Dreams of a common on Boston’s waterfront
One of the biggest complaints about the development boom that is reshaping Boston’s waterfront is that it has created too few parks and places for people to hang out.
Now one of the state’s biggest parks organizations is planning to change that.
The Trustees of Reservations are scouting sites in the Seaport, Fort Point, and East Boston for what the organization’s leader hopes will be a “jaw-dropping” park along Boston Harbor. The group has zeroed in on five locations and hired several of the nation’s leading landscape architects to design concepts for public release later this spring. No price tag has been outlined, but a project of this scale would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
The 126-year-old nonprofit group owns about 27,000 acres of beaches, forests, and open space in Massachusetts, including Castle Hill and Crane Beach in Ipswich and World’s End in Hingham. But it doesn’t have a major property in Boston itself, said chief executive Barbara Erickson, where it has focused on small community gardens.
“We’re a great land owner and land manager, but what we lacked is really jaw-dropping landscapes that are publicly accessible in Boston,” Erickson said. “And we realize the Seaport was lacking some iconic spaces.”
About 18 months ago, the trustees began looking at potential sites for a major waterfront park that would provide public access to the harbor and help provide a buffer against rising sea levels.
Erickson would not identify the five locations, concerned that could drive up their acquisition price. But part of a trustees’ presentation obtained by the Globe indicates the group is looking at two locations in East Boston, one along Border Street and another closer to Maverick Square; a site in Fort Point Channel; the shuttered Northern Avenue Bridge; and Dry Dock No. 4, a decommissioned boat-repair pier behind the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion that juts out almost 900 feet into Boston Harbor.
The dry dock is just the type of unused industrial site that many cities have turned into creative public spaces, Erickson said, pointing to two Manhattan examples: the old piers along the Hudson River and the former railroad bed that is now the wildly popular High Line.
“We think the dry dock has the potential to be something magnificent,” Erickson said.
But it’s not easy to create a new park in an old city.
The long abandoned 2.4-acre pier is owned by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which would need to put the property out for public bid to all comers. The bulkheads and supports need repair.
The dry dock also sits in a designated port area, with zoning rules that favor industrial uses, not parks. Neighborhood opposition recently scuttled the state’s proposal to locate a helipad there. Any new use would need considerable study and to fit into a broader plan underway for the Seaport’s industrial park, said Rich McGuinness, deputy director for waterfront planning at the BPDA.
“What are the needs of businesses in the area? How might a park play a role there, if at all?” McGuinness said. “We don’t want to get into these other future uses without taking a serious look.”
Other potential sites contain similar wrinkles. The city is seeking proposals to redesign the old Northern Avenue Bridge, but the timing and funding remain unclear. Major sites along Fort Point Channel and the East Boston waterfront are privately owned, and in East Boston, there are several proposed developments that could affect the trustees’ options there.
Senior officials in the Walsh administration have met with the trustees, but remain noncommittal.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh pointed to the new Imagine Boston 2030 plan, which calls for major new open space along the harbor, and said the city is talking with a range of waterfront groups about different opportunities.
Early plans under Mayor Thomas M. Menino for what was then dubbed Boston’s Innovation District included several sizeable parks in the Seaport. The Lawn on D, for instance, has proved popular, though it has struggled to sustain private funding.
But some larger proposals were gradually whittled down to become smaller plazas alongside office and apartment buildings. Today, there are relatively few open sites left to host a park.
That a respected parks organization wants to help was welcome news to Julie Wormser, vice president for policy at Boston Harbor Now, which has long advocated for more public access to the waterfront.
The trustees group — with an annual budget approaching $30 million and an endowment of $129 million — has the vision and resources to make a big impact, she said.
“There are very few organizations that can pull off a big, wonderful, audacious new park,” Wormser said. “That’s what they’re set up to do, and we’re psyched that they’re getting involved.”
The Barr Foundation, which has lately stepped up its investment in waterfront planning, gave the trustees $1.7 million last year to fund the planning project. With that money, the group has hired several prominent firms, including Boston-based architects Utile Inc.; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which designed New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and new riverfront parks in Pittsburgh and Dallas; and HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm that has crafted financing plans for many large urban parks.
Cities across the country are turning former industrial waterfronts into great public space, said HR&A chairman John Alschuler. Conceived decades ago, the Harborwalk and Christopher Columbus Park in Boston are modest by comparison. But the trustees’ proposal, Alschuler said, is for a much more ambitious space that could be cherished by the whole city.
“This is a once-every-200-years type of opportunity,” he said. “The harbor can be a new Common for Boston, as great and important as Boston Common itself.”
The trick will be paying for it. Erickson said the trustees group is unlikely to pay the entire amount itself or through donations. The organization is considering partnering with developers and nearby landowners to fund the acquisition, building, and long-term maintenance.
“We see the challenges the Greenway is having right now,” said Erickson, referring to state plans to end its $2 million annual subsidy of the downtown park where the Central Artery once stood. “If we can come up with a new model for how we finance parks in this city as well, that would be huge.”
Either way, those who visit or live or work in the fast-changing neighborhoods along Boston Harbor say they’d love to see more open space amid all the new buildings.
Since moving his business, Digital Lumens, to Fort Point five years ago, Tom Pincince has watched the neighboring Seaport District fill in with buildings but few new public spaces. He’s eager to see the trustees pull off this big idea.
“A series of pocket parks where people take their dogs to pee does not reflect the sort of great places we want to have in this city,” Pincince said. “What they’re talking about, that would be fantastic.”