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‘To do nothing is not an option:’ In Brookline, controversy grows over future of aging public ice rink

Ice skaters at the Jack Kirrane Skating Rink at Larz Anderson Park.Jonathan Wiggs/GLOBE STAFF FILE

In Brookline, a potential expansion of a beloved — but aging — public ice rink has pitted critics against project proponents over concerns that a larger facility could spoil a gem of a public park.

The bucolic Larz Anderson Park has long been home to the outdoor Jack Kirrane Ice Skating Rink, a draw for generations of skaters and hockey players. But the rink’s decades-old systems are failing and temporary fixes to keep it running are costly.

Now the town is exploring whether to potentially upgrade the existing facility, or a replacement that could build two ice rinks at the site.

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A renovation of the rink could cost between $4.8 million and $7 million, while a project to build two new rinks might range from $47 million to $51 million, according to a 269-page town preliminary feasibility report released earlier this year.

The town is far from a decision on what to do, according to Wendy Sheridan Ames, who led an Ice Rink Task Force that explored the short- and long-term future of the rink.

“There is a need, and proven demand, for a recreational facility in Brookline,” Sheridan Ames said. It would be “a devastating loss for our community to be left with no facility at all. And I think to do nothing is not an option.”

But residents who said they are opposed to the prospect of a larger skating facility at the park are already calling on town officials to put the brakes on any potential expansion.

“The vast majority of people I have spoken to in Brookline are opposed to the proposed project,” said Joslin Murphy, a Town Meeting member. “Like me, they value open space and support preserving the park as an outdoor recreational venue.”

The existing rink was opened in the late 1950s on a hilltop near the corner of Avon and Pond streets, and was named in 2010 for Kirrane, who was a member of the gold medal-winning 1960 US Olympic hockey team.

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But the outdoor rink’s systems have worn out after decades of heavy use — it currently handles more than 15,000 visits each season. Last year, the rink was open from December into March.

In 2019 and 2020, components of the system used to keep ice frozen failed, and the town has had to rely on a short-term fix to keep the rink running.

Much of the debate has focused on a two-rink concept included in the report that calls for replacing the existing rink with a new outdoor one. A two-story support building would be erected along the slope of the hill toward Avon Street, plus more parking would be added.

A second rink would be built in the area currently occupied by town storage buildings close to Avon Street. The total cost of the two-rink concept varies depending on whether the second rink is enclosed from the weather (between $47 million to $51 million) or has an open-air roof ($36 million to $40 million), according to the report.

The source of funds for either project has not yet been identified..

The Brookline Park and Recreation Commission is expected to discuss the task force’s recommendations Dec. 13, according to Devon Fields, Brookline’s assistant town administrator for operations.

The commission voted earlier this month to continue the existing rink’s operations through fiscal year 2024, she said.

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Any future project at the site would require review from town boards and state agencies, including those involved in historic preservation and environmental protection.

Erin Chute Gallentine, the commissioner for Brookline’s Department of Public Works, said the idea behind a larger facility was to help meet the demand for recreational skating and sports programs and offer a longer skating season. It also would give the town the ability to offer more year-round recreational programs.

She said the existing park serves a wide range of uses.

“It’s a park that is intended to serve the community and provide these wonderful, beautiful places of respite, as well. But it is not simply a passive park,” Chute Gallentine said. “It’s a park that needs to, and does serve, different users and interests in the community.”

Critics of the plan already have reached out to Brookline officials. The town’s ice rink study report included about 100 pages of e-mails and letters sent by people weighing in on any renovation or replacement of the Kirrane rink.

Virtually all criticized a larger, year-round facility — many respondents cited concern over costs and anticipated increased traffic.

Mary Dewart, a Brookline Town Meeting member and part of the Brookline/Boston Coalition to Save Larz Anderson Park, said proponents should back off the “misguided project” to build an expanded rink.

“Why construct a brand new open air rink? Fix the treasured, existing rink,” she said.

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.