A chain-link fence isolating a segment of Roosevelt Park keeps people out, but does little to stop dust laden with dangerous levels of lead to blow around the public park, the adjacent K-8 schoolyard, and the surrounding Malden neighborhood.
The city’s $3.5 million park rehabilitation plan — which ties site decontamination to replacing the natural grass with a synthetic surface — hit a snag on July 21 when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development delayed the city’s access to a $1.2 million loan until various conditions are met, including a deeper dive into Environmental Justice concerns raised by neighborhood residents.
The federal agency was sent over 150 letters from residents who are against installing the artificial turf and want to keep the park grass, according to the Friends of Roosevelt Park group that launched the letter-writing campaign.
“The city has tried again and again to circumvent the voices of their residents and concerned citizens and ignored that this is a state-designated Environmental Justice neighborhood,” said Lissette Alvarado, a Malden resident and member of the Friends group.
Federal census statistics determine if a neighborhood meets the Environmental Justice designation, including an annual household income that is 65 percent or less of the statewide median; people of color comprising at least 40 percent of the population; and 25 percent of households lacking English proficiency, according to the Massachusetts state website.
The notice from HUD requires the city to update its Environmental Review record and cited the Environmental Justice analysis as incomplete.
In their letters, residents expressed a list of concerns, from the artificial surface creating a heat island to exposure to dangerous chemicals in synthetic turf to reduced neighborhood park access once the fields become scheduled for citywide organized sports events.
According to a statement issued by the Friends, “The city ignored our constant calls for expanded levels of transparency, and they moved ahead with their project minus public support. Going against federal agency requirements, the mayor and city now find themselves in a place where they must accept the HUD decision and work to address the Environmental Justice questions that have been raised.”
Malden Community Development Director Alex Pratt disputed the claim that the city ignored residents’ concerns. He said the HUD loan has been approved (on Dec. 7, 2021, with conditions) pending “a deeper dive into the Environmental Justice concerns in the letters sent by residents.
“We did a complete environmental review,” said Pratt. “There was no intentional omission of information. In the online application, we responded to 16 factors related to environment. HUD does not cover urban heat island in the environmental review section of the form and there is no place on the application to include it and other resident concerns.”
An examination of the Malden application showed the city did include an extensive appendix that included public comments against the turf field and addressed citizens’ concerns, among them:
- The city acknowledged the synthetic turf surface will be hotter than grass. To reduce heat island worries, a type of fill made from wood particles will be used to reduce surface temperatures.
- Regarding health risks and toxic exposure from the chemicals in the turf, the city said at this point the science is not evolved and related concerns are speculative.
- The public park serves all Malden residents who wish you use it, not just the surrounding neighborhood.
In the Environmental Justice section of the application, Malden officials wrote “No adverse environmental impacts were identified in the project’s total environmental review” and made no reference to the appendix. Pratt said that “It would have been inconsistent with requirements of that [application] format” to include the heat island and other concerns in this compliance section.
Malden Mayor Gary Christenson was unavailable for comment because he had COVID. But Maria Luise, special assistant to the mayor, said he had no official statement regarding the HUD letter. Although the mayor delegated the application process to Deborah Burke, the city’s director of strategic planning and community development, and Pratt, “it was more than likely the mayor had reviewed the application before it was submitted to HUD,” Luise said.
At the direction of the City Council and mayor, Luise has sent an e-mail to the Friends group “to arrange a meeting to resolve their concerns.” No date has yet been set for a public meeting.
HUD provided no deadline for the city to respond to the residents’ concerns.
Burke remains focused on moving the project forward and said she “looks ahead to the point where the improvements have been made and we can have a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.