Normally, energy companies run into resistance when they want to build something new. National Grid faces the opposite problem.
Political leaders and advocacy groups who represent the cities of Everett, Malden, and Medford are upset with the utility because of something the company won’t build: a half-mile “riverwalk” along 28 acres it owns overlooking the Malden River.
The walkway, proponents say, represents a missing link to a 3.5-mile network of trails dubbed the “Malden River Greenway” stretching from the southern edge of downtown Malden to where the waterway joins the Mystic River near the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett.
During the past few weeks, they’ve sent a stream of letters to the state Department of Environmental Protection, urging DEP to mandate that National Grid build the path, as part of a requirement for construction in state-regulated tidelands. Such work, governed under a state law known as Chapter 91, often requires concessions to ensure public access to the waterfront.
National Grid maintains that it has not done the kind of construction at the site, at 170 Medford St. in Malden, that would trigger a Chapter 91 obligation of that size and scope, and has no plans to do so. The utility estimates this riverwalk would cost about $9 million to build, including $1 million for permitting and other non-construction expenses, and $1.7 million to improve the security at its property — which includes offices, truck parking, and an electrical substation.
The issue arose after DEP approved minor work at the property, and asked National Grid to explore options for public access to the river. The company proposed a public viewing area, at a cost of $60,000. But when the utility sought a license to build it, DEP in 2018 mandated the full riverfront path. National Grid appealed that decision, arguing that DEP overstepped its bounds. The company eventually offered land for free and $1 million towards the walkway’s construction, in an effort to settle the dispute.
But after four years of talks, National Grid seemed to give up. The company in March withdrew its request for a Chapter 91 license to build the public viewing area — the license application that triggered DEP’s riverwalk mandate in the first place — and asked to end its appeal of DEP’s mandate as a result.
The company said last week that it remains open to future discussions about the issue. National Grid spokesman Bob Kievra said in a statement that National Grid has been working in “good faith with state and local officials and community stakeholders to find a reasonable compromise that would ensure public access to the Malden/Everett waterfront area while safeguarding the interests of all National Grid’s customers.”
The mayors and state legislators who represent the three cities along the Malden River seem to think differently, as do several environmental groups who are pushing for more waterfront access in the Mystic watershed. They note the lack of waterfront access at National Grid has become more glaring in recent years as the formerly industrial riverfront has been cleaned up and opened with new paths.
“They really stand out as the landowner not doing their part,” said Amber Christoffersen, greenways director for the Mystic River Watershed Association. “When you’re talking about a connected greenway along the river, you need every piece of the puzzle to make it complete.”
Along those lines, plans are in the works for a path and new park to be called Malden River Works at Malden’s public works yard across the river from National Grid. And advocates say a path connection is also likely on the other remaining riverfront property without public access in Everett, an industrial site controlled by Gerry Berberian and envisioned for redevelopment. Christoffersen said there are also a few remaining parcels without access, or plans for access, on the west side of the river, though Malden has written new zoning rules to require riverfront access if and when they are ever redeveloped.
“We’re doing our part. Now we need them to do theirs,” said Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, who urged DEP on May 5 to help ensure National Grid builds the half-mile path. “The long-term vision is for people to be able to walk around the river. … When I came into office, that was one of the last things on the agenda. Now, it’s one of the top items.”
Christenson’s letter came one day after a similar request of DEP was made by Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who accused National Grid of using “delay tactics to deprive residents of public access they are legally entitled to.”
John Preotle, who has presided over the development of the mixed-use River’s Edge campus in Medford on the west side of the river, said he had obligations under his permits to build paths across his property, but he didn’t need to build them right away. He said he saw them as an amenity for the tenants of the office and apartment buildings he was developing, and went beyond what was required by regulators, constructing a sizable riverfront park, which includes Tufts University’s crew boathouse.
He was surprised to learn that talks to extend the riverwalk on National Grid’s site had fallen apart.
“From our standpoint, we tried to do the right thing,” said Preotle, a partner at Preotle, Lane & Associates. “We saw it as a benefit.”