PITTSFIELD — The Pontoosuc Lake Park of yesteryear was an aquatic playground. In the shade of towering white elms the park hosted a concession stand, boathouse, sand beach, swimming and diving docks and picnic area through much of the 20th century.
Residents say that what greets visitors to the park today is a fraction of what the park once was. The pines and “unparalleled views” are still there, but they’re paired with a sloping, steep park, aging benches and soggy wetlands where the beach once rested and where geese now regularly leave their mark.
Residents who gathered Monday night at City Hall want to bring back the elements that made Pontoosuc Lake Park “a gem” within city spaces: swimming docks, a sand beach and robust picnic and restroom facilities.
“I just want to give a shout out to the swimming docks and swimming area,” Valerie Andersen, a longtime resident and swimmer in Pontoosuc Lake said. “I remember as a kid it was a great, great draw to the place.
“I grew up here and when I moved back I missed seeing those docks. It’s sort of a reminder of the decline of Pittsfield.”
The comments from residents mirrored what city officials heard last month from the results of their public survey. Doug Serrill, a Berkshire Design Group landscape architect who is part of the team that’s been hired to consult on the visioning process, said that of the 220 responses to the survey, the top three requests were for a swimming beach and improvement to the picnic tables and restrooms.
Jim McGrath, the city’s Park, Open Space and Natural Resource Program manager, said that the city is hoping to bring back the magic so many people associate with their memories of the park.
“This is what we’re trying to recreate,” McGrath said to Andersen. “It may look a little different ... but at the end of the day, we’re trying to create wonderful spaces where folks like you and your family can continue to make memories.”
McGrath added that a major focus of renovating and reinventing the park is making sure that all residents have access to what it will have to offer.
“I think it’s important and incumbent on us as a city to provide equal access where we can,” McGrath said. “We need to do a better job, we need to do the best job we can here with handicap accessibility improvements at this park.”
Residents came prepared with ways the city could improve upon the park’s design. June Hailer, the vice chair on the Commission on Disabilities, recommended making all picnic benches accessible, adding to the park’s lighting and widening park sidewalks.
Other residents proposed repurposing an existing path by the park’s boat and trailer parking as an accessible walkway to the lake’s shoreline and creating a continuous sidewalk network between the southern 23-acre lot and the northern one-acre lot of the park.
McGrath told the audience that while there shouldn’t be a limits in the visioning session — encouraging residents to dream big when it comes to the park’s future — there are environmental factors that will likely limit what can be brought back or added to the park.
“The lake is a resource area, the bank is a resource area and we have pockets of wetlands,” McGrath said. “Some of what we think we might like to do might be constrained by environmental regulations — but that’s not new to us.”
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This isn’t the first time the city has attempted a renovation of the lakeside park. In 2018, the city received $15,000 in Community Preservation Act funding focused on improving drainage at the park and reinforce a retaining wall at the park.
That project stalled out and the CPA funds are now being used in the current visioning process.
The future for this effort looks more clear than the 2018 effort. McGrath said that he hopes to present a summary of the community recommendations to the Parks Commission in January, get community and commission input on the summarized concept and then survey the park ahead before drawing up construction plans.
“I’m confident that in the next five to seven years we will be able to cut a ribbon on this project,” McGrath said.