Opinion

Renée Loth

Reclaiming an island gem in Boston Harbor

Peddocks Island has new camping yurts that are available to the public for overnight stays.
Globe Staff/File
Peddocks Island has new camping yurts that are available to the public for overnight stays.

ON A MAP, Peddocks Island looks a little like the cartoon Tweety Bird. There’s the big head, where the Harbor Islands ferry docks; a long, skinny neck, where some 20 seasonal fishing shacks still lease their land from the state; and the bulbous tail, where marshes and drumlins form an unspoiled wildlife refuge. At 210 acres it’s the second-largest in the Harbor Islands National Park network, a short hop across Hull Gut or a 45-minute ferry ride from Boston. It’s got historic war ruins like the popular George’s Island, and the bucolic, blackberry-tangled trails of Spectacle Island. Even a dense fog on a recent visit could not obscure the appeal of this watery gem. Why, then, don’t more than a few thousand people visit Peddocks each year?

A group of designers, planners, and harbor advocates is ready to tackle that mystery. On Monday the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and the National Park Service, which share ownership of Peddocks, are expected to announce the selection of consultants to help plan an ambitious redevelopment of the island. Picture weddings in the simple white chapel, corporate events in the spacious visitors’ center, maybe even concerts or plays in a woodsy amphitheater carved out of the ruined foundation of a World War II barracks. The imagination can run as wild as the rambling roses here, because potential is what Peddocks has in spades. “We are kicking it off with a bevy of rich, exciting ideas that can make the case for a long-term development plan,” said Jack Murray, a vice president with Boston Harbor Now, which has joined the two government agencies to shepherd the nine-month planning process.

The work of reclaiming Peddocks from decades of neglect has already started. In 2006 the state ran a sewer line and electricity to the island. Working with the Mass. Historical Commission, DCR conducted an inventory of the century-old structures remaining from Fort Andrews, decommissioned in 1947 — barracks and officers’ quarters, a gymnasium, bakery, stables — determining which could be preserved and which were beyond repair. Interpretive panels explain the history of those that remain. The wooden military chapel, built during World War II, was lovingly restored. Trails have been cleared, and the painstaking work of removing invasive Norway maples and reviving an orchard of Roxbury Russets — the oldest apple cultivar in the country — has begun. A half-dozen charming yurts were erected, with bunkbeds to sleep six and outdoor grills, renting for $55 a night. More are coming soon.

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The team chosen to make the case that Peddocks can be Boston’s next signature public space has ample experience. The firm HR&A Advisors managed and programmed the wildly popular Lawn on D next to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Weston & Sampson designed a master plan for the Harborwalk in East Boston. One Architecture & Urbanism specializes in resiliency and is working on the Climate Ready Boston neighborhood plans. Kyle Zick Landscape Architecture is producing a management plan for Boston’s Emerald Necklace parks. But their charge also is daunting: to convince a hospitality or recreation company to take a big risk on developing a seasonal business half a mile out to sea.

There was a time in the not so distant past when the 34 Harbor islands were more closely integrated into the life of the city; home to hospitals, residences, and farms. Even harsh wartime truths — some 2,000 Italian prisoners of war were once housed on Peddocks — are part of the fabric of Boston’s history. Susan Kane, district islands manager for DCR, thinks that close connection will return, as the region’s supercharged real estate market, its clogged roads, even the new Everett casino, with its anticipated ferry service, are helping to catalyze interest in the islands. “It’s a gift that we have these islands and that the city is so close,” she said as we left the enshrouded shore. Now to show that this gift can be useful as well as beautiful.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.