Destruction of Pawtucket’s Morley Field ‘a Comedy of Errors’
October 17, 2022
Editor’s note: Providence resident Greg Gerritt recently sent this letter, slightly edited, to the National Park Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
I am writing in regards to Morley Field, a 5-acre park in Pawtucket, R.I. I have written to you previously about this site at 94 Moshassuck St. in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Pawtucket and how I, representing Friends of the Moshassuck, the Rhode Island Rivers Council-recognized watershed organization for the Moshassuck River, which borders the park, and many other members of the community, oppose the selling of Morley Field for use as a parking lot for a warehouse being developed on a neighboring former industrial site.
But I am writing again because while it is likely illegal for the city of Pawtucket to sell the site for a parking lot, the city has both closed the park and made it unfit for play, much to the detriment of the community, despite having never formally applied for permission to any of the bodies that must approve a sale. So I am writing to you to ask your help in getting the park reopened and remediated sooner rather than later, because based on recent actions by the city of Pawtucket, it seems it is hell bent on selling the park and therefore will keep it closed for much longer than necessary in order to continue in its fantasy that the Legislature, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and the National Park Service (NPS) will somehow violate the law and ignore the environmental justice principles that must be centered in 21st-century environmental and community redevelopment work.
This video shows the rubble strewn across the fields as part of the testing program that should not have been done until permission to sell was authorized. It still hasn’t been cleaned up.
Morley Field was designed to be used for baseball and football, and more recently lots of soccer. Created in the 1970s based on a 2-acre gift of land to Pawtucket from William H. Morley and 3 acres purchased and developed with money from the federal Land and Waters Conservation Fund (LWCF), it sits between two roads that dead-end at the Moshassuck River behind a shopping plaza right at the city line between Providence and Pawtucket. It is located in a neighborhood that is industrial, with running factories, converted mills, and abandoned land/derelict buildings adjacent to a low-income neighborhood of mostly triple-deckers primarily inhabited by people of color.
Morley Field is the only park in the neighborhood and the only park within a 10-minute walk for most residents, as well as the only public access to the Moshassuck River as it flows through the entire length of Pawtucket. Unfortunately, it has also been the long-standing policy of the city of Pawtucket to neglect the maintenance of the field, so for several years it has been rather run down, though still widely used. Despite it all, it is still a wonderful place with osprey nesting in the light towers.
In some ways the destruction of the park is a comedy of errors, nearly all of the errors committed by the city of Pawtucket. I guess some of the confusion relates to the fact the park is made up of two parcels.
At several public hearings that I and many folks in the community attended, the city director of planning and the city solicitor stated that they thought there would be no problem selling the land and replacing the park with one on the far side of the Oak Hill neighborhood. The planning director stated she thought DEM and the NPS would have no trouble signing off on the sale and replacement despite the proposed replacement being over the hill and in a neighborhood with much different demographics that already has several parks. But even so, why was there no thought about the idea of waiting until the sale was complete before destroying the park with test pits, especially in light of the requirements for LWCF-funded parcels about the necessity of keeping parks open until permission is granted to do something else?
My guess is that the planning director had no understanding of how the community would react to the sale, nor to how the world has changed in our understanding of environmental injustice, nor our understanding of the importance of parks in low-income neighborhoods, and how that would likely affect any discussion of the usefulness of the land along the Seekonk River as a replacement for a park in Woodlawn. It should be noted that at both of the hearings I attended at least 15 or 20 community members spoke and every single member of the public, including a number of residents of Woodlawn, spoke against the selling off the park.
I contrast the situation in Pawtucket with the situation in Providence, in that in Providence the administration, the planners, and everyone in the community have environmental justice on their radar screen for every kind of development discussion, and that the proposal to close a park like Morley Field in one of the lower-income neighborhoods would be off the table as soon as someone suggested it. Pawtucket seems behind the times. So I am hoping DEM and the NPS remind them that environmental justice is not something to be ignored.
The city solicitor also made a big gaffe early on in the process. It appears, based on his statements to the City Council, that the solicitor and the mortgage insurance company that was hired to look into it, referred to an obsolete state law and did not look at R.I. General Law 45-2-6, which clearly states that parcels of land gifted to a municipality for public recreation or athletic fields may not be sold off. There does seem to be a way to get around this law, which entails the Legislature passing a law allowing the sale. But in this case both the state representative and the state senator for the district oppose the closing of the park, so passage in the General Assembly is a remote possibility.
The solicitor now acknowledges that the law against sale of the gifted parcel is clear, but it appears that the solicitor, the planning director, the mayor, and the City Council still believe that a miracle is likely and they will get permission to sell both parcels, and again demonstrate their desire to disinvest in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
Waiting for the unlikely permission for the city to sell Morley Field is likely to delay the whole project, unless the park-to-parking-lot conversion is written out of the deal. If the park was open, as it should be, the community could afford to wait the process out, but with the park closed, chained, and pretty well destroyed by some preliminary testing done in mistaken anticipation of permission to sell, we now have a neighborhood with no park, and large numbers of people exercising in the dead-end street in front of the park as there is nowhere else to go in the neighborhood.
It is therefore incumbent upon all of us, and especially those with the power and purse to act, to end the uncertainty, remind the city of Pawtucket that it is in violation of the law in the destruction and closing of Morley Field, and to get the park repaired and reopened as soon as possible. Then keep it open by making sure that environmental justice concerns become much more front and center in the analysis of whether communities can dispose of parks funded by the LWCF both generally and in this case.
I thank you for your attention to this matter.
Greg Gerritt is the executive director of the Friends of the Moshassuck.