During the worst days of the pandemic, the Charles River Esplanade — long a favorite of runners, walkers, and bikers — became an outdoor classroom, meeting space, dining spot, yoga studio, and Sunday chapel.
Today it remains a place where kids can ditch their masks for a little while, picnickers can enjoy a sunset, and walkers can pretend for a time that life is nearly normal.
Good public spaces can be, in a word, transformative. And well-managed public spaces that are supported by public-private partnerships can make often-scarce public dollars go further and do more.
For 20 years, the nonprofit Esplanade Association has teamed up with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to make the 64-acre ribbon of green along the Charles River the kind of place that brings solace to millions of visitors, even during a pandemic. Now it wants to do more, asking for stewardship of a two-acre parcel to create the Esplanade’s first visitors center (including its first public restrooms open year-round), a café, a small events lawn, an outdoor classroom (an official one), a nature play area, and a youth-sized athletic field.
Dubbed Charlesbank Landing by the association, the site is between Teddy Ebersol’s Red Sox Fields and the Alfond Memorial Spray Deck for kids, an area that will soon also host the “Gronk playground.” The acreage was previously the site of the rather down-at-the-heels Lee Pool, leveled by DCR some two years ago.
The Esplanade Association is proposing to create and manage all of this as a gift to the state and its people — a $20 million overall investment, $12 million of it for construction, $2 million for an endowment, and $6 million to cover maintenance costs for the next 30 years. The group has already raised about $8 million of that initial investment from private donors, according to Michael Nichols, executive director.
But to take on the project, it will need a 30-year lease on the DCR land — and that requires legislative approval and the signature of Governor Charlie Baker. A bill, filed by Senator Sal DiDomenico and Representative Jay Livingstone, is currently in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Beacon Hill.
The bill would allow the 30-year lease (plus a possible 10-year extension), after which the site and the pavilion the association plans to build would revert to the state.
“Massachusetts is way behind the rest of the country on public-private partnerships,” Nichols said in an interview, citing the Rose Kennedy Greenway as another in that exceedingly rare group.
“This relieves some of the burden on state tax resources,” he added. “At a time when environmental justice has become more important, every dollar the state doesn’t have to spend here is a dollar that can be put to good use for parks in Lowell or Lawrence or New Bedford.”
The project also serves a much-needed climate resilience purpose in an area that now floods regularly after a heavy rain. A rebuilt riverbank, and plant and tree species that can absorb more moisture, will help control that. And, Nichols explained, the association hopes to manage all routine water run-off from its fields on site.
“We want to treat it, store it, and reuse it,” he explained.
The pavilion itself, he promises, will be state-of-the-art in sustainable energy-efficient design and construction.
The legislation that will make this particular partnership possible is carefully crafted to ensure public access and to safeguard the rights of taxpayers as well. While the property under lease would be offered rent-free, the Esplanade Association would be obligated to spend at least $10 million on “planning, design, construction, refurbishment, repair, and improvements” to the site and agree to other public benefits to assure “no net loss” to the state.
For two decades the Esplanade Association has proved itself a worthy — and generous — partner and a good steward of one of the gems of visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. The Charlesbank Landing project is in keeping with that tradition. State lawmakers should help make it happen.
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