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Adrian Walker

Rethinking the Esplanade

OK, time for a quick show of hands, and be honest:

When was the last time you set foot on the Esplanade - not counting the Fourth of July?

If you are like many of your fellow Bostonians, it’s probably been a while. Until recently, I was guilty too.

Turns out there are people who have been very concerned about the future of the Esplanade, and they have quietly been hard at work for a couple of years now formulating plans for the once-great, now not-so-much park. Their refreshingly ambitious ideas amount to a complete rethinking of the place. Among other changes, they want improved horticulture, better amenities, and quite possibly a giant Ferris wheel. We’ll get back to that one.

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They presented their ideas Thursday night to a skeptical but enthusiastic crowd at the Boston Public Library. People packed the Raab Lecture Hall, and it was quickly apparent that there is broad consensus on two points.

One, the Esplanade is a complete mess.

And two, that Storrow Drive is a big part of the problem.

The Esplanade, which opened in 1910, has been going downhill for decades, it turns out. Its decline, once gradual, was greatly accelerated by the encroachment of Storrow Drive, which opened to traffic in 1951. Much of the park is too hard to get to, there isn’t enough to do, and even the parts that were once points of pride, such as the Hatch Shell, are now shells of their former selves. Most jarring: The original wading pond has long been a compost heap.

The Esplanade Association, a nonprofit dedicated to caring for the park, believes that all of this can be remedied, though not without a substantial expenditure of will and dollars. Its leaders presented a slide show that began with examples of great parks around the world, and concluded with a number of big ideas for the Esplanade. It’s called “Esplanade 2020’’, though the sum of its proposals would probably take longer than that to complete.

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Few would dispute the idea that the Esplanade is underused and underloved, or that its maintenance has left a lot to be desired, despite its prime location. Over the years it hasn’t been a priority for the state, which owns it, or for the city, which has no official role in running or maintaining it. This raises the question of who, exactly, will finance the renovations. Rich donors appear to be the main hope.

A big part of the plan involves reclaiming some of the territory that was turned over to Storrow. Certainly, the place was not meant to abut a highway, which is what Storrow Drive has become.

Also, there needs to be more to do on the Esplanade. The Ferris wheel idea, which already has caused some to gasp in horror, is borrowed from London, where a huge, high-tech wheel is a tourist attraction. I don’t know that I like the idea per se, but I like the audacity of it. If you’re going to fix the place, why not transform it?

Some of the things they call for are easy, like improving the signage, so people can find the place, and fixing the area around the cafe. Others are far more ambitious.

But the Esplanade’s biggest need is for someone to really take ownership of it. Much of Boston thinks a park largely identified with wealthy Beacon Hill and Back Bay doesn’t really need civic support, leaving a limited constituency to support it. On the other hand, its location certainly won’t hurt the fundraising drive.

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The night at the BPL was really made for me by an elderly gentleman named Sheldon, who stood up and belted out a charming ditty he had written in praise of the Charles River. He got a big hand from the crowd. A few thousand more fans like him, and the Esplanade might be fine.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.