The meandering Miller's River that carved the boundary between Charlestown and Cambridge began to disappear 130 years ago, buried beneath shovelfuls of dirt and the expansion dreams of industrialists.
Now, urban redevelopment has inspired talk of reviving the river in an ambitious restoration project that could be the first of its kind in Massachusetts. Restoring a sliver of the river would provide drainage for a new residential and commercial development and ease flooding in East Cambridge and Somerville, proponents say.
''It's clear to us that if you design cities to make water and land work together the way they would work together in a pristine area, you avoid all kinds of problems with big pipes, and you preserve environmental integrity," said Robert Zimmerman Jr., executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. ''So the question then is: Can you do that in an area that's already been reamed? Our answer is, 'Yes, you can.' "
Long used as a railyard, the site of the former Miller's River is now a forlorn industrial lot strewn with rotted rail ties and piles of dirt. Over the next few years, this no man's land between the Monsignor O'Brien Highway and Interstate 93 ramps will be transformed into a massive planned community called NorthPoint.
To win approvals, the development team will have to construct a sophisticated drainage system, installing pipes below the McGrath-O'Brien Highway. Environmental advocates reviewing the developer's plans began to think it would be easier and possibly cheaper to restore part of the river instead.
The development team, which includes Spaulding & Slye Colliers and Guilford Transportation Industries Inc., which bought the Boston & Maine Railroad, declined to comment on the idea. But at a private meeting last week, participants said, the developers declined to alter plans for the first phase of construction, while leaving the option open for the future.
''They didn't all jump on board and start writing checks," said Zimmerman, who is now drawing up documents seeking bids to probe the costs and feasibility of a river restoration.
At the same time, his nonprofit group and the Conservation Law Foundation are warning that they could delay construction with lawsuits or challenges to state and federal permits to compel the developer and the adjacent landowner to cooperate.
No one can predict what layers of contamination may be found below the old industrial site, and the practical details of restoring the river remain murky. Still, the rare opportunity to revive a slice of nature in a manipulated urban landscape is exciting those involved.
''I'm not aware of any such river that has disappeared and come back to life," said Douglas I. Foy, secretary of the state Office of Commonwealth Development. His office, which supports a ''smart growth" policy, has embraced NorthPoint, a $2 billion-plus project that in the next 15 years would transform the 45-acre industrial site into 2.2 million square feet of offices and labs, 2,700 units of housing, 150,000 square feet of shops, and a large park near both the Green and Orange lines of the MBTA.
Environmental groups across the country have been chasing plans for ''daylighting" rivers and streams, freeing them from culverts and artificial channels and returning them to flow on the surface. Providence spurred an urban renaissance with the restoration of its downtown rivers, which had been covered by blacktop and parking lots. When Gillette Stadium was built in Foxborough for the New England Patriots, the Kraft Group exposed a stretch of the Neponset River that had been buried in underground culverts for a half-century.
But Miller's River is not just covered or diverted. It's nearly gone.
Less than 1,000 feet of the tidal estuary is still visible as a greenish brown and nearly stagnant pool below Interstate 93 near the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. With traffic roaring on the highway ramps overhead, the diminished river is fed largely by highway runoff strewn with debris. Underground, the dregs of a river that once drained 300 to 500 acres of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville struggle through clogged pipes and leak out into storm sewers and city streets.
Beginning in the 1870s, the Boston & Maine Railroad began filling in sections of the river to expand its operations and railyard. By 1923, the river was confined to the area around NorthPoint's current project. By the 1960s, it was history.
Tidelands were filled in the late 1800s to make room for a burgeoning Boston. Today, as the region becomes increasingly developed, runoff has almost nowhere to go, and activists are warning that it is polluting streams and rivers. In April, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a notice that it plans to sue the state Department of Conservation and Recreation for failing to control its parks' and roadways' stormwater.
State officials and environmentalists are also looking to NorthPoint to relieve the area's nagging water woes. The remains of Miller's River seem to be escaping the clogged pipes meant to carry them and finding their way into the streets of Somerville and the basements of East Cambridge. Officials suspect that the added flows are contributing to combined sewer overflows, which send untreated storm water and raw sewage into Boston Harbor. That's why the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission are involved in the talks.
Also at the table is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which owns the sprawling, active railyard behind the NorthPoint site and the massive Big Blue facility that handles train maintenance and repairs. To win state environmental permits to build that structure in the 1990s, the MBTA committed to installing and maintaining a new drainage system. But it never built it, and officials from the state and the US Environmental Protection Agency want to use the old permits as leverage to gain cooperation to resolve new drainage problems.
But the river restoration idea may have emerged too late.
NorthPoint is already doing demolition, and its first phase of construction will include the elaborate drainage system it presented last week to the Cambridge Conservation Commission. A five-acre surface park would collect rainwater in small pools and send it over grassy channels and into pipes below the highway to the Lechmere Canal , near the CambridgeSide Galleria. Although the plan would not restore the river itself, it would be a much more visible storm water system than most. Even Charles River Watershed Association officials, who are pushing for a river restoration, say they admire it.
''It would not be fair to the developer to send them back to square one," Foy said. ''The project itself is a wonderful project and one that we really do want to see move."