Boston gets an artsy new public space in a former no-man’s land
To get to Boston’s newest park you must either cross a bridge above the massive railyard between South Boston and the South End, or navigate busy Albany Street, where the commuters stack up at onramps to the Southeast Expressway and the bridges quake with rumbling trucks.
Once you make that crossing, you’ll find a ribbon of colors painted on the sidewalk. Follow it, and you’ll wind up in a world of green trees, brown boardwalks, and soaring, swooping, concrete — the underside of that massive highway and its onramps, whirring with traffic.
Look around, and you’ll see brand-new street murals that use all that concrete as a canvas — and soon, its designers hope, people. They’ll be passing through, exercising, eating, or just hanging out in a place that had long been forgotten.
The park is an experiment in creating new public space in a crowded city, and in how to link adjacent neighborhoods that are on the rise, but separated by roads and rails.
The park, which opens this weekend, is part of a push by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to better use some of its surplus property, in this case a former no-man’s land beneath Interstate 93.
The agency spent $8.5 million on improving drainage, parking, and other infrastructure and on installing lights, a dog park, and boardwalks above rocky stormwater basins.
The state also signed a deal with Newton-based National Development — owner of the Ink Block apartment complex across Albany Street — to manage 175 parking spaces, provide 24/7 security, and run events designed to bring the place to life.
As part of that effort, National has recruited street artists from across the country to paint murals on the concrete walls. A grand-opening party is scheduled for Saturday, with fitness classes and other events planned for throughout the fall. Next spring, the programming will be expanded, said National managing partner Ted Tye, to include a craft beer garden, more classes, and maybe even concerts.
“We want to make this into a destination location,” Tye said, pointing to the Lawn on D in South Boston and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway as models. “We think it’ll be one of those hidden gems of the city.”
National also wants to make it a link, connecting a booming stretch of the South End to a key corner of South Boston and Broadway Station on the MBTA’s Red Line — the closest T stop to most of the new apartment buildings going up on Harrison Avenue.
Getting there will still require a hike over the Broadway Bridge, but making the formerly crime-ridden underpass more welcoming, Tye hopes, will encourage more people to make the trip.
“The idea is to create a better connection between South Boston and the South End,” he said. “We want it to be a place people feel comfortable walking through.”
Still, it’s raw, even once you get there. There’s not a lot of grass, just skinny trees tucked into drainage swales. At rush hour on a recent weekday afternoon, there was a constant din from surrounding streets and the roadways above, and every few minutes a commuter train rumbled through on its way to Back Bay Station. Spray paint and hip-hop filled the air as the artists added a little color to the blank concrete.
Drawing people to a place like this takes work, said Bob Uhlig, president of the Boston landscape architecture firm Halvorson Design. Color will help, he said; so will good lighting. Filling the place with popular, consistent programming will go a long way toward making it a destination, much as the Lawn on D has become, he added.
“That really adds another level of vibrancy, having something programmed on a regular basis,” Uhlig said. “You want to get people to come back, repeatedly.”
And, he said, you want the locals to use it. There’s a row of big buildings going up just a block away along Harrison Avenue, which will add thousands of residents to a corner of the city with relatively little park space. This is a chance to create some, even if it’s below a highway.
Tye agreed, pointing out a dog park he expects will prove popular with the half of Ink Block residents who own a dog. It also will provide an interesting place to walk, just outside of the complex’s back doors.
As the developer spoke, a woman in a red dress walked by, pushing a stroller along the ribbon-colored pathway. Her daughter gazed at the concrete overhead, and they headed off toward Fort Point Channel.
“Hopefully,” Tye said, “that’s something we’ll be seeing a lot more of.”