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Community members discuss plans for Saugatucket Park and its surrounding area during a community meeting held by the South Kingstown Economic Development Committee Tuesday evening at the Contemporary Theater Company.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The future of South Kingstown’s Saugatucket Park could include a nod to its past by drawing on the park’s original design from the 1930s.

What that future might ultimately look like was the topic of a special gathering hosted by the town’s Economic Development Commission on Tuesday.

For two hours at the Contemporary Theater, which is on the bank of the Saugatucket River and just off Main Street, participants traded ideas back and forth about what they’d like to see for the park and surrounding area.

Several years ago, the EDC worked with the University of Rhode Island’s landscape architecture department to develop a “vision” to present to the Town Council, EDC Chairman Larry Fish said.

“This is the next stage,” Fish said. “What do you, the people in the town, or the property and business owners on Main Street and High Street — how do we want to make it better?”

Parts of the plan include efforts to improve the Saugatucket Park and river as a destination, and to improve water quality and the park’s visibility from downtown, to make the connection between the two stronger.

Local landscape architect Randy Collins, who is donating his services to the cause, said that in 2020 the town’s recreation committee received a grant to improve the park — a $100,000 award.

The work would rebuild the walkway, repair a chain link fence at the top of the riverbank, clear invasive plants along the fence line and replace the nearby basketball court with a new court, and also provide space for pickleball.

Richard Youngken, a historic preservationist, found something “very, very cool” in researching the park’s design during COVID: The original design of the park, produced by the nationally renowned Olmsted Brothers firm.

Olmsted Brothers was run by the two sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of Central Park and “father of American landscape architecture.”

The brothers worked on a 1930 design for Saugatucket Park that Youngken used to illustrate how the park had changed over time, and to show how to return parts of it to its former splendor.

“There’s not much change,” he said. “We have an almost intact Olmsted park.”

It was a big deal for the nationally famous firm to design South Kingstown’s little park, he said. Olmsted Brothers designed the entire park system for Los Angeles and produced master plans for cities all over the country.

“Their portfolio had maybe a thousand projects in it,” he said.

Photos in the Olmsted archive in Boston also show the park being constructed according to this design.

“Part of it was removed but the ghost of it exists now,”  Youngken said.

Collins said the original walking path was in mostly the same location as the current one.

He and Recreation Commission members discussed some changes, such as possibly restoring parts of the path that used to split into a ‘V’ branch at the entrance from High Street.

Another idea is to move the basketball court back slightly from the river bank and use the space to build retaining wall that could be the site of small events, Collins said.

“It’s really just adding on some elements to the rec department’s plans that really enhance and bring back the bones and puts the park as it was originally designed in place,” he said.   

Space also could be carved out for a rain garden to handle water runoff from the basketball court as well.

The workshop also explored how the surrounding watershed could be improved.

Resident Elizabeth Scott, liaison for the Southeastern New England Program Network, explained how the network could work with the town to explore nature-based solutions to reduce runoff and restore riparian, or riverbank, wildlife habitat in the river’s watershed.

“Our mission is to empower communities to achieve healthy watersheds, sustainable financing, long-term climate resilience through management of stormwater and other restoration projects,” she said.  

Upcoming training sessions will allow the town to learn about various tools to address stormwater runoff problems, Scott added. The network would also provide a consultant service to provide expertise on restoring the riverbank habitat, she said.

Fish said the EDC will assemble the ideas and information gathered from Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have a technical committee with all the experts,” he said. “We want to see where it leads.”

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