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Chain link to come tumbling down at North Point Park

For nearly two years North Point Park has stood as a mouth-watering mirage, a $31 million oasis of fields, bike trails, and kayak canals on the Cambridge side of the Charles River that, for some strange reason, remained closed to the public, barricaded by ugly, high construction fencing and hand-painted keep-out signs.

All that will soon change, however. A month from now, walkers, joggers, and bikers alike will be free to roam North Point's stunning 8.5 acres, the largest city park of all the Big Dig's open-space projects, bigger than the much-ballyhooed Rose Kennedy Greenway. Opening day will finally occur in early December, park officials promise.

Whether the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority holds a ribbon-cutting ceremony, or just makes the barricades vanish overnight (the exact opening date hasn't been set yet), North Point Park should be a city jewel for decades to come, many say. It will serve as a vital green link between the Charles River and Boston Harbor and a welcoming front lawn for 10,000 future Cambridge residents in the North Point towers development.

"This park is going to be an amazing addition to Boston and Cambridge," said Renata von Tscharner, founder of the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit group that intends to break ground next spring on a giant skateboard park next to North Point Park. "You're talking about a new waterfront park. It has the Zakim Bridge on one side and the Craigie Bridge, which we hope to illuminate one day, on the other. It will be a great new civic space. It's an amazing location, and people know little about it."

So, what took so long? Where does one begin?

The massive delay in the opening of North Point Park, originally slated to open the summer of 2005, is a big-budget tale of ambitious dreams, construction gaffes, industrial waste, a bankruptcy, and big bureaucracy.

It's also the story of a whole lot of peeling paint.

North Point Park sits just north of the Lechmere viaduct (the MBTA's Green Line bridge) and Monsignor O'Brien Highway, and just south of the Zakim Bridge's on-ramps. It is part of the so-called "lost half mile" of the Charles River, the area between the Museum of Science locks and the Charles River Dam that was home to heavy industry for decades.

North Point was expected to be a complex project from the very start, said Fred Yalouris, director of architecture and urban design for the Turnpike Authority's Central Artery/tunnel project. The park's design was grand, ambitious even, calling for kayaking canals to be carved out of the ground and five pedestrian footbridges to be built linking the tiny islands created by the digging.

The park's soil, though, was found to be "mildly" contaminated, requiring an additional $14 million in environmental remediation.

It was the first of many North Point setbacks, some small, some large. Various issues with the park's utilities and infrastructure popped up unexpectedly. Canada geese ate the first soil-erosion plantings, so new breeds of plantings had be found and installed. A granite art installation sank in the soil, requiring a second foundation to hold it up.

The decision was made to plant grass seed instead of laying down sod, but the seed needed two growing seasons before it was durable enough for foot traffic.

Work done by the general contractor, Jay Cashman Inc., and several subcontractors didn't always meet Yalouris's specifications.

Lawn quality was poor, so the Central Artery project ordered the contractor to reinstall grass in some areas; concrete holes for bridge railings were improperly drilled and had to be redone.

The delays pushed back the park's opening date to the spring of 2006, then to the fall of 2006, then to the spring of 2007. The park would have opened this summer, Yalouris said, were it not for one final headache: the paint on some 2,700 linear feet of galvanized metal railings that was expected to last decades instead began cracking and peeling months after the railings were installed.

The only solution was to rip out the railings and have them sandblasted, rewelded and regalvanized, Yalouris said.

"We had a fairly complicated coating system that was supposed to ensure a much greater longevity of the paint, so that's kind of why we were so finicky. We paid for the extra protection," said Yalouris. "The contractor considered trying to fix it on site. Well, you really can't fix it in the field unless you want to build kind of an enclosure [that] would be very costly, and you have to monitor it . . . so really, we insisted they go back to the shop."

Even that process was fraught with delays. Debate lingered on (and lingers today) about why the paint was peeling: either the paint was defective, or a coat of primer failed, or the railings were improperly welded or designed. Then the subcontractor responsible for the railings, E.C. Hilliard of Franklin, a reputable company that built the White House's driveway gates, went bankrupt.

A number of the redone railings began peeling and had to be sent back again, Yalouris said.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which will maintain North Point Park once it opens, deemed the railings a safety necessity, as the park's edge drops several feet to the water. Without railings, even a partial park opening wasn't possible, said Karl Haglund, DCR's project manager for the New Charles River Basin Parks.

And so North Point sat, closed again this summer and into the fall.

"After having gone through all this hell with the budget aspects, the contaminated soil, the coating failures and stuff like that, it struck me as not the right thing to do to rush the opening of the park when we'd managed to maintain high standards for all our other parks," Yalouris said. "This park was just too good to shortchange. And generally speaking, when I explain this to people, they understand."

With just a couple of sections of new railing left to install, however, the end is near. DCR and Turnpike Authority officials were hammering out details last week to open the park by early next month, even if those railings and minor construction punch list items aren't attended to by then.

Other items envisioned for the park, including pedestrian footbridges linking North Point to Charlestown's Revere Park and Nashua Street Park across the Charles, public bathrooms, and tennis and basketball courts, may take years to come to fruition. But even without those additions, Yalouris said, North Point will be a great recreational space.

East Cambridge resident Mark Jaquith's daughter was 5 years old when ground broke on North Point Park. Erica is now 10, he said.

Finally, they'll get to spend a day in the park together.

"I've kayaked around it. It's a great little view in there - a bunch of islands, trails, fields, gorgeous landscaping and a nice, nice kids playground," he said. "There's almost a little amphitheater spot where you could have a speech. It's just a beautiful place."

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