New look eyed for old park

In some ways Franklin Park is a ruin of itself, roads overgrown with weeds winding through jungle-like wilderness and rocky ruins rising up from the groundcover. Back in the 1880s Frederick Law Olmsted carefully planned how visitors would tour the park on paths and carriage roads. But over the years, things have changed.

In 1890 the golf course was installed; in 1945, White Stadium; in 1954, the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. At some point along the line, track stars from around New England began meeting there and almost every weekend svelt men and women with numbered cards pinned to their tank tops can be seen chugging their way around the park's perimeter. More and more, they pass numerous festivals, sports tourneys, outdoor plays and other events along their route. Yet getting around the park, particularly for those who haven't already explored every nook and cranny of it, isn't so easy.

"The park is really broken up," said one community member at a parks department meeting announcing a draft transportation plan for Franklin last Thursday. "It's hard to know where to go. If you were in a wheelchair, I would not want to be in this park. If you had a baby carriage, it would be difficult in a lot of areas."

Just what paths people take through the park, and how they get there is under scrutiny this year, and the new draft plan proposed to improve entrances, create new bike paths and lanes, and solve a number of auto and pedestrian problems at the historic park.

Like most public projects in the "city of neighborhoods," the final plan will be formed, to a degree anyway, by public opinion, and the money for the changes will have to be asked for, legislated upon and ultimately approved by the governor.

According to Margaret Dyson, director of historic parks, the study was prompted by new development along the parks borders, such as the Olmsted Green development nearby on Morton Street. One way the plan responds to that growth is the proposal to create a new crosswalk across American Legion Highway at Franklin Hill Avenue, along with a new entrance into the park. Desire lines worn into the ground above the park's wall there show many people have already been streaming into the park from that location, a pathway to several new housing units.

Nearly a full third of the neighbors who came to hear the plan last Thursday were representing bicycle groups, DotBike, MassBike, RozzieBike, and so on. They advocated for a bike lane along Circuit Drive, already cited as an option in the plan, and for a separation between bicycle and pedestrian traffic where possible elsewhere in the park.

Dozens of other recommendations were proposed, including creating a hierarchy of paths with different paving surfaces, adding way-finding signs and improving several entrances and gates with historically appropriate materials. Narrowing the driving lanes along Circuit Drive and creating crosswalks at various locations around the park, even possibly reducing the number of lanes on underused streets such as Morton and Seaver streets were also among the ideas.

Several of the organizations in the park were disappointed in the draft plan's lack of attention to managing the park's busiest time - the weekends.

"I don't know how you could do this without addressing the parking issue," said John Linehan, director of the Franklin Park Zoo. "Many weekends this year it was just ugly, parked up and down both sides and it's just going to get worse."

"This is managing access and transportation, special events is a different thing," responded Dyson. Recommendations in the plan would not necessarily be binding, and particularly the larger projects such as road reconstruction would entail a separate community process sometimes involving both state and city agencies, but the plan is meant to guide future work in the park and to help the department address some of the "low-hanging fruit" - less-expensive changes that could help improve the park-going experience.

The full draft plan will soon be available at cityofboston.gov/parks, and several public library branches. Public comment is due by Oct. 31 and can be sent to Howard Stein Hudson, 38 Chauncy St., Boston, MA, 02111 or emailed directly to Joe SanClemente at JS@hsassoc.com.