If our gleaming new Seaport District lacks a soul, it won’t after Martin’s Park is built.
That’s the new park and playground the city will put out to bid for construction in January, followed by a groundbreaking in the spring. The design calls for a lush acre-size expanse next to the Boston Children’s Museum that will have so many trees, flowering shrubs, and plants that the park will need its own horticulturist.
When it opens in 2018, the playground will feature a set of one-story-high slides with some of the best views of Boston overlooking the Fort Point Channel. Kids can splash around in a water garden, explore a marooned ship, play on logs, or climb rocks. There will even be a performance space and an upgrade to the Harborwalk with new benches facing the water.
The idea for a park next to the Children’s Museum has been two decades in the making, but it has only come together after the most unthinkable of tragedies: the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
The park is named for Martin Richard, who at 8 years old was the youngest victim of the 2013 attack. The project will cost about $13 million , nearly all of it being privately raised. As with their donations to the One Fund Boston that helped Marathon victims, Bostonians have been generous.
The Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation and the Barr Foundation each have given $3 million; Gillette, Fidelity Investments, and Boston money manager Richard Mayo each donated $250,000. John Hancock has provided $150,000, while the Highland Foundation, Jack Connors Family Foundation, the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Foundation, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft each have given $100,000.
Since the bombing, Martin’s parents, Bill and Denise Richard, have poured their energy into the Martin Richard Foundation and this Fort Point project. The Richards are about $3 million short of their fund-raising goal for the park.
They could have gotten behind something far simpler, but they wanted to do something special. Martin’s Park became more than just about honoring their son, but the entire city. And they knew their deep involvement would open doors and wallets.
“Naming it Martin’s Park was way down our list of priorities,” Bill Richard said in an interview Monday after touring the site where the park will be built. “It still makes us uncomfortable having something of this magnitude named after our son.”
But the Richards get it.
“We understand our place and his place in history for better or for worse,” Bill Richard explained. “It’s Martin’s Park . . . It’s Boston’s park. It’s a gift back to Boston for the incredible love and support that our family has received.”
This Dorchester family came to symbolize the innocence lost on Patriots Day 2013. They were spectators on Boylston Street, there to cheer on Marathon runners crossing the finish line in Copley Square when the bombs went off. The blast killed Martin; his 6-year-old sister, Jane, lost a leg; mother Denise lost sight in one eye; and Bill’s hearing was damaged. Their older son, Henry, then 11, witnessed the horror but escaped physical injury.
The Richard family prefers to keep a low profile, even as Hollywood depicts the tragedy on the big screen starring Mark Wahlberg. They’ve avoided red carpet premieres; instead Bill and Denise Richard worry more about how Jane and Henry might handle the new round of attention as the Marathon bombings get dramatized.
“We’ve tried to shield our kids to the best of our abilities,” said Bill Richard. “In this day and age, it’s nearly impossible to protect them from that.”
The Richards don’t grant many interviews, unless it’s related to the mission of their growing $1 million-plus foundation dedicated to promoting education, sports, and community. They insist on looking ahead.
“Once you kind of immerse yourself into a project, you don’t have time to think about the past,” said Bill Richard.
Not long after the bombing, the Richards knew they wanted to pay tribute to Martin, who loved baseball and the outdoors. At first, they thought about naming a ball field after him. But as Jane was recovering from her injuries at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, the family could see out her hospital window the construction of the Thomas M. Menino Park, an inclusive playground designed to accommodate children in wheelchairs.
Even after Jane got out of the hospital, the family returned to the Charlestown park, and what they loved about it is that it seemed like any other playground, an approach that would allow kids with physical disabilities to play along side those without.
Starting about two years ago, the Richards began working with Boston Parks Commissioner Chris Cook to scout potential sites for a new park to honor Martin. One rose to the top of their list quickly, thanks to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who wanted to make good on a campaign promise to Boston Children’s Museum president Carole Charnow.
Charnow introduced herself to Walsh after a mayoral debate in the fall of 2013. If elected, he offered to help the museum any way he could. Charnow didn’t hesitate.
“I have something in mind,” she recalled telling him. “We have a park that really needs leadership at the city level, and I just think the only way it will ever get done is if the mayor takes an interest in it.”
The spot she had in mind was the grassy patch next to the Children’s Museum owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The Fort Point neighborhood had long clamored for the space to be developed into a family park.
When the Richards began their search, Walsh put the museum idea in the mix. The Richards knew the South Boston Waterfront well, back to the days of Anthony’s Pier 4 and Jimmy’s Harborside. But when all the gleaming towers came along, there was one thing missing: a world-class waterfront park.
“Denise and I saw this site, and we didn’t need to look at another one,” said Bill Richard.
Now back to why this park needs so much money, even with the MBTA donating the land. If built as planned, Martin’s Park has the potential to become a popular family destination that could easily attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. The park is being designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh , the same landscape architect behind the much-heralded Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City.
“This is a new era of park design in Boston,” said Cook, the parks commissioner.
New eras aren’t cheap, and the maintenance costs will be higher than your typical city park. The Richards don’t want to siphon resources from other public spaces, so they’re working with Boston insurer John Hancock to set up a nonprofit to pay for maintenance.
The family plans to use nearly half of the money raised for the park for a maintenance fund, which the Barr Foundation is seeding with $2 million.
Bill Richard knows he’s asking a lot and appreciates all the big checks written for Martin’s Park.
“There’s enormous pressure to get it right,” he said.
But in offering up an inspiring vision for public space, the Richards have already succeeded where few have on the South Boston Waterfront.