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Advocates seek landmark status for Esplanade

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / November 15, 2007

Worried about the state's on-again, off-again proposal to use Esplanade land for a temporary roadway, Boston residents and park advocates are asking the city to designate the Charles River waterfront a landmark, a move that could thwart its use as a road.

On Tuesday, about 800 city residents filed a petition with the Boston Landmarks Commission seeking recognition that could help protect the parkland from being used as a Storrow Drive detour or for any other form of development.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which operates Storrow Drive, has been considering a construction plan that would reroute traffic onto a stretch of the Esplanade during renovations to the Storrow Drive tunnel. Though the department has decided to delay renovations and make only interim repairs, residents have been asking the Boston Preservation Alliance how they can permanently protect the parkland from such projects.

"It's very common for landmark petitions to come forward when there's an imminent threat," said Sarah D. Kelly, executive director of the citywide preservation advocacy group. "I think this made people start to think about the park and its value to the city and region even. People felt strongly that they wanted to do something to try to encourage its long-term preservation."

The Esplanade is within the Charles River Basin, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But that designation would only require federal review if the Storrow project tapped federal funding, which Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Richard Sullivan said is not expected. A detour onto the Esplanade would still need to be reviewed by state environmental regulators to go forward.

City landmark recognition is the highest status a park can receive in Boston, marking its significance both as a local treasure and a regional draw. To qualify, a building or location must have historical, social, cultural, architectural or aesthetic significance appreciated beyond Boston's borders.

Landmark designation would also give the city greater control over the Esplanade's future. Though it would not necessarily prohibit the detour, it would make the option unlikely, officials said.

"It will make any effort to take out all the trees and pave the Esplanade more difficult if it has landmark status," said state Representative Martha M. Walz, a Back Bay Democrat. "But it should get landmark status anyway. I don't think anyone's really noticed over the years that it did not have landmark status, because we treat it with such care."

The Esplanade's roots can be traced to 1892, when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Charlesbank, a park near the current Museum of Science that featured the nation's first outdoor athletic facilities. The parkland was expanded and took shape in the 1930s and for decades has played host to a national television audience and locals celebrating the Fourth of July.

The Boston Common, the Public Garden, the Fens, the Commonwealth Avenue mall, and Franklin Park all won landmark designation over the years, but the Esplanade was never proposed.

"It seems to be a funny oversight," said Linda M. Cox, a cofounder of the Esplanade Association involved in the petition, adding that "everyone is amazed" that it hasn't been considered for landmark status.

The Boston Landmarks Commission is still planning a hearing where residents can assert why the Esplanade should, or should not, be recognized as a landmark, and the commission will decide whether it deserves a review. If so, the commission would undertake a study and outline the parameters for a landmark designation, a process that would probably take at least three to four months.

A landmark designation could feasibly be written to require the state to seek approval for anything beyond grass-mowing and maintenance at the Esplanade. New bandstands, boat houses or playgrounds would need to be in keeping with the historic character of the park. Even the removal of trees or the planting of perennials could be governed by the commission.

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