After decades of decline, years of planning, design, and redesign, a $5 million restoration of Stephens Field is finally underway.
Construction at the waterfront park just south of downtown began in October, and if all goes according to plan, the project will be completed by July 4 of next year.
“It took us longer than we hoped, but we ended up with a bigger, better park,” said Bill Keohan, chair of the Plymouth Community Preservation Committee and long-time advocate for restoration of the park.
The remade Stephens Field will be a blend of old and new. The ballfield and basketball court will remain in place. The field will get a new backstop, bleachers, and fencing, while the basketball court will be resurfaced and get new hoops.
The old snack shack, tennis courts and playground structures are being removed to clear the area closest to the shoreline. A new playground, a concession building with a pavilion and restrooms, three tennis courts, and four pickleball courts will be built further inland. In addition, a concrete apron will be poured near the water’s edge to make it easier to launch small watercraft.
“The weakness of the original plan was that it had too much infrastructure, too close to the water,” said David Gould, director of Plymouth’s Marine and Environmental Affairs Department, who is overseeing the project. “We know that area will flood, several times a year, so it made more sense to pull those things back away from the water.”
Already, during strong storms at high tide, ocean debris regularly washes onto the outskirts of the existing ballfield, even though the barrier strip of Plymouth Beach offers Stephens Field protection from the open sea.
The park entrances off Sandwich and Fremont streets will remain, but will no longer connect, eliminating a problematic cut-through for neighborhood traffic.
The small duck pond, long a muddy morass plagued by erosion, will be dredged and the underground outfall pipe that drains the pond into the harbor will be removed. Water will cascade out of the duck pond over a rocky slope called a riffle, then flow through a small swale to the shoreline. A foot bridge will span the swale for pedestrian access throughout the area.
“I’m glad we are finally getting something done,” said Jerry Sirrico, a town meeting member who also sits on the Stephens Field Planning & Design Committee. The committee was established in 2013 to solicit public input, review, and approve the project’s design. “We’ve been at this for years. We held a lot of public meetings about this, then we’d get bombarded from people because nothing was getting done. So, I am very happy it’s started and I know my father would be elated.”
Jerry’s father, Arthur Sirrico, was parks superintendent in Plymouth from 1956 to 1977.
Informal planning to improve Stephens Field dates to 2009 when Ted Bubbins, town parks superintendent at the time, invited graduate students from the Conway School of Landscape Design to develop a conceptual master plan for the site. “We wanted to get some ideas for what could be done there,” Bubbins recalled. “It was a student project and they really did a great job. We had some public meetings and it helped get things going.”
Formal action began in spring 2013 when Town Meeting created the design committee and appropriated $190,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to pay for the initial design.
Community officials cite various reasons for the project’s slow progress. Environmental testing and remediation was more extensive than expected, they said. Beyond that, the first round of bids for the project came in higher than the estimated $2 million cost for the project, prompting a redesign and request for additional funding. And management of the project shifted among town departments, slowing momentum.
“My sense is that for a long time no one truly ever ‘owned’ the project,” Gould said. “But now it’s time to forget about all that and get the job done.”
The original footprint of Stephens Field has grown with the addition of the former Department of Public Works building that was located off the Sandwich Street entrance. That dilapidated building was demolished and the site was cleared of underground fuel tanks and contaminated soil. It will become the primary parking lot for Stephens Field as the new plan calls for moving parking away from the shoreline. The current parking layout – a rut-filled, unpaved area – created an ugly separation between the ballfield and the tennis courts.
The town also acquired lots on Sandwich Street, where the former County Auto Parts building and Pepsi-Cola bottling plant once stood. That half-acre parcel will be used to create a pedestrian-only access for Stephens Field. It will be landscaped with benches and a walkway into the park. At the request of the Romonow family, which sold the land to the town for $350,000 in 2021, the site will be called the Chet Downie Scenic Overlook, commemorating Downie’s many years running summer programs and the snack bar at Stephens Field.
“When I heard that it would be named after my father, it really hit me,” said his son, Tim Downie. “This one is special, because it came from a family that I don’t even know, but who remembers Chet and all the good things he did for kids in Plymouth.”
Chet, who passed away in 2000, led the Plymouth Boys Club (later the Boys and Girls club) for more than 40 years. He helped bring Babe Ruth baseball to town and was a truant officer for the public schools. “I have no doubt that Stephens Field was his favorite place in town,” Tim said. “Many times, I would catch him down there sitting on the bleachers drinking a coffee all by himself, even in the winter. He just loved that place.”
Diane Harting, a member of the Stephens Field planning committee, lives nearby on Fremont Street. Her daughters, Kara, Jennifer, and Megan participated in youth sports programs at the park. “There is really nothing like watching slow-pitch softball on a warm summer night by the ocean,” Harting said.
Harting said she joined the planning committee because she watched the park decline over the years from a lack of maintenance. During that time, recreational programs were relocated to other town parks.
“It was getting rough around the edges and there was talk of selling some of the land to a developer to build condos,” she said. “There’s no way we wanted to see development. I got involved and it really was a good group. We asked the community to tell us what they wanted at Stephens Field, and they did. Of course, we made some compromises on the plan, mostly because of the cost, but here we are and I hope the community will be pleased.”
(Diane’s husband, Bill Harting, sits on the board of the Plymouth Independent.)
The project was put out to bid in June. R.A.D. Sports Inc. of Rockland was awarded a $3.8 million contract for the bulk of the work, including all the site work, drainage, remaining environmental remediation, and utility infrastructure. O’Brien & Sons of Medway was awarded an $890,606 contract to build the new playground, concession stand, and to install picnic tables, benches and bicycle racks.
The project will be paid for with about $4 million in Community Preservation Act funds and $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
“Just about everyone I talk to has a story about Stephens Field,” Keohan said. “There is a real emotional connection to the park, and now I hope it will be a special place for generations to come.”
Michael Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.
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