Pilot program set to build Codman Square playground

A few legal matters are all that remain between neighbors of a vacant lot on Elmhurst Street and the playground they've envisioned there for more than ten years.

"I started when I had no kids," said Paul Malkemes, who lives in the Codman Square neighborhood and works at Boston Project Ministries a few doors down from the lot. "Now, I have three girls and still no park."

A short walk to a neighborhood on the other side of Talbot Ave., and another group of neighbors with park dreams can be found. Paul Darby has been after the city to build a park between Spencer and Whitfield streets for over 30 years.

"It started with [Mayor] Kevin White," said Darby. "I can't go to meetings anymore because I'm sick of talking about it." Darby also started before his kids were born. They're past college age now, at 23, 24 and 28 years old. "Show me that it's going to be done and I'm there."

Thanks to a broader effort from the Trust for Public Land (TPL) called Neighborhood Backyards, both groups might someday realize their dreams. The Elmhurst group has raised over $200,000 for their plan with TPL's help, and when they reach the $250,000 level, which includes the estimated cost of the park's construction and a $50,000 maintenance endowment that would go to the Parks Department, Malkemes said they plan to keep on raising money to cover the Spencer-Whitfield project.

As it stands now, the city's Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) owns both lots. DND and the Parks Department are currently reviewing a proposed memorandum of understanding between DND, Parks and TPL, which would transfer the 27-35 Elmhurst to the Parks Dept. after the park is completed. A small part of the parcel owned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority is complicating the process.

"We're finalizing the agreement. There's still some word-smithing going on, but I'm hoping to get it done this month," said city parks commissioner Antonia Pollak.

The design has already been drawn up, so when the memorandum is signed, the neighbors and TPL will put the construction job out to bid. The job could be completed as early as next spring, said Malkemes.

"We're hoping this can be a model for the city," said Daria Ovide, who manages Neighborhood Backyards for TPL. "Parks are kind of the step-child of land use in the city. They don't increase the tax rolls and they incur costs like maintenance, but they are a public investment that leverages private investment."

Parks can provide a focus for neighborhood groups and, by extension, improve public safety and property values, said Ovide. But increasing those values affects property taxes, and higher taxes have the potential to displace low-income residents.

Originally, the neighborhood considered modeling ownership of the park on the model of a community garden, but insurance rates for liability on playgrounds are prohibitive and coordinating maintenance might have proved difficult. Because the city insures itself and already runs a parks maintenance program, the current arrangement is more sustainable.

Before getting behind the Elmhurst playground idea, the Backyards program analyzed geographic and demographic data from all over the city to discover where parks and playgrounds are truly needed. They looked at density, the proportion of families below the poverty line, and concentrations of children under 18 and people of color.

"We take that info and then draw a radius around each existing park, either one-quarter or one-half mile depending on the park's size," said Ovide. "Places that don't fall into that buffer are places that aren't serviced by parks."

Then the group considers the existing opportunities for new parks, things like available vacant land or small parks that could be expanded. A number of neighborhoods in Dorchester were highlighted in this process, said Ovide, including parts of Bowdoin-Geneva, and the neighborhoods north and south of Franklin Field, between Blue Hill Avenue and Washington Street.

To make a donation or get more information, call TPL at 367-6200 or find the Parks for People New England webpage at tpl.org.