How does a city renovate, and use wisely, a landmark facility in a landmark park?

White Stadium in Franklin Park. Robin Lubbock/WBUR photo

In the late 19th century, Boston’s largest open space was renamed Franklin Park, after a “founding father” who advanced science by flying a kite in Philadelphia. If Benjamin Franklin can be credited with inspiring the park’s spring festival, the name change was, above all, a ploy to help fund the public treasure by tapping his estate.

Over the next two centuries, the mission of the 485-acre “country park” designed by Frederick Law Olmsted would evolve, with some active uses fed by streams of revenue, as with the conversion of a sheep meadow into a golf course. And, just as its namesake found a way to harness electrical current, city officials would seek more outside cashflows, whether private or philanthropic.

For the construction of White Stadium in 1945 to serve Boston Public Schools (BPS) athletic programs, the city turned to a charity, the George Robert White Fund. Established by White’s will in 1919, the fund supports capital projects that “would create works of public utility and beauty for the use and enjoyment” of Boston’s inhabitants.

In 2013, when the stadium managed by the BPS was in serious disrepair, John Fish, the head of Suffolk Construction Co., one of Boston’s leading contractors, proposed raising $45 million for renovations. These would have transformed the complex into a year-round venue, with new facilities for sports and tutoring, leased by the White Fund to a new outside manager. Fish even committed $5 million of his own money.

Less than two years later, the city had a new mayor, Marty Walsh, and Fish had a new mission as a lead organizer with the group making plans to host the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston. Plans called for some of the events to be held in Franklin Park, interrupting some of its regular uses, but leaving behind improvements. By this point, according to the Walsh administration, Fish’s earlier plan for the stadium had been “put on hold,” because of “rising costs.”

In 2018, three years after the Olympic bid had been terminated, Walsh found another source of funding to improve the park: $28 million from sale of the city’s Winthrop Square garage for redevelopment. An “action plan” for the park was completed in 2022, winning applause in the community, but also meeting pushback for proposed traffic changes. Though the plan called for improvements at White Stadium, it did not specify new uses or identify new partners.

By the time the plan had been formulated, Walsh had been succeeded by Kim Janey and then the current mayor, Michelle Wu. In April of last year, she invited proposals to “renovate, rebuild, and reimagine” White Stadium through a public-private partnership.

That led to the proposal by the Boston Unity Soccer Partners (BUSP), announced later in 2023 with backing from Wu, to use the modernized stadium with expanded capacity – to 11,000 seats – for women’s professional soccer games, in addition to BPS sports and other events. Under partnership with the city, BUSP would commit $50 million for the project and maintain the facility in perpetuity, with Wu committing another $50 million.

White Stadium rendering_0_1.png

With the BUSP proposal still under review by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), the mayor is faced with concerns from surrounding neighborhoods over transportation plans for 20 soccer games a year and the effect on resident parking. Concerns are also being raised about access to the stadium area for BPS sports programs that would have to be relocated—despite the possibility of some new or expanded access for the schools.

By early April, city officials had to contend with one more proposal for a professional soccer venue – to serve the New England Revolution. Though located in Everett, the facility would increase traffic flow across the Mystic River around Sullivan Square in Charlestown. A measure in the Legislature to enable the project was swiftly opposed by officials in Boston, including Wu, who objected that the plan was drawn up and announced without their input.

For staunch advocates of Franklin Park, the White Stadium plan represents a new dilemma.

After decades of neglect and disinvestment, they find themselves considering new possibilities and resources, as well as new demands on surrounding neighborhoods and student populations. At the same time, there’s heated ongoing debate over plans to expand the Shattuck Hospital, at a former section of the park, as a center for treating mental illness and addiction.

According to Christine Poff, a longtime advocate and current staff member for the Franklin Park Coalition, hopes for progress started to rise about ten years ago. Under Wu, she sees an opportunity to address a disparity between the south side of the park – including the William J. Devine Golf Course and the Franklin Park Zoo – and the north side, including the Playstead, the Overlook (a possible site for a revived Elma Lewis Playhouse), the abandoned bear dens, and White Stadium.

“If we have a cornerstone or a hub, a resource like the stadium that is fixed up and drawing people,” Poff reasoned, “maybe that is a catalyst for that side of the park to become more like the southern part of the park, because that has the golf course and revenue, and this could be the stadium with revenue.”

Also boosting hopes was the mayor’s announcement in January that she wanted to expand the park’s maintenance staff, under a new administrator.

“The city is doing this stuff,” said Poff. “Why wouldn't we work with them? If we could get a stadium fixed up maybe without the professional soccer team, that probably would be better, because the traffic parking is awful for the community. They're working really hard to figure out solutions. We're not going to fall in line a hundred percent behind it unless they really end up with real solutions that the community, the neighbors around the park, are okay with.”

When the White Stadium RFP was announced in 2023, less than three months after BUSP had been organized as a Delaware corporation, a founding member of the coalition and longtime president of the Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association, Louis Elisa, was receptive, if caught off guard.

“I sort of worried that they tried to ram this down the throat of the community – the residents in Jamaica Plain and Dorchester and Mattapan and Roxbury,” he said. “We didn't know this was going on. We didn't even know there was an opportunity to try and raise money, and we didn't know that there was an opportunity to match money; so when the mayor said that she had $50 million to repair White Stadium, we said, ‘Wonderful.’”

But in February of this year, Elisa had joined other community members in a lawsuit with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy to halt the stadium redevelopment. In March, a judge in Suffolk Superior Court ruled against them, finding the project consistent with the goals of the White Fund. The plaintiffs more recently vowed to continue their legal challenge.

p jump IMG_2279.JPG

A Brooklyn native who grew up taking bike rides to Olmsted’s Prospect Park, Elisa (pictured above) had concerns about the traffic and parking for the soccer games, including plans for some of the shuttle buses to reach the stadium from a narrow two-way street. He also argued that the stadium plan and other uses of the park encroach too far on its ability to serve as a healing environmental refuge – from what its illustrious “schoolmaster,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, referred to as the “din and craft of the street.”

A former city councillor and candidate for mayor who would later advocate for development plans as an attorney, Larry DiCara recalls White Stadium from the 1960s, when he was a student at Boston Latin School, the leader of its “Victory Club,” and manager of its football team—in addition to running in track meets.

“When I was there and I was in those locker rooms, it wasn't pretty,” he said, “but it was functional. It worked. It was hot water in the showers. I know that from personal experience, and none of us had cars, so driving wasn't an issue.”

Though DiCara described the transportation needs for professional soccer games at the stadium as “troubling,” he acknowledged that a partnership with BUSP was an opportunity for Wu to make headway where her predecessors had faltered.

“It is tempting,” he said, “no doubt about it, absolutely. And I'm sure that the people behind the soccer team are well intentioned. I wouldn't question any of that stuff. And a part of me thinks the solution is to team up the women with the men and build a stadium at Everett or wherever.”

The proposal for White Stadium also coincides with efforts by Wu to revamp the city’s process for reviewing development proposals. That push has advanced with recent approval for placing the BPDA’s planning component directly under the mayor, and with a zoning code amendment for the “Squares + Streets” program, paving the way for more density in development around main streets and transit service.

Wu has advocated for the reforms as a way to have more proactive planning, engaging a cross-section of residents beyond the more established neighborhood associations, which are more dominated by white property owners. The reforms were also touted as a way to reduce regulatory hurdles for developers—hurdles that also provided leverage for neighborhood groups.

By DiCara’s reckoning, the groups began to hold more sway after Ray Flynn was elected mayor in 1983. But Flynn and his successors would also try to finesse the city’s regulatory process, by rethinking possibilities in development and the nature of community engagement.

Despite having called for reforms in her 2019 plan to “abolish” the BPDA, Wu shares with her predecessors a pursuit of growth. But the post-pandemic Boston of 2024 is different from the Menino heyday before the “Great Recession,” and from the development surge in the pre-pandemic years under Walsh, when projects were buoyed by low interest rates and, compared with 2024, lower construction costs. Unlike her predecessors, Wu has to worry about a slowdown in growth, coupled with a possible increase in the tax burden for residential property owners, threatening added pressure on renters.

“I think Michelle wants to build stuff like every mayor wants to build,” said DiCara. “And I think that she will do everything she can to make deals happen. She probably is the most cerebral mayor we've had since Kevin White. She reads voraciously, she studies things.”

One departure from earlier conflicts over development is the April 9 letter issued by members of the Boston Landmarks Commission, accusing the “City administration” in recent years of a “disregard” for the body’s mandate to vet redevelopment projects with historic character. The first item in the list of grievances was White Stadium, a landmark facility in a landmark park.

Shortly after the letter became public, Wu fired the commission’s executive director and Dorchester resident, Roseanne Foley, whose name does not appear in the letter. The commissioners are appointed by Boston mayors, but their terms can overlap with changes in administration, allowing for more independent oversight, or dissent.

“I cannot imagine any mayor of Boston or – I speak personally – any person who has thought about being mayor of Boston off and on for decades being happy with that at all,” said DiCara. “I mean, she's the mayor. She's the chief executive of the city. She appoints the members of the commission through all of these extensive processes.”

In the case of White Stadium, as with a recently withdrawn proposal for relocating the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science to West Roxbury, constituencies found themselves reacting to a plan, rather than first building consensus. If that conflicts with the mayor’s messaging about development reform, it stops short of a total break with her predecessors, who responded to pushback by either doubling down or backing off.

After concerns raised at meetings on the stadium proposal, the BPDA sent a letter to BUSP on April 19 asking for more details, including plans for transportation and parking. But Elisa added one more concern: Wu’s comment in March that the city’s $50 million funding commitment for White Stadium would be used elsewhere if the partnership with BUSP fails to get approval.

“How dare she threaten us with our own money if we don't have it?” he fumed. “She can't have her way in terms of privatization of a portion of a public park, a state park, a legacy park, then she says, ‘Well, we won't fix the park at all, we'll let the kids go without.’ That, to me, was very annoying.”

DiCara adopted a different perspective. He cited election results to note that voters who cared about preservation tended to support Wu. Based on his days as a city councillor, from 1972 to 1981, he also recalled when relations between neighborhood groups and four-term mayor Kevin H. White were even more strained than they would be under his successors.

“I've never known a situation where a bunch of people out there were not angry at the mayor. It just goes with the territory,” he said. “But, when the crunch comes, every mayor has been re-elected since [James Michael] Curley lost to [John B] Hynes in 1949.”

Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter