Many ideas, no plan for Franklin Park
Olympics seen diverting attention from park’s longstanding needs
Franklin Park recently gained a spotlight as a key proposed venue in Boston’s Olympic bid. But long before the games were a topic of conversation, residents and community groups linked to the park were calling for changes that do not seem to overlap much with the proposals of Boston 2024, the private group behind the Olympic push.
Boston 2024 designated Franklin Park as its first pick to host equestrian events and a decathalon relying on White Stadium and temporary structures on the golf course for a combined total of 70,000 added seats.
Community groups and neighbors with long ties to the park, however, say that their ‘wish list’ for park improvements has always centered on issues of maintenance and management — which are exacerbated by the fact that the park has not has a unified master plan since 1991.
Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition, says that basic maintenance issues such as cracks and potholes in the park’s walking and biking paths have long gone unrepaired.
“The park has suffered from neglect,” she says.
FPC board member Corey Allen cites a few more needed improvements: tree-planting to maintain the wild sections (especially in the wake of this winter’s snow damage), better upkeep of historical landmarks and pathways that are more accessible for people with disabilities.
He says that after people kept abandoning their broken-down cars there in the 1980s and ‘90s, the city erected a series of blockades to prevent drivers from entering. Now, however, those blockades present a problem.
“Certain parts of the park are not accessible for people with walkers and wheelchairs,” he says. “We need to make sure we are ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant.”
When asked if he thinks the city is being cooperative, Allen answers, “To the credit of the Parks Department, I know that nothing good is ever instant. The folks there have been engaged.”
Parks Department spokesperson Ryan Woods emphasized that in recent years the city and private funders have made significant financial investments in Franklin Park. Such projects have included annual renovations to the golf course and overhauls of the park’s three playgrounds (American Legion playground is still under construction). Woods says the city has also begun work on the pathways, starting with a section deemed a priority by community members, and that the city has pledged a new commitment to the woodland areas for future improvements.
“We look forward to investing regularly in this park, as it needs improvements,” he concluded.
No unified plan
Despite some investments, however, park advocates say that the main source of problems is a lack of central planning for the expansive space. Franklin Park does not have a singular “master plan” to coordinate the various city departments and law enforcement entities that lay claim to it.
For instance, an assortment of security entities oversee various parts of Franklin Park: the Boston Park Rangers, three different Boston Police Districts (B-2, B-3 and E-13), the State Police, and the zoo’s security.
“Police themselves often don’t know their jurisdiction when it comes to the park,” Poff says.
She says the management issue has manifested in programming conflicts that cause the park further damage. For instance, the cross-country races held in the park each fall do not really serve the needs of nearby residents.
“They’re not community people,” she says. “And there hasn’t been any arrangement yet where they contribute anything to the park.”
Poff notes that the races take a toll on the park as runners erode paths and often leave trash behind.
The push for a unified park plan dates back to the FPC’s earliest days. Louis Elisa, one of the organization’s founding members, says the conversations on the matter have been long and fruitless.
“They’ve been working on a Master Plan literally for 20 years,” he says, referring to city officials.
Elisa says that at least 15 meetings have occurred about the idea, spanning from the 1990s up to just last year, which he attended on behalf of the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association.
As a result, he says that while the challenges facing the park have been mitigated in some way since the 1980s and 1990s, he still sees the current FPC board fighting a lot of the same battles of old.
“The overall maintenance of the park is pretty shabby,” he concludes.
The last master plan for the park was done in 1991 and has not been formally updated since then. A draft management plan was also created in 2005.
Parks Department spokesperson Ryan Woods told the Banner by email that the city agrees in the need for better coordination.
“Mayor Walsh and the Parks and Recreation Department are interested in working with the community to update that plan,” he says. “We hope to have it funded in a future budget.”
So what about claims that the Olympic bid can get all the relevant parties to the table and force them to develop a solution on a strict deadline? Not everyone is opposed, but people aren’t ready to give their unconditional support, either.
Local residents raised a host of concerns about the games’ long-term legacy at a public meeting at the Franklin Park golf course in early March. Some raised questions about who would maintain the Olympic pool after the games. Laura Oggeri, spokesperson for the Mayor, told the Banner that a permanent pool would only be built if there were plans and funding for ongoing future maintenance, and reiterated that specifics on venue locations will be finalized by the ongoing public process.
Jaime Rodriguez, who lives in Jamaica Plain, walks in the park every day.
“I don’t mind [the bid proposal] as long as the community is involved in the process and all the decision-making,” he says.
However, he adds another key demand: “The park has to be open all the time for the community. I don’t see why they have to close the park to prepare.”
If Boston wins the bid, Boston 2024 officials have said that the golf course could be closed for a month and White Stadium and the surrounding fields could be closed for up to a year to prep for the game.
The FPC has not yet released its official stance on the Olympic proposal, saying key unanswered questions remain about the impact on the park and the games’ long-term legacy. The group mailed out a letter to Boston 2024 earlier this week asking for more concrete answers.
Reverend Jeffrey Brown, who does community outreach for Boston 2024, says he thinks the Olympics propose an opportunity for park improvement.
“I don’t think the desires of community members are out of sync with Boston 2024,” he says.
He says that some of the main takeaways he gathered from the March meeting at Franklin Park were the concerns that neighbors had about the park’s overall condition, the walking paths, and the question of what to do about White Stadium.
One of the pillars of Boston 2024’s proposal for Franklin Park is White Stadium, where they hope to build an additional 10,000 in temporary seating. The group’s bid documents assume that the stadium will be fully upgraded by then, saying “a renovation and expansion is currently planned to return White Stadium to its former glory.”
That assumption is based on a 2013 proposal floated by John Fish, Chairman of Boston2024 and CEO of Suffolk Construction, to upgrade the space for use by his non-profit, Boston Scholar Athletes. The plan was for Suffolk and the city to split the cost of the $45 million project.
That proposal did not go over well with everyone. Elisa says he strongly opposed it.
“The answer from our side as the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association was ‘No thank you,’” he says. “We don’t want any privatization of anything in the park.”
The stadium has several public uses, including fall and spring school sports, summer events such as the Caribbean Carnival’s annual Kiddie Carnival, and offices for the Boston Public Schools athletic department.
Poff recalls the public discussion on the stadium upgrade proposal as “a tough meeting.” Her group never formed an official stance on the proposal because it was still in the discussion phase when the project stalled last year. The Mayor’s office blames rising costs for the project as the reason for the stall and says that the project will be reviewed before the start of the new fiscal year in July just like all city projects.
Poff says an Olympic bid may indeed fast-track upgrades to White Stadium.
“If the Olympics goes through, it sounds like that project is an automatic,” Poff says of the stadium renovations. “But that brings us up short because we didn’t get to go through a process. It may be a great thing, but we don’t know that because [the presentation] was all so conceptual.”
But she adds as a final caution: “We are concerned about Franklin Park being seen as a piece of real estate, rather than a public park.”