Daly Field is not the jewel of the state’s public park system. It is patchy and weedy. Wan goal posts seem set to keel over. Geese have their way with the place.
The 8.6 acres along the Charles in Brighton are fairly ugly. But not as ugly as the slippery way this public land has been essentially turned over to a private institution. That has been a study in the lameness of laws protecting our shared open spaces.
Under legislation signed into law earlier this month, Simmons College, desperate for playing fields, would take a 20-year lease on Daly Field, with an optional 10-year extension. It would use it weeknights most of the year, and Saturdays if it wants. Brighton High football and local Little Leagues would have first dibs on the park at other times. Others would have informal and much-reduced access outside those hours.
In return, Simmons would spend $5 million-plus beautifying Daly with synthetic playing fields, a running track, and tennis courts
This is one solution to the park’s woes, and it doesn’t look so bad when compared with the plan the cash-strapped state Department of Conservation and Recreation has opted for until now: decades of neglect.
Plenty of people love the idea. Dan Cuddy, a local youth coach, calls the partnership “a blessing” without which “the field will be desolate for another 40 years.” Behind him are local legislators, including Brighton Representative Mike Moran, a childhood buddy.
But others are incensed. Local resident Eva Watson is appalled that a public resource could be “just partitioned away to a private institution.” Behind her are several of the state’s environmental groups, who think the deal is a disaster.
The problem is, only one side has been heard in this process. After failing to slip the Simmons plan quietly through in the budget, Moran, along with freshman Senator Will Brownsberger, filed legislation authorizing the lease very late in the session that ended July 31. They held a public hearing on such short notice that no opponents attended.
Why would they do that, if this were such a clear win-win?
“We have restored this river at tremendous public expense,” said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. “You don’t get this space without a thorough public vetting. No backroom deals.”
In 1972, Article 97 was added to the state constitution to make this kind of thing more difficult, requiring that transfers of public land be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature. But legislation reducing our access to spaces we once owned is still commonplace, leaving us with a once-public skating rink offering blink-and-you-miss-them community hours, or acres of reservation land annexed for a restaurant parking lot.
Article 97 has been gutted because a two-thirds majority is so easy to get. It’s an unspoken rule on Beacon Hill that no lawmaker questions a bill specific to another’s district. You don’t want the other guys interfering in your backyard, so you stay out of theirs.
The problem with this, apart from the irresponsibility part, is that Daly Field is state land, currently open to everybody. What happens there affects people beyond Brighton. Yet approval in the House was unanimous. And you can bet your boots most of those yea-sayers had no clue what they were voting for.
Moran disagrees with critics who say the vote wasn’t open enough: “They probably don’t like the legislative process if they’re saying that.” Brownsberger acknowledges he “was uncomfortable with the lack of fuller process,” though he still believes the lease is great for everybody.
It might be. But this is not just about one park, or one college. It’s about whether we hold public land, especially open space along our gem of a river, to a higher standard of protection.
What the Daly Field deal shows is that, when it comes down to it, we don’t.Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org