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Northeastern to turn city park into athletics complex

A deal that Northeastern struck with Boston calls for the school  to fix up a public park, building a football-baseball field plus a second field that can be enclosed with a bubble during winter.
A deal that Northeastern struck with Boston calls for the school to fix up a public park, building a football-baseball field plus a second field that can be enclosed with a bubble during winter.(NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY/STANTEC INC.)

Northeastern University will spend $26 million to transform a rundown city-owned park into a state-of-the-art intramural athletics complex that the school will share with the public and youth sports leagues.

The William E. Carter Playground, near the Southwest Corridor along Columbus Avenue, is currently a popular spot where Northeastern students and nearby residents toss frisbees, play tennis, or just hang out on nice days. But the tennis courts there are aging and the main field is patchy, often filling with puddles when it rains.

Under a 30-year shared-use deal Northeastern negotiated with City Hall, the school will fix the public park’s drainage and irrigation problems, build a combined football and baseball field with artificial turf, add a second turf field that can be enclosed with a bubble during winter, plant dozens of trees, erect new lighting, and construct a new playground — all in exchange for the city granting Northeastern groups preferential access to the fields during certain periods.

“I am deeply grateful to Northeastern for this generous contribution and their partnership with our City,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “The transformed Carter Playground will open up new opportunities for Boston’s young people and for the future of the neighborhood.”

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Work is scheduled to begin in spring 2016 and last about one year, during which time the entire park would be closed. The city will help the Pop Warner football teams and other groups that use the park find alternate venues during the construction.

The playground has seen better days. It often fills with puddles when the weather is rainy.
The playground has seen better days. It often fills with puddles when the weather is rainy.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

The city will retain ownership of the park, and the Parks Department will continue to manage permitting for groups that want to reserve time on the fields and tennis courts. A department spokesman said all of the youth sports leagues that use the park now would retain their current time slots in the new park.

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Northeastern’s various intramural clubs will get priority over outside groups during certain times in return for the school renovating and maintaining the park.

“It was very important to the city that it remain a public park, but we were going to make a substantial investment and maintain it, so there had to be a fiduciary reason for us to want to do it,” said Kathy Spiegelman, a Northeastern vice president who helped to negotiate the pact with the city.

“It’s a good agreement for everyone.”

Spiegelman noted that Northeastern was increasing the park’s capacity by adding a second field, and explained there was little overlap between the times Northeastern groups typically need the facilities and when outside leagues want access. It would be unusual for all of the park to be booked at the same time, she said, leaving it generally available for impromptu activities.

“We’re going to be very sensitive and make sure it’s clear that the public is invited,” she said.

After 30 years, the agreement would automatically renew every 10 years unless the city or Northe

astern pulls out.

Northeastern plans to add more than one acre of abutting land it owns to the project, enlarging the park by nearly 25 percent. Northeastern will retain ownership of that parcel, currently a university parking lot along the Orange Line tracks that may require some environmental cleanup work.

“It’s not often that we’re able to increase the acreage of our parkland, because Boston is so densely populated,” said Ryan Woods, a spokesman for the city Parks Department. “This is going to offer the community a better space that’s more accessible and lets more activity take place.”

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Northeastern called the project as a benefit to neighborhood little league baseball and youth football groups that will use the new fields.

The project also helps Northeastern, effectively giving it a new athletic facility and allowing the university to continue its consolidation along the Columbus Avenue corridor between Massachusetts Avenue and the Ruggles Orange Line stop, which has quickly become a second “main drag” for the campus, in addition to Huntington Avenue.

Northeastern has built heavily in the Columbus Avenue area, constructing the towering International Village dormitory and the school’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, which is scheduled to open in 2016.

Spiegelman and Woods each said the plan for the playground was well received by neighbors during preliminary community meetings.

Stairs on the bleachers were crumbling, and a sign indicated they were built in 1924.
Stairs on the bleachers were crumbling, and a sign indicated they were built in 1924.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

A similar proposal by Simmons College, which wants to build a $5 million complex at the state-owned Daly Field in Brighton and share it with high school sports teams and residents, has drawn intense protests from environmental groups.

Spiegelman said that she had followed the Simmons case, but insisted the Northeastern project is different.

“The Carter Playground, it’s a really deteriorated, underutilized piece of open space that the city has not been able to keep up and maintain,” Spiegelman said.

“The reality is municipalities don’t have the resources in our time to be able to take care of recreational space the way that private organizations can.”

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The deal represents a softening of the relationship between Northeastern and the Walsh administration, which had grown tense over the tax-exempt nonprofit university’s refusal to pay the full amount the city had requested in voluntary payments known as “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT. The money is meant to cover the cost of municipal services used by Northeastern.

 Northeastern’s intramural clubs would get priority over outside groups at certain times, in return for the school renovating and maintaining the public park.
Northeastern’s intramural clubs would get priority over outside groups at certain times, in return for the school renovating and maintaining the public park.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com.