Franklin Park key to plans for Olympics; its boosters weigh impact

White Stadium: Olympics plan envisions re-use as a venue for Equestrian events.

A critical component of the Boston 2024 Olympics plan is the virtual takeover of Dorchester’s 485-acre Franklin Park, which would host all equestrian events and require the construction of a temporary, 60,000-seat venue on the city-owned William J. Devine Golf Course, a reconstructed 10,000-seat White Stadium, the use of the golf course for cross country horseback racing, and the fencing off of parts of the park’s wild areas, including Long Crouch Woods.

“Franklin Park offers varied terrain, water, and exceptional viewing areas. The second oldest public golf course in America, currently in need of reinvestment, will be rebuilt after the Games,” according to one Boston 2024 document. “Franklin Park will also house the Modern Pentathlon in a rebuilt White Stadium, scheduled to be significantly improved in the next two years as the home of BPS football, track and field, and the Boston Scholar Athletes program.

According to documents made public last month, to make the Franklin Park arm of the games work, Boston 2024 intends to “pursue omnibus state legislation to coordinate permitting at the local and state levels” to remove legal red tape around use for the highly protected public land. The contours of that legislation are not yet clear.

In 2013, Suffolk Construction owner and key Boston Olympic bid organizer John Fish partnered with the city of Boston to split the upgrade costs of White Stadium renovations – then estimated to cost $45 million. However, according to city of Boston officials, plans to begin renovations at White Stadium are currently on hold due to budget constraints. “The renovation of White Stadium is on hold due to rising costs for the project,” said Laura Oggeri, a spokesperson for Mayor Martin Walsh, in a statement to the Reporter on Jan. 21. This week, Oggeri confirmed that it remains on hold.

“It is a complex project that would require significant city investment if it moves forward. Plans to renovate the stadium were made under the previous administration,” said Oggeri. The city reviews all projects annually prior to the start of the fiscal year, meaning the city could finally give the stadium renovation project a green light before July 1, 2015. However, the city could also leave the project on hold as it did this year.

“Mayor Walsh recognizes that White Stadium is a vital neighborhood asset and the city is doing due diligence to consider a worthy proposal at the site that meets the need of the community while protecting taxpayer dollars,” Oggeri added.

Said Fish in a statement on Monday: “Once the Menino administration changed to the Walsh administration, the project was put on hold, and it has not yet been reviewed by the new administration.” said Fish, Boston 2024 chairman. He also qualified the necessity of making renovations to the stadium in the near term.

“There was really no correlation between hosting the Olympics and the Boston Scholar Athletes program use of White Stadium,” he said.

Under the 2013 agreement with the Menino administration, the upgraded stadium would be used by the Athletes program, a Fish-funded initiative aimed at giving student athletes in the Boston Public Schools system better access to equipment, training, and facilities.

Competition in dressage and the Modern Pentathlon, which includes horse jumping, fencing, swimming, running, and shooting, would take place in White Stadium under the early planning.

The bid document promises “the renovated White Stadium will offer rejuvenated athletic fields as well as classrooms for tutoring, making it a neighborhood hub” once the games are over, and needed investment in Franklin Park, which will be 139 years old in 2024.

The promise of an updated Franklin Park left in better shape than what faced Olympics organizers is tantalizing for those closest to the public space. Laid out in 1885, the park “was considered so important to our physical and mental health that the city raised its debt limit and borrowed $2 million to build it,” according to a city of Boston web page.

“It could potentially be this big investment in the park. It could be restoration funding, all of these things we have desperately needed,” said Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition, which claims more than 400 members, many of whom are residents of the neighborhoods abutting the park including Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Hyde Park. “But if there’s huge cost overruns for the Olympics anyway, where will there be money for our restoration?” The coalition has yet to weigh in the Olympic plans.

None of the community meetings currently scheduled by the city or Boston 2024 are located near Franklin Park. But coalition members hope to host a forum in or near the park that would feature presentations from Boston 2024 and its opponents and allow members to ask questions. “It might lead to our board taking a position that we support this or don’t,” Poff said, adding that the coalition would not weigh in on the games beyond their Franklin Park component.

Coalition member Mike Carpentier of Grove Hall remains “open-minded but somewhat skeptical” about the plans. “If we come out with a new golf course and a stadium people use, that’s potentially great,” said Carpentier, who has lived in Grove Hall with his wife for six years. “But I’m not sure I’ll get enough information to evaluate what will actually come out of this.”

Blair Campbell, a Grove Hall resident of more than 50 years, said the “commitment to restoration would need to be beyond simply restoring the park to where it’s at before the games start. You’ll be taking the park away for an extended period of time,” he said. “To do that, not only do we have to do restoration, but there’ll be infrastructure around that and it’s going into a relatively low income neighborhood. I don’t think residents would appreciate every resource going into the park and not much to the surrounding community.”

“It will be one of the first times that Franklin Park comes together to weigh in on something,” Poff said. “I think we can come together to figure this out, which could be really exciting.”

Boston will submit its bid for the summer games to the International Olympic Committee in September. The IOC will then have two years to select the 2024 host city. Other cities in the running include Paris, Melbourne, Rome, and Doha, Qatar.

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