If you want a microcosm of the Olympic planning process, a capsule view of what’s good and bad, look at the proposed site for beach volleyball.
Last month, Boston 2024 abandoned its plan to build a stadium on Boston Common and moved a few miles south to Quincy, proposing a temporary stadium in the parking lot beside Squantum Point Park.
At first glance, the idea looked promising. The views are terrific; the lot is underused; the adjacent shoreline needs improvement. A defunct ferry terminal nearby could be reactivated, leaving a sweet Olympic legacy.
But almost immediately after the announcement, social media lit up with concerns about the environment.
Here’s the key issue, according to Ian Cooke, executive director of the Neponset River Watershed Association. Squantum Point Park is a 50-acre former salt marsh that was used as a naval air station in the early 1900s. Once the station was closed in the 1950s, vegetation grew back, stunted and shrubby. The old runways turned into wildflower meadows.
This turns out to be a heavenly habitat for birds — and a kind of avian Match.com for a species called the American Woodcock, which does a complicated mating dance in the meadows, then moves to the shrubs to nest.
The Olympic plan would leave most of the park alone — except for those runways-turned-meadows, which would be filled with practice courts and back-of-the-house operations. At a public hearing in Quincy last week, several people took to the microphone to raise concerns.
To his credit, Boston 2024 architect David Manfredi immediately said that other practice court spots would be explored. In a phone call this week, Manfredi told me there are alternate choices nearby, though it’s hard to say if they’d still be available in 2024.
“To me, that’s the reason to have these meetings,” Manfredi said. “We were always treating this as a preliminary proposal.”
That’s reassuring, in one way — and a little troubling, in another. Did Boston 2024 officials know about the runways when they first proposed the site? And if not — since concerns about the birds haven’t exactly been secret to anyone with a Twitter account — why hadn’t their plans changed in the intervening weeks? Someone at the meeting asked the question succinctly: “How much research and how much diligence did you put in before you announced this plan?”
Manfredi told me Boston 2024 officials were aware that the park, owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, is designated an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern.” And P.J. Foley, a Quincy environmental activist — who has been exploring a separate idea to restore ferry service and connect Squantum Point to the National Park Service — told me Boston 2024 officals contacted him, weeks before their initial announcement, to ask about environmental impact.
“They reached out early, and they reached out specifically for these reasons,” Foley said. “I give them all the credit in the world for that.”
But Foley said they never discussed the runways. And when he went to that public hearing, he agreed: Maybe this plan needs tweaking.
Maybe it will be tweaked. But if Olympic plans don’t change, Cooke isn’t sure what levers environmentalists would have. Some legal reviews might not be triggered, he said, for various technical reasons: the usage would be recreational, the runways aren’t wetlands, the woodcocks aren’t endangered.
“It depends in part on goodwill,” Cooke said, “and how serious the Boston 2024 folks are about minimizing their impact.”
Cooke comes down about where I do on beach volleyball: Take the runways off the table, and the plan still feels workable. Potentially.
Manfredi says the Olympics could leave Squantum Point better than before. Will he get the benefit of the doubt? It comes down to trusting Boston 2024 — on this, and on everything else.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.