One community meeting closer to Olmsted Park restoration

Boston Parks and Recreation Department (BPRD) held a community meeting on May 10 to hear ideas for improvements that park-goers have about Olmsted Park, and to collect feedback about which of three potential options might be the best allocation of the $575,000 restoration budget.

With a low turnout of just eight residents, there was general ambivalence of priorities; while the park needs investment in many areas, it was unclear to residents if the best option going forward is to invest in infrastructure, controlling invasive species, or new plantings.

The project will rehabilitate the southern portion of the park, which is bounded by Jamaicaway, Perkins Street, Chestnut Street, and Pond Avenue, and ends at the property line that separates Boston-owned and state-owned land, which is roughly continued by Parkwood Terrace.

BPRD’s Director of Historic Parks Margaret Dyson ran the meeting at James Michael Curley House, which was the second of a series of community meetings. The consulting design team is Presley Associates, with Marion Pressley and Gary Claiborne on the project. Barbara Keene is the certified arborist also working on the project. The team inventoried the health and structure of trees and pathways in the park, and presented their findings and recommendations for improvements at the meeting. Because of the limited budget, trees in the park need to be prioritized in order to allocate funds to those needing the most attention. All trees were assessed and assigned a priority rating, and 115 were found to be a top priority tree, which needs care such as pruning and stabilization.

“There is a perception that this park is a natural environment, but this is actually a very designed landscape,” said Dyson. “We are trying to carefully remove the things that are obstructing the health of this place, which is actually a very urban environment. The vegetation requires a level of care here that it wouldn’t really need in the wild.”

A concern for the wildlife in the park is the growth of invasive species, both plants and trees. The design team is prepared to use manual, chemical, and mechanical control methods to manage the invasive species.

For infrastructure, deteriorating stairways in the park were identified as an area that needs attention. Since some stairs are unstable, many park-goers walk around them, causing erosion on the paths. The design team said they would be able to adjust the grading of the paths and add more stairs to make the paths more accessible.

There is a considerable history to the park, as it was established by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1891. The Emerald Necklace Conservancy (ENC) is working in partnership with BPRD on the restoration. ENC is a nonprofit citizen’s advocacy group whose mission is to protect, restore, maintain, and promote the Emerald Necklace Park system, of which Olmsted Park is included. In order to maintain elements of the original park plan, the pathways will remain relatively the same, but updated to be more accessible and safe.

Since there are many potential problem areas to focus on in the park with only so much capital, the design team proposed three options that they asked the group attendees to comment on. Three priorities plans were presented: one to completely control all invasive vegetation; one to control only invasive tree species, but to focus on more plantings; and one to focus more on improving infrastructure like stairways and entrances. All three plans would attempt to spread the resources among all three areas of concern, but with more emphasis on some.

One resident said that the benefit of choosing infrastructure as a priority would be that more people would be able to access the park, and momentum would take off in order to raise the funds to maintain it further. Another resident added that if infrastructure was not done first, the installation and construction may damage any vegetation work done beforehand. On the other hand, it was noted that allowing invasive species to thrive may hamper the vitality of other natural trees, so that may also be a priority. In the argument to support new plantings, it is unclear how long the existing trees may survive, which makes new plantings more of a priority.

“There are many opportunities to make improvements at Olmsted and we heard a range of approaches considered,” said Dyson in an email to the Gazette after the meeting. “We will need to balance all of these. Overall, I think that improved access and improved site vegetation were themes running through all the comments. How many of these improvements we can make within the available funds was a clear question that needs greater detail when we come back for the next meeting.”

Next steps for the project include developing a preferred alternative to present to the community based on the site conditions, public feedback, and the compliance with relevant laws, regulations, and standards. The project will have another community meeting and two reviews, one at the Boston Landmarks Commission and one with Boston Conservation Commission. Decisions should be made in the summer, with work commencing in the fall, pending approvals.

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