposed Upper Falls Greenway path doesn't go near Riverside. It would run roughly parallel to Needham St from behind National Lumber (on Needham St) to the river.
Mick Shrimpton November 21, 2011 at 06:07 PM
Jerry- Your response to Lois was dead-on perfect. The beauty of the proposed rail trail project is that the MBTA still retains the rights to the rail trail. So if by some miracle the Green Line spur project receives funding some day in the future (although highly un-likely), they could still do it. In the meantime, the citizens of Newton would be able to enjoy a scenic bike path at a cost of zero public dollars. This really seems like a no-brainer to me. I can't figure out why any reasonable person would be against this idea. I also responsed to Lois' recent editorial in the Newton Tab. Please feel free to join me in pointing out the many shortcomings in her argument against the rail trail project. http://www.wickedlocal.com/newton/news/opinions/x1655828366/Unlocking-Needham-Street-s-potential#axzz1eM9gqA9N
Lois A Levin November 21, 2011 at 07:39 PM
We understand that some people are upset about the op-ed we wrote, in which we expressed reservations about the plan to sell steel rails to Iron Horse Preservation in order to have them fast track a greenway path in Upper Falls. And they continue to disparage our position, which is also the position of the Mayor's TAC and the official position of the Needham Selectmen regarding preserving the rail bed for the eventual extension of the Green Line. We support the idea of a greenway, but have been pointing out that it should be placed alongside the rail bed, where there is ample space for it. Once a rail bed is relinquished, it is very, very difficult to get rail service restored, for a whole host of reasons. Using language such as "pipe dream", "miracle", "highly unlikely", etc. to characterize good public policy only increases our concern that some fans of the Iron Horse proposal do not support transit-oriented development and are prepared to sacrifice the future needs of our community for short-term gains. When someone offers you "something for nothing", it's a good idea to ask lots of questions and start thinking about possible unintended consequences. Has anyone asked Iron Horse to post a Construction Bond in the event that they cannot complete the job for the estimated cost? Lois Levin and Srdjan Nedeljkovic
Mick Shrimpton November 21, 2011 at 08:00 PM
You just don't get it, do you? As Jerry pointed out, the MBTA will retain the ownership of the land. I'll re-state what Jerry already pointed out - this is not an either/or situation. Let's get the rail trail now built now so people can enjoy it, instead of that land continuing to waste away and be an unusable eyesore in our neighborhood. I'm all for improving public transportation, but the reality of the situation is that funding, especially Federal funding, for the Green Line spur to Needham Heights is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. You've got to be incredibly naive to think otherwise. Sen. Kennedy is no longer around the steer federal transportation dollars our way, and Sen. Brown certainly isn't going to do so. It's the sad truth of the situation. I don't agree with it, but it is what it is. I'm also puzzled by your previous comments that you are concerned that Iron Horse would be making a profit. Should we only be hiring non-profit organizations to work on all public construction projects? What exactly is your point? Of course they are entitled to make a profit - why else would they be in business? That's how capitalism works.
Jerry Reilly November 21, 2011 at 08:10 PM
One clarification here .... Iron Horse Preservation is actually a non-profit. Though as Mick points out that shouldn't/wouldn't be a requirement in any case. Any future light rail would inevitably be built by for profit construction companies. There's nothing wrong with that.
Bob Burke November 23, 2011 at 08:05 PM
Jerry. Let's forge ahead.
Jerry Reilly November 23, 2011 at 08:12 PM
Aye, aye captain :-) It looks like the project is definitely picking up steam. This week's Tab editorial is already bringing in a lot of new people who are just hearing about it for the first time.
Jerry Reilly November 29, 2011 at 05:26 PM
The Upper Falls Greenway now has a web site (www.UpperFallsGreenway.org) and is now collecting signatures there via an online petition in addition to the paper and pen petitions that have been circulating around the city. So far, more than 450 signatures have been collected in support of building the Greenway.
Melanie Graham (Editor) November 29, 2011 at 06:11 PM
Thanks for the info, Jerry!
CAL December 11, 2011 at 08:21 PM
After sitting back and reading this , I really do not think the organizers get it! As a local area resident, I also see no good to this proposal. It seems that the organizers would love to see a new Bike Path but unfortunately, that brings only the bad to the area residents that this path is seeking to travel through. Considering that the T can take this back at any time, the fact that the tracks run straight across an already congested Needham Street, the fact that the tracks end abruptly at the Charles River Bridge (the bridge has been closed off for safety concerns by the T and there is no money to change that), the fact that the bridge over 128 is being taken away in the Spring/Summer 2012 by the 128 widening project and there is no plan to put up another, the fact that there is little Newton revenue (or even none at all) available for the ongoing support and policing needed to support and maintain such a path and the riff-raff that currently hangs out there publicly drinking alcohol (I have witnessed the police there on more than one ocassion) and doing whatever as it appears to be a good hidden spot... .....brings absolutely nothing positive to anyone living within the community.
Jerry Reilly December 11, 2011 at 09:23 PM
CAL - I'm puzzled by some of your comments. Since you describe the very real problems that occur today (publicly drinking alcohol, etc) on the abandoned rail line I would think that you would be the first to see the potential benefit of turning this into a city park rather than the waste land it is today, which is a magnet for "riff raff". What I can tell you is that I've gone door to door and personally talked to well over a 100 people in the neighborhood including 30 people that are abutters (i.e live right beside the proposed trail). All but three of those 100+ people thought it would definitely be a major improvement in the neighborhood. This of course is not the first rail-to-trails project done in MA. What I can tell you is that in other places where bike paths have been built they quickly become treasured neighborhood amenities and proximity to the bike path becomes a key real estate feature when nearby properties are sold. I have a friend in Lexington and one on Cape Cod that both live adjacent to bike paths. In both cases, when the paths were built there was a fair amount of quite understandable nervousness among the neighbors. In both cases, shortly after the paths were completed the adjoining neighbors became the biggest fans of the bike trail. You seem to have your mind firmly made up. It's tough though for me and many many of your neighbors to see why you'd prefer the current dangerous, trash strewn waste land over a new neighborhood park.
CAL December 11, 2011 at 10:55 PM
Jerry... Nice spin job on this...... But, I would hardly call this existing charming area of Newton a "waste land". By your comments and responses....You are obviously not even reading nor do you obviously care what I and others have stated from the beginning....this is exactly why we do not want it. Did you even read what I stated above? In regards to your "riff-raff" spin.... I personally stood there one day while one of your representatives walked up to a gentleman who was drinking beer on the tracks and asked him if he frequented the spot. Upon your representative hearing that he did, he then proceeded to ask the gentleman if he would use it more often if it was turned into a path and if so, would he like to sign a petion to make it such.... Now I have to ask you Jerry, is this what Newton really needs! Further traffic and attention to this site (part of which is not even useable) would only worsten the situation and definitely adds nothing positive and especially for all of the reasons I listed above.
Jerry Reilly December 12, 2011 at 12:40 AM
CAL I certainly read your comments very carefully, and I certainly do care what you have to say about the plan ... I just don't happen to agree with you. One clarification - "I would hardly call this existing charming area of Newton a "waste land" I too believe the area itself is charming, that's one of the reasons we believe it would be a nice park/path. "waste land" referred to the present condition of the railroad right of way. Last spring, on the Newton Serves day, a group of volunteers hauled out 17 loads of trash from these railroad track and that was only a portion of the track - there's still plenty more over the length of it. The land has been neglected by its owners (the MBTA) for many years. As I said, it sounds like you've pretty firmly made up you mind so I guess we can agree to differ.
Jerry Reilly December 12, 2011 at 02:14 AM
CAL - I'd be happy to talk to you any time about all your concerns about this project. Give me a call any time at 617-999-5300 and we can either gab on the phone or I can come by - whichever you prefer. I live in the neighborhood and I can assure you that we're doing this as a neighborhood project and so far the overwhelming number of Upper Falls residents and abutters have been very enthusiastic about the project. Since you're apparently not, I'd like to hear as much as you want to tell me about why you think its a bad idea.
Lois Cohen December 12, 2011 at 10:58 PM
You say that abutters support this idea? Well, I'm an abutter who stands firmly against this plan. I don't know who might support it, but I and my neighbors--all abutters--are not in favor of this project at all. As I understand it, the proposed bike path (who rides a bike on gravel???) would end just behind my residence. That means that walkers/bikers/joggers would have to stop behind my home, then turn around to go back towards Needham St. This would not only create a bottleneck behind my home, it would also bring noise, traffic and pollution. Moreover, people would cut through my property and/or hang out in my backyard. I am firmly opposed to this idea. However, I could support a plan that terminates the bike path at the Depot, but not otherwise.
Jerry Reilly December 12, 2011 at 11:43 PM
@Lois - I'm sorry to hear that you don't like the idea and I'm sorry I missed you while canvassing the neighborhood. I have spoken to many of the neighbors on both sides of the track at that end of the trail who loved the idea of park land right behind their house. The surface won't be gravel, its packed (fairly finely) crushed stone. It's the same surface used on the river trail in Nonantum and the new DCR bike trail at Lower Falls as well as various other bike paths around MA. It's perfectly ride'able on a bicycle. Since the rail bed is quite a bit above the surrounding land on one side, and quite a bit below on the other I'd be very surprised if users of the trail would cut through your property. It would be difficult to do.... but I suppose possible. I would expect that the other half of the path, on the far side of the Depot would be the more heavily used section since it will also serve as an off road path to the Needham St commercial district. For abutters like yourself the question does mostly come down to whether the positives (immediate access to walking, bicycling park land out your door) outweigh the possible negatives (more foot traffic, noise, etc) Feel free to contact me (617-999-5300) if there are any other concerns you'd like me to pass on.
CAL December 13, 2011 at 03:58 PM
Again, nice spin Jerry. ....but your plan is a hodge podge. There are many Abutters that do not want it! Spot On Lois!
Lois Cohen December 14, 2011 at 02:32 AM
Jerry--Yes indeed, the negatives outweigh the positives! Abutters who live at the end of the path where bikers/runners will stop to turn around, gather, hang out, make noise, throw trash and cross through our property do NOT support this plan. Safety for the community should be of prime consideration. Joggers/bikers crossing Needham Street (one of the most congested streets in Newton) will create even greater traffic and safety issues than already exist. To this point: Avalon installed lights at the end of their driveway because people could not cross and cars had great difficulty entering the street. Now add joggers and bikers to the mix: a recipe for disaster. The same concern exists at the crossing at Oak & Chestnut. Please tell me, what is your plan to address these very real concerns for public safety and increased traffic congestion? In my view, this plan is ill conceived and will cause a burden to residents whose properties abut the tracks. It will also cause safety and traffic problems at Needham Street and at Oak/Chestnut street. To see this project become reality in a way that serves the community while not negatively impacting abutting residents or creating safety and traffic problems, it is critical to address these issues. With solid solutions, I'd give further consideration with an open mind. Without them, however, my position and that of my neighbors remains a big fat NO!
Jerry Reilly December 14, 2011 at 03:51 AM
@Lois - Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed critique. I'll try to answer them as best as I can, though at this early stage some of the answers will necessarily entail a bit of "hand waving" since many details can't/won't be figured out until the project is actually designed. The Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force, the folks who originally came up with the Greenway idea, have proposed that their be a connection, probably stairs down the embankment, to the Charles River Pathway - the small woods along the river. That would let walkers (though not bikers) to continue on past you and come out William or Abbot St. Better yet, if the apartment complex on Oak St were willing to connect their back path to the Charles River Pathway (a big if) the path would extend all the way to Needham St. This path will be about a mile long so most of the bicycles on the path will likely be smaller children. For older kids and adults a mile long trail isn't terribly interesting. On your end, I think the major users of the trail will be neighborhood people walking or jogging.
Jerry Reilly December 14, 2011 at 03:55 AM
@Lois (cont) The crossing at Oak St will of course have to be carefully designed and the city certainly would be involved with that. The MBTA right of way which is our focus does not cross Needham St. There is a spur though that does cross Needham. We would love to include that as well but there are a number of obstacles - how to get across Needham St. is one of them If and when including that spur becomes a real possibility, that issue would have to be worked out. We're trying to listen to as many voices as we can, especially the abutters, so I appreciate you taking the time to spell out your concerns. Feel free to call me any time (617-999-5300) and I'd be happy to talk. We really do think this could be a great addition to the neighborhood and I hope we can address most of your concerns.
CAL December 14, 2011 at 04:28 AM
Jerry... with all due respect, I feel that the commitee is really missing the point.......This is really not about the burden of responsibily of residents, abutters and patrons of the Needham Street area to be telling you and your team about why they all feel it won't work. Increased traffic and attention to this site adds nothing positive to an area that can't handle the existing strain. You need to be realistic that this proposed fragmented and busy zone with all of its use and safety concens and zero funding to make any changes, makes this an unrealistic proposal.
Mick Shrimpton December 14, 2011 at 04:52 AM
CAL and Lois- The proposed bike path does NOT cross Needham Street, so there is no safety/traffic issue there. The Oak Street intersection is a valid concern, however. As Jerry points out, that issue will be addressed during the design phase. I just don't understand how you (CAL and Lois) think that turning an existing and neglected neighborhood eyesore, currently filled with empty beer bottles, used condoms and other trash and detritus, and frequented by bored teens and transients, into a family friendly bike path, is a bad idea. Do you actually prefer the current state of the abandoned rail bed?, As Jerry points out, the proposed bike trail would be mostly used by young children and their parents, since it will only be 1-2 miles long. All I know is that if this abandoned rail bed ran through the middle of Waban, it would have been turned into a tax-payer funded bike path a long time ago.
CAL December 14, 2011 at 05:14 PM
First of all, I took the walk with your group when you handed out literature on your proposal so I do know what the layout looks like. In fact, we even needed to cross Needham Street twice during that walk....lol! In regards to what some of the area looks like.....I agree, some of it is neglected but that portion you are referring to is a very small portion that has not been used in many, many years. The portion behind the river side of Oak has actually been well maintained over the last 20 (+) years and in fact, the maintenance firms of those area residents still clean it up on a very regular basis. Considering the T can take it all back at any notice....this is a very fragmented, ill conceived proposal with safety concerns and with no real value nor funding to keep it going.
Mick Shrimpton December 14, 2011 at 06:24 PM
First of all, CAL, it's not "my group", as you imply. I'm just a supporter of the plan, and someone who actually lives in Newton Upper Falls (unlike Lois Levin and other detractors). Why are you so negative? You sound like Old Man Withers from Scooby Doo. With this bike path plan, we've got a real chance to improve the quality of life here in Upper Falls, which has traditionally been the forgotten child of the Newton villages. It would be a real shame if the cranky, squeaky wheels like yourself once again get their way in this city. If you want Newton to turn into Brighton, just keep it up. In 15 years you'll be saying to yourself "what happened to Newton"?
CAL December 15, 2011 at 04:18 PM
First of all, Lois and others such as myself do live in the Upper Falls and want nothing but good for the community and the city. If someone doesn't agree with your plan....they are now a "Detractor".....lol! You are ebntitled to your opinion but you are really being quite self centered about what the people who live along it or deal with the daily traffic nigtmares don't want. Such a proposal is so fragmented with ZERO FUNDING to keep it maintained and you can add to that that the T can take it back at any time.... I am looking at the short and long term values of such a project and this one is ill conceived with no value whatsover to the community nor its abutters.
Mick Shrimpton December 15, 2011 at 05:31 PM
Lois Levin, the head of "Bike Newton" and a member of the city's Transportation Advisory Committee, lives on Chestnut Street in Waban. She wrote an editorial in the Tab against the Upper Falls Greenway Project, as well as negatively commenting on Jerry's blog (see above). She does not live in Upper Falls. That's who I was referring to. I believe you are referring Lois Coen, who also responded to Jerry's blog. So we're both correct. I'll say it again - if this abandoned rail bed ran through the middle of Waban (or Newton Center or Chestnut Hill), it would have been turned into a tax-payer funded bike path a long time ago.
Jerry Reilly December 16, 2011 at 07:05 PM
I just noticed this sentence in Jim Lowernstern's real estate blog on the Patch - (http://newton.patch.com/blog_posts/five-points-to-ensure-your-home-retains-value) "A good location is ...close to outdoor recreation and nature .... Red flags to watch for when browsing property are proximity .... railroad tracks"
CAL December 16, 2011 at 08:29 PM
You can spin this all you want...but due to the fact that T can take this property back in its entirety at any point it feels like it....this is all moot. In fact for definition purposes, this will always be considered T Track Property with or without tracks. There are plenty of other better suited areas than this to go ride your bike, enjoy!
Adam Powell January 16, 2012 at 02:29 PM
What an interesting discussion. I am an Upper Falls resident on Chestnut St and am very much in favor of the Upper Falls Greenway. When I walk or bike to International Bicycle, the bookstore, Skipjack's etc., I look forward to having it as a safer, cleaner, and much more pleasant route than dodging cars at every single parking lot entrance along Needham St. I am confused by some posters who alternately say that the T is going to build a line on the track from Newton Highlands to Needham Heights, and then talk about how it's impossible to preserve the right-of-way because the bridges over the Charles and 95/128 are going away. In an era of cutbacks when the T is planning to scale back or eliminate bus service to much of Newton, including the #59 through Upper Falls, it's hard to see them having any money to put in a rail line. Furthermore, if a rail line is possible -- and I would welcome it -- we need to preserve the right of way from encroachments such as that of National Lumber. For any of these scenarios, whether a T line or an extended bike/walking path, the Upper Falls Greenway is the best start to keeping this important right-of-way open for public use. It would discourage other squatters, and encourage Needham residents to lobby for a path extension -- or at least to plan one, including preserving or upgrading the river and highway crossings.


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