SOMERVILLE, NJ – Three things became clear during Tuesday’s community forum on the future of Southside Park.
1, Residents have no shortage of ideas as to what improvements they would like to see – more parking, more basketball courts, improvements to the adjacent greenway and pathway on the perimeter of the park, a splash park, an updated pool, a soccer field, tennis courts, a dog park, an updated concession stand; updated lighting, electrical outlets and other amenities.
Borough Clerk Kevin Sluka maintained a running list of suggestions on an easel pad, tearing off sheets and taping them to the wall for residents to keep track of their suggestions and concerns.
2. The overhaul and rehab of the park is going to take time, with improvements being phased in over a period of years;
3. To get the job done, the project will cost money the borough doesn’t have.
The biggest challenge is to find the resources to pay for the improvements, according to Councilman Jason Kraska, liason to the borough’s Recreation Commission, who moderated the meeting at police headquarters to solicit recommendations from residents.
A “down payment” on the project was received last week, when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection informed the borough that its grant application for the project was approved in the amount of $143,555, which represents 25 percent of the projected cost of $581,950.
The DEP will release that money once the project is done, with a caveat – the project must be completed within the next two years, which means the borough must scramble to find other sources of funding.
The projected cost is an estimate only, Kraska emphasized, a number that was derived in a short period of time in order to file the grant application before the state program expired.
The proposal sent to Trenton included plans for:
- new restrooms;
- new basketball court;
- new pavilion, including grills and game tables;
- new playground;
- splash pad similar to one at Park Avenue Park;
- new softball/baseball field; now overgrown by weeds; it used to be the home field of the Somerville High School Pioneers baseball team;
- new community garden;
- improvements to the greenway trail.
Longtime resident Art Adair wants a new pool, referring to the filled-in pool as a “fountain of youth” for he and friends now in their 70s who swam in the original pool when younger; Adair said the pool was built in 1936 as a Work Progress Administration project.
Formally known as Chambres Park, several improvements have already been made.
For starters, the concrete swimming pool has been reduced to rubble, filled in and the ground regarded; the basketball court has been repaved and will be relined, with new nets installed next week.
“One of my main goals this year has been to get that park back open and usable,” Kraska said. He moderated a meeting late last year at St. Paul’s Church to solicit ideas for improvements to the park from residents.
Kraska said the application sent to the DEP contained many of the ideas discussed at that meeting.
The expense of the rehabilitation outstrips the borough’s abilities to pay for labor, materials and professional engineering and planning services, according to Councilman Dennis Sullivan.
Kraska, who was on the Somerville High School Pioneers baseball team that played its home games on the field, said the borough will need to get creative and seek partners to help finance the project, mentioning Somerville High School as one possibility. Selling naming rights to the field to an area business is another. There are also other local and state government and corporate grant programs, including Major League baseball.
Kraska said the borough’s Recreation Department has committed to funding a portion of the planned upgrades from its trust account, but has not determined the amount.
“We’re working with other organizations to get more funding so that we don’t have to do it on the backs of the taxpayers,” Kraska said.
At one time a vital component of the borough’s recreation program, Southside has fallen on hard times.
The park has been closed and off limits for several years after a nearby treatment plant broke down, spewing sewage onto the playing fields alongside the Peter Brook, which flows into the nearby Raritan River.
The faulty valve system has since been repaired, enabling the plant alongside the Raritan River to handle the extra flow in the system, caused by floodwater runoff entering the sewer line.
The equipment upgrade has stopped the backup of sewage on the property; several years of rainfall and flooding in the low-lying area of the borough has cleansed the area of any contaminants, according to Kraska.
The Somerset Raritan Valley Sewage Authority is designing an overflow treatment plant that will be built on the site of the existing plant, according to Kraska. The $18-20M facility will handle and treat the excess capacity generated by flood runoff during storms, providing a permanent solution. Work has yet to begin.
The borough’s Department of Public Works continues to maintain the park, keeping the grass cut and removing litter; but the forced closure has taken its toll.
“I can’t make promises as to what will be done, but this once thriving park and the residents of Somerville deserve to have this facility cleaned up and brought back,” he said.
Looking ahead to a time when the park is restored, Councilman Dennis Sullivan said “This is one ribbon I’d love to cut.”
Kraska said he expects to hold another meeting in late August to refine the list of improvements.