Beacon Hill parents hatch $1.5m playground plan

By Renata Brito
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2010

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A Beacon Hill parents’ group is seeking to build a $1.5 million privately financed playground near the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, hoping to give a surge of neighborhood youngsters a structured place to play in the popular park.

The group, called the Friends of Esplanade Playspace, says playgrounds along the river are geared toward children under 5, and grade-schoolers need something more suited to their age.

At 10,000 square feet, the new playground will be designed for children ages 5 to 12 and feature rocks for climbing, nets, a jungle gym, swings, and slides. It is slated for the riverside near the Esplanade Cafe, not far from the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge that spans Storrow Drive.

“As my kids get older, they pooh-pooh the idea of going to a baby playground. They want to be climbing trees,’’ said Karen Fabbri, whose children are 5 and 7. “They want to be exploring and climbing nature.’’

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which owns and maintains the Esplanade, has thrown its support behind the project, as has Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The group hopes the playground could be completed next summer.

“It’s an ambitious plan, but we’ve done playgrounds under similar circumstances before,’’ said Joe Orfant, chief of the DCR’s Bureau of Planning and Resource Protection.

Because the property belongs to the state, the Massachusetts Historical Commission will have to approve the plan.

The Beacon Hill Civic Association, an influential neighborhood group, has not taken a position on the playground but will review the proposal at a meeting tonight .

“Overall, it’s an exciting plan,’’ said Colin Zick, who chairs the group’s parks and public spaces committee. “But it’s a state park, and it’s important to preserve all of its uses.’’

Zick recalled past tensions over Lederman Park, a sports field along the river, regarding access and a proposed fence that critics said would spoil the open feel of the park. He said that allowing a group to use public space for a specific use could encourage others to follow suit.

But supporters and state officials say the proposed playground will be open to all. The Playspace group also plans to establish an endowment fund to maintain the playground.

“We want to build a first-class playground and maintain it that way,’’ Orfant said.

Wendy Fox, a spokeswoman for DCR, said the scope of the private effort is striking.

“That’s the only reason it’s happening,’’ she said. “It’s a great partnership and will be a very nice addition.’’

Parents said an influx of families with young children into the area has put playground space at a premium. About 2,700 children live on Beacon Hill and the Back Bay section closest to the Public Garden, the group says, citing census figures. That far surpasses the combined capacity of four playgrounds in the area, and four elementary schools do not have playgrounds.

The playground would be beside a paved path, so parents are discussing whether to put up fences to guard against collisions between children and runners and bikers. But because the park is meant for older children, parents want the area to be more open than traditional playgrounds.

City and state parks are enjoying unusual popularity in recent months, with attendance up sharply this past summer.

In August, the head of the state’s recreation department said the Esplanade, along with Castle Island in South Boston and Pope John Paul II Park in Dorchester, had seen a rush of visitors during the warmer months, presumably because more families were spending vacations at home to save money.

In the same vein, a privately funded playground is welcome news to a budget-crunched state government. At a recent meeting about the plan, state Representative Martha Walz, who represents the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, called the playground “a terrific proposal.’’

“There’s a whole group of children who need a space and equipment that are relevant to their age,’’ she said, “and we don’t have that currently.’’

Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report.