How would you spend $28m to spruce up Boston Common?
Boston Common is overdue for a serious makeover, and the city wants to hear from people about what improvements and changes they would like to see at America’s oldest public park, founded in 1634.
In January, officials announced that $28 million from the sale of the city’s Winthrop Square Garage — site of the Winthrop Center tower, now under construction — would be set aside to repair and renovate the 50-acre park.
The nonprofit group Friends of the Public Garden — which also advocates for the Common — has been working with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department and the design firm Weston & Sampson to develop a master plan for the space, which is expected to take about 18 months.
Of the $28 million, $5 million will be set aside for maintenance, said Ryan Woods, the department’s commissioner.
In addition to upgrading the grounds, including the playing fields, the project provides an opportunity to address infrastructure problems, city officials say, such as drainage systems clogged by tree roots and paths that are too narrow because they were built around trees that have since been removed. “It’s a clean slate to look at these pathways and make them wider for all pedestrians,” Woods said.
One area targeted for help is the Frog Pond, a shallow concrete pool that’s used as a children’s play zone in summer and an ice skating rink in winter. For several years, the city has spent more than $80,000 to rent a chiller because the existing refrigeration system doesn’t keep the ice from melting when the temperature rises above freezing.
The Common hosts more than 500 events every year, from sports to daylong festivals. All that traffic strains the century-old tree roots beneath the surface. To protect the park’s 600 trees, some events may need to be held elsewhere, said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden.
The vulnerable population of old trees includes two that are at the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment, across the street from the State House. They are often said to be the oldest English elms in the Western Hemisphere and may have been planted by John Hancock (1737-1793). Other historic oaks and elms line the pathway adjacent to Beacon Street.
Pressure from foot traffic and vehicles packs down the soil, preventing oxygen and water from reaching treet roots and jeopardizing their supply of nutrients, Vizza said.
And “a big tree does a much better job in supporting climate mitigation than a little tree,” she added.
The city’s last major spending on the Common was in 2015, a $3.5 million plan to improve sidewalks along Boylston and Tremont streets.
“One of the goals of the master plan is to make the Common feel like there’s something for everyone there,” said Cheri Ruane, the project manager. “Whether it’s taking a moment of respite, expressing political views, or ice skating.”
To find out what residents want, the Friends group and Weston & Sampson are bringing a “mini Common” to various neighborhoods as a way to seek feedback. Passersby can pause and offer suggestions as they sit in lawn chairs surrounded by cut-outs of squirrels, frogs, and historic structures at various events and MBTA stops in Roslindale, Roxbury Crossing, Jamaica Plain, and other parts of the city. They’ll be encouraged to write on Post-it notes shaped like leaves that can be affixed to plastic trees and a blown-up map of the park.
City officials say they want people to voice any safety concerns, point out areas of the Common they don’t use, and indicate whether more informational signs are needed.
Vizza also hopes to hear whether there’s a demand for more bathrooms or for a permanent off-leash dog area, which would replace the Friends’ system of rotating the off-leash area, begun in 2013.
For those who are unable to attend a mini Common event, an online survey is available on the Friends’ website.
“When we have a space we love and use all the time, it’s hard to see it in fresh, new ways,” she said.