Since Bostonians first began transforming the Charles River basin from waste-strewn tidelands into a ribbon of blue, with verdant banks and iconic bridges, the river has wanted to be more. In their time, our predecessors succeeded. Yet today it sits idle — beautiful, but boring — waiting for our generation to execute its own bold vision for change.
Bold visions are nice. Yet when they're unrealized, they become just another report on a bookshelf. Rather than unrealized visions, the Charles needs new, unified leadership with the resources, vision, and capacity to help the river reach its potential.
I suggest Massport. (More on that later.)
The Department of Conservation and Recreation is already swamped. Their mission is to oversee 450,000 acres of park land across the state with a budget that is a fraction the size of most of their sister agencies. At one time, the powerful Metropolitan District Commission WAS UP TO THE TASK. But it became a vortex of patronage and corruption and was reformed out of existence. Today, the absence of such a powerful entity is now evident.
The urgency of leadership has to do with a dizzying amount of projects that are all converging at the river's edge. Presently under state review is the Interstate 90 interchange project in Allston. It could have either a massive benefit or severe consequence to both the park and public transit. There is the straightening of Storrow Drive by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary that would restore parkland and eliminate surface parking. There are a handful of other important projects. Then there is the Lee Pool.
The Lee Pool complex was built in 1951, during a period when the banks of the river were pulsing with projects and investment. If there was a heyday for the Esplanade, it was the middle of the 20th century. During that time the parkland doubled in size, Arthur Fiedler conducted concerts in a newly built outdoor concert venue, and slender islands were added to create lagoons for canoeing and skating. It was, as one historian noted, a time when the area finally became what was envisioned at its creation in the 1870s.
With the exception of two boathouses built in the last 20 years, the 1950s were the last time big ideas were brought to fruition along the Charles. Closed since the 1990s, the Lee Pool today sits lifelessly as a storage and maintenance shed.
Now, there's a plan to tear down the pool complex and build an impressive riverfront pavilion. The price is expected to be around $60 million, more than half the department's entire capital budget. Yet other than some preliminary planning and demolition costs, which were secured by the local state representative, the agency has told its stakeholders that the funds will need to be raised externally.
That's a lot of money for a few nonprofit organizations to raise on their own, especially when they don't always see eye to eye. The Esplanade Association, whose new director, Michael Nichols, brings smart ideas from his previous post at the Greenway Conservancy, should seriously consider merging with the Charles River Conservancy, whose own gifted president, Renata von Tscharner, is now retiring. What's needed on the river is more collaboration, not more non-profits.
Public investment might not be what IT ONCE was when the Esplanade was first conceived. But that shouldn’t mean a retreat from public leadership.
And one of the strongest examples of leadership comes from Massport. In response to public investment along the Seaport Massport's Tom Glynn, put it this way: "We're the public agency. We should be trying to stir things up and encourage people."
By every measure, Massport has succeeded. Parks in East Boston and South Boston are meticulously executed and maintained and the airport is "punching above its weight," according to The Wall Street Journal. The agency is self-financed, so not a penny of state funds are used to run it.
Massport hasn't always been so beloved. In the 1960s and '70s the agency's hard-charging director, Ed King, unapologetically moved forward with aggressive expansion and development projects of the airport while offering nothing in return to his East Boston neighbors.
Today, the agency personifies how a modern government bureaucracy can pursue major goals. The number of airlines and direct flights, both domestic and international, are at a high. At the same time, they've taken on the massive task of dredging Boston Harbor, thereby allowing continued growth of commercial shipping activity. All this, while attending to less highbrow community neesd like the creation of a pocket dog park in the surrounding neighborhood.
Great big visions don't just happen because of the ideas alone. It requires spirited leadership unafraid to stir things up. That leadership does exist today. But along the edges of the Charles, the banks are empty.
Mike Ross is an attorney and former Boston city councilor. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.