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Turf vs. grass feud at park adjacent to school continues in Malden

The grass field at Roosevelt Park, which is adjacent to the Salemwood School (rear).Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A large section of Roosevelt Park in Malden, adjacent to the K-8 Salemwood School, is fenced off with warning signs stating it contains hazardous waste: dangerous levels of lead.

Neighborhood residents and city officials agree the contaminated soil — identified in 2009 — must go, but when and what it will be replaced with has ignited a heated debate focused on environmental justice.

“This project is located in the poorest census tract in the city, where the median household income is $32,155,” said Zane Crute, president of the Mystic Valley Area Branch of the NAACP. “This project poses not only a current threat to the Salemwood School population and its neighborhood, but the future plan for this space will continue this cycle of environmental racism.”

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“My classroom windows overlook the fenced-off area,” said Kathy Sullivan, a fifth-grade science teacher at Salemwood and a Malden resident. “Because of COVID, we keep the windows open. Dust from the entire park is [in] the air and we are breathing it.”

Part of the field is fenced off with signs warning of hazardous materials and no trespassing. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The city plans to convert the park from natural grass to an artificial turf surface, which would allow for increased use of the public space by citywide organized sports teams.

“The $3.5 million project is being funded with a HUD Section 108 loan, a city bond backed by Community Preservation Act funds, and a private foundation grant that will cover the cost of the synthetic turf,” Deborah Burke, director of the Malden Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, said in an e-mail.

“The city is eager to complete this project, which will remove hazardous soil, improve flood capacity, and dramatically increase the number of residents who can play on this active recreation field,” added Burke.

Malden Ward 6 City Councilor Stephen Winslow — a former Mass. Department of Environmental Protection attorney — said, “We have been unable to remediate the hazardous soil because the Friends of Roosevelt Park group appealed the necessary wetland permit to the Mass. DEP.” The park is not in his ward, but he has been involved through his work on the larger Malden Open Space and Recreation Plan.

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The DEP dismissed the Friends’ appeal on March 8. The project will go out to bid and Burke expects the remediation to begin in the fall.

“The school schedule will not be affected but the field will not be available to the school for any before- or after-school programs for the duration of the construction project,” she said.

“Now that we have received the permit, we will improve the park space with a new multi-use surface that will allow for much more use,” said Winslow.

The Friends of Roosevelt Park and residents of the densely populated neighborhood have been opposed to the synthetic turf surface since it was first proposed in 2009. They say eliminating the only natural grassy area will create a heat island and change the park from a place where children can enjoy free play to one that will be used almost exclusively by youth and adult sports teams from outside the neighborhood during non-school hours.

“The city is holding the remediation of the park hostage until they are able to install turf,” said Stefanie Alberto, who lives in the neighborhood with her children ages 4, 2, and 1.

“The [Mystic Valley Regional] charter school in the neighborhood already has a turf surface,” said Lilia Haddouche, mother of two daughters ages 8 and 6. “If they put in turf at Roosevelt, we will be bookended by artificial surfaces that will create a heat island.”

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John Saia of the Friends of Roosevelt Park said, “When the temperature outside reaches 90 degrees, artificial field surfaces can reach 135 degrees.”

The plan to install the turf focuses on providing “sorely needed space for athletic programs,” according to Burke. “Kids from low-income neighborhoods deserve the same athletic opportunities as kids from wealthier communities.”

For Winslow, “There is no perfect solution. The benefits of combating obesity by providing additional active recreation space for low-income youth needs to be considered when looking at the health issues related to the project.

“It is not unusual for residents near parks to have complaints. We need to consider the broader community needs and the soccer families have voted with their feet.”

Crute, of the NAACP, said “The Roosevelt Park project is the only living green space for passive recreation enjoyed by the lowest income earners in Malden. The transition to synthetic turf becomes a prohibition to neighborhood usage. This project enacts a ‘pay to play’ scheme which will only allow year-round, active participation on the field if a child or adult has paid to participate in organized sports.”

Winslow, however, maintains that the “shady area, flood plain, and lack of durability” make grass a poor choice for the park established in 1910, and the turf field “is a good compromise that will benefit the neighborhood, school, and city as a whole.”

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Linda Greenstein can be reached at greensteinlm@gmail.com.