Broken goal posts frame Daly Field in Brighton. The high school football players disappeared decades ago. Today, filthy Canada geese march up and down the field. There are plenty of run-down properties in the portfolio of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. But Daly Field is right up there in terms of deferred maintenance.
A plan to restore the park is gaining strength in the Legislature. Simmons College, which is starved for playing surfaces for its athletes, would assume financial responsibility for the field. The college is prepared to commit $5 million in capital improvements and $250,000 annually for maintenance. State and local officials from Brighton are rooting loudly for this deal.
In tough fiscal times, it’s common to find private entities managing state parks, pocketing the user fees, and relieving taxpayers of the burden of maintaining the properties. These agreements can be a good deal so long as the public retains full use of the park. But the Daly Field deal is structured differently. Under the bill, Simmons College would receive exclusive use of the fields from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays from March to May and mid-August to November — about a third of the park’s usable hours. The remainder of the time would be reserved for public use — sort of.
This may turn out to be the only way to redeem the underutilized park. But it’s still a lousy precedent. Public agencies, not private colleges, should be accountable for public land. And something else doesn’t feel quite right. The legislation that puts Daly Field in the hands of Simmons College for up to 30 years gained a lot of traction without much discussion in a neighborhood known for its spirited public hearings. There’s usually too much “process” in Boston neighborhoods. This time, there was too little.
Some environmentalists are questioning the plan. “We need to expand recreational opportunities along the Charles River, not privatize them,’’ said Renata von Tscharner of the nonprofit Charles River Conservancy. But the major movers and shakers in Brighton — including state Representative Michael Moran and City Councilor Mark Ciommo — are fully behind the project. All they see is a field that is turning into a dust bowl. And they are determined to restore it for their constituents.
The bill bears the fingerprints of Dan Cuddy, a neighborhood activist involved in everything from youth sports to the board of trade. Cuddy is a passionate supporter of Brighton High athletics, and it kills him that the school’s football players and coaches have been wandering around like mendicants for years. They richly deserve a home field, said Cuddy. That wish would be codified in the bill designating weekday afternoons and Friday nights from mid-August to November for Brighton High’s football team. The Allston-Brighton Little League also gets a nice time slot at Daly Filed.
Certainly these are public uses. But not public in the sense of pick-up softball and soccer games. Or a family tossing around a Frisbee. Those types of unstructured uses — which do take place to some extent now — appear largely restricted in the legislation to Sundays. A disturbing pattern is developing along this stretch of the Charles River. Next to Daly Field is a state-owned skating rink that is under lease to the private Newton Country Day School. Public skating hours, not surprisingly, are quite limited.
The state master plan for the Charles River Basin includes a wistful section on Daly Field. It calls for the installation of new pedestrian signals, a soft path along the water’s edge, full restoration of the tired athletic fields, and clearing of vegetation to allow views of the water. What it doesn’t say is anything about setting aside huge chunks of playing time for favored groups.
The legislation is on the fast track. But Department of Conservation and Recreation commissioner Edward Lambert still promises a “robust’’ examination of the deal and plenty of time for public comment. The bill only authorizes him to strike a deal with Simmons College, he said. It doesn’t require him to do so.
But Lambert is in no position to step in with significant public funds for Daly Field. Not with about $2 billion in outstanding capital needs at the agency and a humble operating budget.
Until those problems are addressed, expect to see more “for sale” signs sprouting up on state parklands.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.