Fitchburg Parks Commission Bounces Decision About Creating New Day St. Park Back to City Council
FITCHBURG -- The Board of Parks Commissioners voted to send a petition to explore the creation of a “pocket park” honoring the life of local abolitionist Benjamin Snow Jr back to the City Council Property Committee without comment Thursday, saying the commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over the city-owned land.
The move frustrated supporters of the proposed memorial park at 116 Day St., who said the park would honor the city’s diversity and history in the antislavery movement while satisfying the need for parking in the dense residential neighborhood.
After voting to move the park hearing to the top of the agenda, Parks Commission Chair Jon Ricciutti said his board has no jurisdiction over the parcel unless City Council approves the proposal first.
“It isn’t our land, (City Council) never said (park supporters) could have the land, and we can’t vote on property we don’t own,” he said.
The Board of Parks Commissioners voted unanimously to refer the matter back to committee.
Following the vote, a group of supporters stepped outside the meeting room at Memorial Middle School and were joined by Ward 3 City Councilor Joel Kaddy.
Resident Bob Pooler told Kaddy that the park should be built at 116 Day St. because the parcel of land was once owned by Benjamin Snow Jr, the former Vice President of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society who, before his death in 1892, hosted prominent abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd-Garrison at his home.
Kaddy, a former police officer, said he wants the park to succeed, but said 116 Day St., a lot set back between two residential buildings, is not the right location partially because it is difficult for police to see the area clearly.
David Thibault-Munoz, an instructor at Mount Wachusett Community College, said 43 of his students developed the park proposal over the past year, disagreed, saying the park would be well-lit and visible from the street.
Kaddy proposed selling the land “to someone who wants it” and giving the proceeds to park supporters.
In a sentiment echoed by parks commissioners Ricciutti and James McGrath after the meeting, Kaddy said the proceeds could be used to create a memorial to Benjamin Snow Jr at Green Street Park, which in July was renamed and rededicated the Joanne “Mama” Fitz Memorial Park, after the late African-American community leader who died in 2016.
Thibault-Munoz said the Joanne Mama Fitz Memorial Park has its own purpose, and the group will “exhaust all options” to make 116 Day St. property the city’s only memorial park of its kind.
“This specifically would be the only monument to the abolitionist movement,” he said.
The vote of the Board of Parks Commissioners on Thursday comes after it continued a July hearing on the matter, which itself had been referred to the Parks Commission by the City Council Property Subcommittee.
Plans for the park include four parking spaces, benches, and a memorial wall that will feature narratives about the lives of abolitionists with ties to the city.
After speaking outside the meeting room, supporters of re-entered and Thibault-Munoz requested the chance to public comment.
“Let them speak, but we’re not going to be able to act on that, you understand that,” said commission member Dave Madigan.
Thibault-Munoz pointed out that updated plans include four parking spaces, which he said would generate $1,920 a year if the city rented to spots to the abutting landlord, which would pass the cost on to renters.
Donna Bonora, a paraprofessional at Fitchburg High School, said maintaining the park would provide an opportunity for her students to fulfill community service requirements.
“I work with a great diversity of students, and I think that they deserve to learn more about this history first hand,” she said. “This is an area of town where a lot of these kids live, so it hits close to home for them, it gives them something to be proud about, it gives them something to put themselves into.”
Lisa Williams, of Leominster, spoke in support of the park. She said she raised her children in Fitchburg because she wanted them to grow up in a diverse city.
“By having that park you’re showing that people of color in this city that we do embrace diversity,” she said. “It’s a great part of history that I can’t imagine someone would want to pave over and make into a parking lot.”
The lone dissenting voice was Tony Pennetti, the landlord who is seeking the parcel to create off-street parking for tenants.
During snow bans those tenants must park at the Intermodal, he said, adding after the meeting he spent the past 9 years waiting to buy the vacant lot and would be amenable to placing a plaque or other marker at the site.
Families will not put down roots in the neighborhood without off-street parking, he said, noting the case of one tenant he said told him she plans to move away because she “can’t do another winter walking back and forth” from the intermodal and home.
“It’s what’s best for the neighborhood, we’ve got Green Street park one block away, is a park really what’s best for that neighborhood or is it parking?” he said. “Off street parking, I believe, is the best thing for that dense neighborhood.”
Following the meeting, parks commissioner James McGrath said “we have so many parks now that we can’t even maintain ourselves.”
The Parks Department has two full-time employees and 44 public parks, according to Recreation Director Nathan LaRose.
When McGrath was asked whether the creation of the Friends of Fitchburg Abolitionist Park group, which Thibault-Munoz said has 40 members and who have pledged to volunteer time or money to park maintenance, addressed his concerns, he said: “it helped their case.”