If you’re going to build a park along Boston’s jam-packed waterfront, it makes sense to rope in the deep pockets and big names of some of the city’s largest companies.
That was Barbara Erickson’s thinking in 2019 when the then-leader of the Trustees of Reservations assembled a “CEO roundtable” to advise on her group’s waterfront initiatives in Boston. To help with the Trustees’ first project, reviving a crumbling pier off Marginal Street in East Boston, a number of roundtable executives opened their companies’ checkbooks: This week the nonprofit is announcing that it has secured $3.25 million from the likes of Liberty Mutual, State Street, MassMutual, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and Converse.
The money is but a fraction of the estimated $40 million price tag for what’s known as “Piers Park III,” to be built on what’s left of a Massachusetts Port Authority-owned pier. But the blue-chip companies help lend credibility to fund-raising, particularly when it comes to soliciting private foundations.
“When they see these leaders involved, and that they care, they’re going to ensure this is a success, that’s helpful for ... funding decisions,” said Jeff Bellows, vice president of corporate citizenship and public affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield, which donated $250,000.
The nearly two-acre Piers Park III — which would sit alongside the first two phases of Piers Park that will span about 12 acres on the East Boston waterfront facing downtown — has been in the works for more than four years. The plans came about as Erickson and other Trustees leaders widened the nonprofit’s traditional focus on conservation areas in suburban and rural areas to include Boston’s waterfront, with an eye to improving access and climate resiliency. Those missions dovetail nicely with community-service priorities for many of Boston’s biggest corporate players.
As the Trustees and architectural firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates hashed out designs for Piers Park III, the East Boston community was involved at every step. The latest design, shared in public meetings this month, represents a scaling back from previous iterations, to keep expenses and landfill under control. The features will include a salt marsh, a beach, the remnants of an old rail line, a coastal meadow, a fishing pier, and a kayak launch. The park will also act as a buffer from rising seas and excessive storm water.
Erickson will not get to see the concept come to fruition. She died in early 2021 at age 42, due to cancer. Instead, the park should serve as a lasting legacy for her vision, and it will get done in part because she recruited an A-list of corporate bigwigs, led by State Street chief executive Ron O’Hanley, to help make it happen.
“Barbara was the one who said, ‘We need to challenge some of the biggest companies to really step up and put their leadership and gravitas behind it,’” said Joan Christel, president of the State Street Foundation, which kicked in $750,000. “That was her personal appeal to Ron.”
Converse CEO Scott Uzzell wanted to get involved in part because the shoe company benefited from improvements to a different corner of the harbor — Lovejoy Wharf, near the TD Garden — and played a role in revitalizing that stretch when the company moved there in 2015.
“We know that our business, our employees and this community are going to be directly affected by changes to the waterfront,” said Ilana Finley, Converse’s vice president of global communications. “This is really a chance for Scott to play a role in making sure the waterfront stays a vibrant community.”
Corporate subsidies for park projects are unusual, but not unique, in Boston. Martin’s Park on Fort Point Channel, for example, received donations from a few nearby companies such as Gillette and Fidelity. And Liberty Mutual has given $1 million to help build a playground in the Charlestown Navy Yard and committed $600,000 to restore Charlesgate Park near Kenmore Square. As with the $1 million Liberty Mutual promised for Piers Park III, its other donations are intended to increase accessibility by subsidizing paths, ramps, or Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant playground equipment.
“One of the things we’re helping the Trustees do is ensure the park is accessible for all [so] people of all abilities can enjoy Piers Park,” said Melissa MacDonnell, president of the Liberty Mutual Foundation.
The Trustees intend to build more parks along Boston’s waterfront. However, the nonprofit wants to get further along with Piers Park III — which will take 18 months to build and probably won’t start until 2024 — before launching on another project. Another site that the group has eyed is Dry Dock #4, the old pier behind the Leader Bank Pavilion where former mayor Tom Menino once famously proposed a new City Hall. Permitting a park there might be tougher than for Piers Park III, said Trustees waterfront advocate Nick Black, because the city-owned drydock is part of a state-regulated industrial port area, while Piers Park III is not.
But hopefully, Black said, the sort of coalition that helped make Piers Park a reality could be replicated elsewhere, as his organization plants its flag in various key spots along the harbor.
“We’re always interested in having additional conversations about other places, whether it’s the drydock or other spaces around the waterfront where we see the potential for open space access and resiliency,” said Black, who leads the nonprofit’s Boston Waterfront Initiative. “Obviously, we’re learning a lot right now about ... that ability to bring together various partners.”