The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
MALDEN — Compared with some of Greater Boston’s other waterways, the Malden River flies under the radar.
For more than a century, the narrow river, stretching 2.3 miles from the Mystic River to under Malden Center, was lined with factories and, often, filled with their waste. Its banks sat unreachable behind chain-link fences and warehouse parking lots.
Now, there’s a slow but deliberate effort underway to change that.
Over the last few years, a collection of groups — Friends of the Malden River, Mystic River Watershed Association, and the cities of Malden, Everett, and Medford — have been planning a string of parks and paths to open up the river to the public.
The centerpiece is the reimagining of Malden’s Department of Public Works complex — a five-acre warehouse and storage yard along Commercial Street — as a climate-resilient waterfront park.
The plans for it are nearly done. The city is launching on permitting and cobbling together funds, said Malden senior planner and policy manager Evan Spetrini, including a $100,000 award from MIT’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. It hopes to start work late next year.
Getting to this point took a lot of conversation.
To help advance the project, the city recruited a diverse steering committee, drawn from residents of neighborhoods along the river, and launched an array of outreach efforts — not just public meetings but connecting with existing community groups — to ask people what they wanted.
Marcia Manong, a community activist who chaired the steering committee, was initially wary. Manong, who is Black and lived in South Africa for 20 years before returning to Massachusetts about nine years ago, had experienced token efforts at community planning in the past, times when residents’ participation wasn’t really valued. This process, she said, has felt different, more sincere.
“They’re walking the walk,” Manong said.
That led to real engagement, she said, and enthusiastic participation by neighbors about what the park might include. Now that planning is basically done and engineers are working out the finer details, Manong’s group is turning to longer-term issues such as who will care for the park when it’s built. That’s important to creating a sense of ownership, she said.
“You have to find ways to keep people interested,” Manong said. “The more we’re able to keep the community engaged in this process, the more likely people will feel like this place belongs to them.”
When it’s done, the area will still serve as Malden’s public works yard (the city has to park trucks and store road salt somewhere, after all). But the facility’s rutted parking lot would make way for an inviting pathway from the street, and the fenced-off riverbank would become a greenway, with terraced paths down to the water, and a dock in the river.
The mixing of open space and industry is part of the objective, Spetrini said. The companies that line the Malden River provide a lot of solid blue-collar jobs, and house services needed not just by Malden but by the region as a whole. The city doesn’t want that to go away, he said, it just wants to add riverfront access.
“We need spaces in our cities that provide for all the messy work that needs to happen. The DPW is really a perfect example of that,” Spetrini said. “The challenge of marrying open space with working industry is really at the heart of this, and we hope it can be perpetuated along the river, without saying, ‘This is all going to be luxury housing.’”
That will take time. Today, there are a few short public paths along the river. One pokes along behind the Super 88 market on Commercial Street for a short stretch, then stops at the parking lot of an industrial bakery next door.
But gradually, Spetrini said, that should change.
The city last year approved new zoning rules that will require landowners along the river to improve public access if they want to redevelop their properties, much as similar regulations do in many places around Boston Harbor. Over the coming years, he expects more paths along the river will emerge, and eventually link up for miles.
“I’d acknowledge that’s a very piecemeal way to develop something like this,” Spetrini said. “But it’s the lay of the land when it’s all private property.”
Read more about Malden and explore the full On the Street series.