East Boston may fear becoming the next Seaport District, but here’s why I’m hopeful it won’t: Some of the city’s most expansive waterfront parks are planned for the Eastie side of the harbor.
This matters because it means luxury buildings won’t completely wall off the waterfront. It means that Eastie has a shot at remaining a waterfront for all, not one for only those who can afford it.
The latest open space proposal comes from the Trustees of Reservations, which is bidding to rehab a dilapidated pier owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority.
The vision: Turn the 3.6-acre site into a lush park that juts out into the water.
The conservation nonprofit has been scouting out parcels for a few years and has declared it wants to create a “jaw-dropping” park on Boston Harbor.
Piers Park III — as the site is known — could be that place. It sits between two open spaces, Piers Park I and Piers Park II, which is already in the planning stages. Taken together, the parks form a critical mass of close to 15 acres with stunning views of the downtown Boston skyline.
The Trustees offered the lone bid for the Piers Park III lease, and Massport is expected to make a decision by fall.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Trustees president Barbara Erickson.“We’re hopeful that we will be chosen.”
What makes the organization a compelling candidate is that it will privately raise $20 million to $40 million to create the park. The Trustees have a wealth of donors and already own and manage about 27,000 acres of beaches, forests, and open space in Massachusetts, including Crane Beach in Ipswich and World’s End in Hingham.
Erickson said there’s “high interest” among her funders to support a new park on the harbor.
“It’s universal. Whether you live in East Boston or not, the fact we are adding open space on the harbor is a win-win,” she said.
The site comes with complications — namely, it can be expensive to build on a condemned pier. Massport wants the Trustees to do more engineering homework before moving forward.
But if the nonprofit can pull it off, Massport understands the potential of transforming this stretch of waterfront from pretty good to spectacular.
“We’re very optimistic about this,” said Massport chief Tom Glynn. “When you put this all together, it’s almost 15 acres of park on the waterfront. That’s unbelievable in this day and age.”
Looking back, the Seaport didn’t have much of a chance to be a waterfront for all. It was a neighborhood made up of parking lots; the developers had the upper hand. They built glassy towers for white-shoe law firms and condos for millionaires. Even Massport, which owns a big chunk of land in the Seaport, signed off on a lot of development.
Eastie is different. It has been a real neighborhood for generations, home first to immigrants from Italy and then from Central America. Today, the proximity to downtown is drawing an influx of an affluent young crowd to new high-end developments.
Residents have voices, and they haven’t been afraid to speak up about what they want.
“These are people who value open space, and they fought for it,” said Chris Cook, environmental chief for the City of Boston. “The residents themselves have really partnered with the city and other agencies to create these spaces.”
Piers Park I and II, for example, rose out of neighborhood mitigation related to expansion at Logan Airport. For more than two decades, the original Piers Park has been an oasis on the Eastie waterfront, with a playground, gazebos, and plenty of grass to picnic on.
Piers Park II will be a more active space — think a soccer field and a basketball court, among other features. The Trustees hope Piers Park III will also be active and allow people to get down to the water. (Think a kayak launch.) Ideally, both parks will be designed together so that they feel like one seamless space.
Eastie is also benefiting from an urgency to protect coastlines from rising sea levels, and the new Piers parks will be built with resiliency in mind.
For residents like Mary Berninger — who is president of the East Boston Project Advisory Committee, the community group empowered to work with Massport on open space — the fun part begins. Now they can come up with a wish list.
“It’s an exciting time to build a park,” said Berninger.
The other day, I had a chance to walk the East Boston waterfront with Alex DeFronzo, executive director of the Piers Park Sailing Center, a community sailing program whose office is in a trailer that sits at the intersection of all three Piers Park parcels.
He led me down a concrete walkway next to crumbling piers, and as we stood at the water’s edge, the potential was undeniable.
“If this was a park,” said DeFronzo, “it would be the most incredible park in Boston.”
Indeed. If it got built, Eastie could have a waterfront that Southie would envy.