Commentary: City should reclaim historic open space at Franklin Park

Above, the scheduled-to-be-demolished Shattuck Hospital at the western edge of Franklin Park.

In 2008, when I was CEO of the Codman Square Health Center, I was approached by a Codman Square neighborhood group that had spent a decade cleaning up vacant lots. Boston Project Ministries (BPM) had been organizing the neighborhood between Talbot Avenue and Norfolk Street, which ultimately resulted in the organization known as Talbot Norfolk Triangle Neighbors United.

BPM, led then and now by Paul Malkemes, had been worried about the vacant lots full of trash and high grass. He told me the story of how, during the summer of 1998, he and his wife Glenna watched as a neighborhood child left a lot bleeding after falling into a broken house window that had been discarded there.

This incident led to a neighborhood clean-up, and a ten-year process by the neighborhood to assemble the lots and then raise $400,000 to make the properties lots into a park, now known as Elmhurst Park.

It’s a remarkable story, except that in 2008, Mayor Tom Menino and the Boston Parks Department refused to accept the new park despite it being one of very few playgrounds in an area with thousands of children and many low-income families. Bottom line: The Parks Department did not want the responsibility of maintaining the new park.

BPM then approached me as head of the health center to ask that the center take on final responsibility for park upkeep should the community group fail to do so. I signed the agreement, but it was unnecessary.  BPM and Neighbors United have maintained the park, planted trees (they and the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation have planted and maintained over 100 of them in their neighborhood), and have been excellent stewards of the property.

I tell this story because just getting the grass cut in a Boston park, or having a dead tree removed, can be a difficult process today. It wasn’t always so.

The city was the home of America’s greatest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Boston, with its Emerald Necklace, was a preeminent city for parks during its golden era in the late 19th century.  

But things changed, and for decades, Boston has been dismal at ensuring that all its communities have access to premier parks, open spaces, and trees. With the exception of the Olmsted parks, Boston generally does a poor job of keeping up its neighborhood public spaces. They and the city’s overall tree canopy do not seem to have a high priority in how Boston views development and planning.

In fact, housing development often results in the elimination of mature shade trees. In Charlestown, the city is apparently allowing 340 mature shade trees to be cut down for the Bunker Hill Housing redevelopment. By one count, this is 10 percent of all the shade trees in Charlestown.

Other cities, such as Portland, Oregon, require permits to remove trees, and its strict requirements call for replacing trees.

As a result of its poor stewardship of trees, Boston has had its tree canopy reduced to 27 percent from 29 percent over the past 12 years.

Trees are an essential part of global warming mitigation. In addition to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they prevent heat islands from developing in dense urban areas.

Boston’s population has increased by 20 percent (some 100,000 residents) in the past 20 years, yet it seems that every developable parcel in Boston is allocated for commercial or residential development, rather than for open space for the residents of increasingly crowded neighborhoods.

That makes the fight over what will happen to the land occupied by the Shattuck Hospital important. The hospital sits on 13 acres that was once a meadow at the edge of Franklin Park. Boston ceded the land to the Commonwealth in 1949 for use as a public health hospital, but that occupation is coming to a close. In 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced that Shattuck’s hospital functions will be transferred to a hospital building formerly owned by Boston Medical Center in the South End.

The Shattuck building is scheduled to be demolished, but instead of restoring that space to parkland, the state is calling for the property to be turned into housing and social services supported by an array of human service agencies.

The Emerald Necklace Conservancy, in collaboration with Northeastern University, has analyzed potential alternatives for these services, and determined that a nearby 18-acre parcel, the MBTA’s Arborway Yard Bus Facility, is large enough to accommodate both the social service needs and the MBTA’s needs while locating the services across the street from Forest Hills Station.

Unfortunately, this has turned into a street fight between human service advocates and environmental activists. During an April 13 hearing, about half of the speakers, including former Governors Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld, said they felt the Arborway Yards site would be the best location for the supportive housing and services and they were strongly in favor of restoring the land as part of the Franklin Park; the other half spoke in support of the state’s plan.

As a person who has spent my life in human services, I understand and agree that we need more of them. But presenting the case as if those services have to be on parkland is absurd. This is not either/or; it’s both/and.

First off, a decision is not urgent. The hospital won’t be demolished for 2 or 3 years, so there’s plenty of time to plan the space needed for services or find other locations if the bus yard is insufficient.

Secondly, it’s not an economic issue. The state is running such a huge surplus, upwards of $4 billion this year, that Gov. Baker is willing to forgo $900 million in sales tax revenue.

This is a rare opportunity to restore 13 acres to Boston’s parks space in an area that is adjacent to places that desperately need more usable parkland — Mattapan, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Forest Hills.

The MBTA bureaucracy will of course, say that the agency cannot possibly cede land for human services, but they will if Gov. Baker tells it to do so.

He should join his two predecessors who are advocating for restoring Olmsted’s meadow.

In addition, city and state officials and mayoral candidates should weigh in on this issue. Call them today. It would be a nice birthday present to Frederick Law Olmsted, whose 200th will be celebrated on April 26, 2022.

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident. His column appears regularly in the Reporter.

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