WESTBROOK – Westbrook’s downtown riverwalk, running along the Presumpscot River behind a number of popular businesses, has been largely deemed a success for the city, so now the thought is, why not extend it?

City officials hosted the first in a series of public meetings Saturday to gauge public interest and opinions on a so-called “Riverwalk North” project, a plan to bring the riverwalk across the river and eventually create a loop.

The path would connect to Bridge Street in the area of One Riverfront Plaza over the new pedestrian bridge, which will be constructed as part of the Bridge Street bridge project starting this winter. The riverwalk would then run along the river on land owned by Sappi Fine Paper, and traverse down to what’s known at the black bridge, connecting the path back across the river.

Some 25 people attended the meeting at St. Hyacinth’s church Saturday, including neighborhood residents and city officials such as Mayor Colleen Hilton, Police Chief Janine Roberts, City Councilor John O’Hara, state Rep. Drew Gattine and others.

City Planner Molly Just, who led the meeting, said the northern portion of the riverwalk was part of the original plan, first outlined in the late 1990s as part of a downtown revitalization study.

“This plan said, ‘You need to do a riverwalk,’” she said. “It will get people out of their houses, get people moving, and spur economic development in the downtown.”

Just said the goal of the extended riverwalk is to give another dimension to downtown Westbrook, and allow residents a further connection to the river with recreation in mind.

If connected on both sides in order to make a continuous loop, the city could utilize the riverwalk to host community events such as 5K runs.

Kylie Mason, a senior landscape architect at Sebago Technics, recently surveyed the area discussed. If and when the extended riverwalk is constructed, a series of power lines hovering over the land would be gone. They are currently used for Sappi’s hydroelectric dams that will be decommissioned, or removed, by 2017.

Discussing her surveying process, Mason described the difficulties of some of the land, including portions of the riverbank that slope steeply toward the water. Other areas, she said, are littered with bamboo and the occasional shopping cart or car tire.

“The best part of this is we’re going to clean up the river edge,” she said. “This opens up opportunities to bring families to the river, for a father to take his son fishing,” she said.

Mason also said a major aspect of the Riverwalk North would be eliminating Brown Street as the main outlet for pedestrian travel, bringing people to a path that would be well lit, with more “safety and visibility.”

Mason asked guests at the meeting to write their comments on a sticky note, which were then stuck to a large map of the property.

One resident asked what the timeline on the project would be, and Mason said that it would depend on the level of public interest and support.

She said a common concern from the immediate abutters is for what this could mean for the back edge of their property, or the idea that the public be invited into their backyards. However, she said, she wants to make sure that any walkway would have signage and buffers for the public to know what is private land.

While Sebago Technics is based in South Portland, Mason said her daughter attends school in Westbrook, and said she has a personal connection to the project.

“We want you to be able to walk out your front door, get onto the riverwalk, and go downtown,” she said. “I believe this is a great opportunity for the community of Westbrook and I was very pleased with the discussion and feedback.”

Following the initial discussion, the group was brought outside by Just and Mason, who led the walk behind Dana Court properties and into the proposed property of the riverwalk.

Peter Burke, a Westbrook resident and member of the Westbrook Recreation and Conservation Commission, said Saturday that creating the riverwalk extension is a “no brainer.”

Burke, who has served on the commission for eight years, lives just past where the loop would connect at the black bridge.

On Wednesday, Mason said feedback attained on Saturday included aesthetic ideas such as lighting, gardens and overlook points. She said many people mentioned a pedestrian connection across the river other than the black bridge, with better access for families with strollers.

“Lighting and safety were important concerns, not just at the Riverwalk North but for the existing riverwalk and in other pedestrian areas within the community,” she said. “Multiple members volunteered to be part of a community outreach group and will be meeting separately to obtain feedback and promote the improvements within the community.”

As the group trudged through a small and wet path Saturday, Mason pointed out a clearing that provided a serene spot for looking out over the river or fishing.

“This is a great spot,” said City Councilor John O’Hara.

Others agreed that the public should see it.

The city has at least two more public meetings planned for discussion on the project, prior to the forming of any official design. The next one is tentatively scheduled for late January or February.

Residents trudge through a wetland near the Presumpscot River Saturday during a site walk for the proposed Riverwalk North project. The project would extend Westbrook’s riverwalk to the northern side of the river, forming a continuous loop. Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton speaks with a resident Saturday in a clearing on the river’s edge. Landscape architect Kylie Mason, left, says such access to spots would be beneficial to residents for recreation.  This survey map of the project depicts the land that could be used for the Riverwalk North project. Most of the land is either owned by the city or Sappi Fine Paper.  

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