Franklin Park allies eye benefits from sale of city-owned garage

Franklin Park would benefit from proceeds of the sale of the city-owned Winthrop Square Garage. The Walsh administration has said it will steer an estimated $28 million to care for and upgrade the park. Photo courtesy Franklin Park Coalition

The Boston City Council approved the sale of the former Winthrop Square parking garage in Downtown Crossing to development company Millennium Partners by a vote of 10-3 on April 26. The decision— which must be ratified by the state Legislature—was an important step towards executing the $153 million sale of the city-owned garage that could pump millions of dollars into city parks, including the Boston Common and Dorchester’s Franklin Park, which would see an infusion of an estimated $28 million, according to the Walsh administration.

How, exactly, those funds would be used at Franklin Park is still an open question. Frederick Olmsted, who designed Franklin Park, considered the 527-acre space the “crown jewel” of his Emerald Necklace.

“The areas surrounding the park are some of the poorest in the city,” said Mike Carpentier, the treasurer of the Franklin Park Coalition, which endorsed the Winthrop Square sale. “A lot of people live in apartments, they don’t have backyards, they don’t have green spaces... We are Boston’s back yard for a large proportion of the city.”

its size — the park comprises one-fourth of all parkland in Boston — Franklin Park faces consistent funding challenges. The Winthrop Square funds would likely be used in part to establish an endowment to care for the maintenance of the park.

Before her vote in favor of the Winthrop Square sale, City Councillor Andrea Campbell expressed a frustration — shared by many of her constituents — for relative sparse city funding for recreation in Dorchester and Mattapan.

“At Monday’s hearing, I explained that this has become an equity issue for many [District Four] residents,” Campbell said in remarks before her vote on the council. “The biggest concern I hear from... constituents is that we do not receive what other residents get for their parks, schools, housing, streets, etc. As a result, many more [District Four] residents have expressed support rather than opposition to this… petition.”

According to Carpentier, Franklin Park is often forgotten by tourists and residents alike.

“You would be surprised from talking to people who know their way around Boston who may not even know that Franklin Park exits,” he said.
Boston Parks and Recreation Commissioner Chris Cook said that funding from the garage sale could be used in part to improve public access with more pedestrian entrances, particularly near growing neighborhoods.

“Is there any opportunity to... open up a new entrance near Canterbury street, near Morton street, or near American Legion Highway,” said Cook. “Those emerging neighborhoods in Mattapan that are starting to receive more and more density as the population grows, those folks are going to need access to green space,” he said. “Franklin Park can serve them, but as the park is currently designed, the nearest real entrance for those folks into the park is to go all the way up American Legion Highway and come into the park through the golf course parking lot or go along Circuit Drive.”

Foot traffic isn’t the only accessibility issue to affect the park’s patronage. Unlike Boston Common, Franklin Park lacks proximity to larger transit nodes. Carpentier noted that aside from bus routes, there aren’t many nearby options for visitors without cars.

“As far as mass transit, you have the commuter rail which is not necessarily on everyone’s radar… and the Orange Line is still three-quarter-of a mile [away]. It’s still not close. It’s not like popping out at Park Street or popping out at Boylston,” he said.

But the Winthrop Square investment could also address this problem and in the process hearken back to one of Olmsted’s original visions for the city. New funding could assist in the completion of a Greenway through Dorchester to connect Franklin Park with Moakley Park on Dorchester Bay. Bridging this divide, says Commissioner Cook, is sorely needed.

“We think there is an inherent equity in connecting Franklin Park to the Boston waterfront. It’s amazing when you go through some of the neighborhoods whether it’s Bowdoin/Geneva or Upham’s Corner and you don’t realize how close you are to Boston’s waterfront,” he said.

Though the future of Dorchester’s parklands remains uncertain, a sense of hope infuses plans for redevelopment. Reimaging neighborhood access to urban green space is nothing new, but the potential for an influx of funding may ground dreams of equitable urban planning in reality.

As Commissioner Cook said, “If an idea is really good, it sticks around. He were are 100 years later and we are still talking about it.”