Judy Grinnell’s river rehab

After a decade overseeing Hoosic River Revival, she is stepping away

Photograph by Frank Curran

What’s the Hoosic River Revival all about? The Hoosic River trickles through downtown North Adams within old, concrete, inaccessible flood control chutes that protect the city but don’t provide any other advantages. Our goal is to create a 21st century system that restores the river to a more natural state and creates a vibrant waterfront more conducive to recreation and commercial development.

Why is a vibrant riverfront so important? MassMoCA is one of the country’s largest contemporary art museums. It has served as a catalyst for this struggling mill town, drawing thousands of visitors. But museum visitors do not stay. A lovely riverfront with shops, boating, biking, and hiking would complement what is becoming a cultural-recreational corridor.

How did you get involved? In the ’90s, I worked as a sales manager for Storey Publishing in North Adams and traveled to conferences around the country. I went to San Antonio and marveled at the people, the general activities on the river. I went to Providence. Once again, I saw all these people walking and businesses thriving along the river. I didn’t know every inch of the Hoosic as I do now, but I knew it was not attractive and it was certainly not an asset for the city.  So [in 2008] I invited people to a meeting. I told them I do not know how to do this, I don’t even know if it’s feasible, but I would love to find out if North Adams could have a dynamic riverfront. So a number of us started meeting regularly.

What brought people out? There are a lot of people who want North Adams to come back to life. When people started learning about cities like Greenville, South Carolina, where they had a renaissance once their river became an asset, they said, maybe that lady’s not crazy after all. And maybe if we do take down the walls in some places, she’s not going to drown the city.

Judy Grinnell of North Adams

Judy Grinnell of North Adams

Was that a fear? Oh yes, it continues to be a fear, even though we say all the time this will be a flood-controlled river. There are people my age who remember the floods, and feel very secure with these walls, even though four, 20-foot concrete panels have fallen and six are leaning. This is not a destruction. It’s a modernization of the flood control project constructed 65 years ago.

What’s your modernization entail? It’s called the naturalization of the river. Instead of concrete chutes, you have steps going down to the river. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the river is flowing very low. But when there’s a storm, the river can rise all the way up those steps. People can get out of the way and the city is saved, but you still have a community asset.

Will the new design improve the water quality? Yes. Right now, the water gets too warm in the chutes. Fish need rocks and greenery and live things to eat, but nothing lives in these chutes. We will create a low-flow channel at the bottom of the chutes, so the fish can survive.

Will the water be clean? Cleanish. You can’t eat the fish. We have contamination from the city’s old water pipes. Cleaning that up will be part of our project.

The Army Corps of Engineers did the original flood control project in the 1950s. What do they think of your design? They told me that if they were doing a flood control project now it would look very much like what we are doing.

You are about to implement phase one. What does that entail? We will be naturalizing a half-mile section of the river close to downtown, restoring its natural meandering course and creating a bike/cross-country ski path, an urban orchard, and access to the river for boating and fishing.

How much will it cost? $20 million. We’ve raised $300,000 locally. The state allocated $8.75 million in a bond bill, half a million of which was spent on the phase one design. The rest of the $20 million we’re hoping the state and the federal government will provide.

Will you naturalize the entire stretch of river through the city? No, that’s not feasible. But we will be naturalizing as much as possible.

What is the total project cost? About $150 million.

Why are you stepping back now? We have gone from dream to design. To go from design to development, the organization needs a leader with different experience, skills, and knowledge. The board has asked me to stay on as a member, and I think that’s important for institutional memory and for continuity.

Meet the Author
What are you going to do? I’ll be spending more time with my eight grandchildren. My husband is almost retired. We’ve both been very active volunteers, but it’s a really good time for us as a couple to do only the things we want to do.