Sweeping planned overhaul of the historic Boston Common enters public comment period

Common Ground

Sweeping planned overhaul of the historic Boston Common enters public comment period

The Boston Common looking toward Back Bay. (Sean Sweeney/Unsplash)

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu unveiled last week the new 362-page Boston Common Master Plan, a comprehensive (and many might say long overdue) vision outlining a multifaceted makeover for the 50-acre expanse of open space located in the historic heart of downtown Boston. Dating back to 1634, the Boston Common is considered the oldest public park in the United States and is a sizable link along the Emerald Necklace, a linear sequence of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted that comprises roughly half of Boston’s parkland and links both the Common and the neighboring Public Garden to Franklin Park on the outskirts of the city. The Common—cherished amenity for Beantown residents, magnet for disoriented tourists, and informal backyard for Emerson College students—was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

As noted in a press announcement released by the city, the planning process “incorporated the input of Boston residents and park users to create a roadmap for preservation, maintenance, and public use.” AN last checked in on the ambitious park reimagining project back in September 2020 when the administration of former Mayor Marty Walsh first teased a draft of an early iteration of the Boston Common Master Plan, giving residents a taste of just some of the transformative proposals on tap for the much-anticipated refresh. The effort has been shepherded in the planning stages by officials with the Boston Parks & Recreation Department, the nonprofit park preservation group Friends of the Public Garden, and representatives from local interdisciplinary design and engineering firm Weston & Sampson.

Public engagement activities formally kicked off in June 2019 with an online survey and “Mini Common” pop-up exhibits, followed by a series of in-person and virtual open house sessions. As the city explained, all input from these sessions along with other engagement efforts was “incorporated in the master plan’s vision, guiding principles, goals and objectives, and recommendations.”

A full two years after Bostonians got an early peek at the Boston Common Master Plan, many, if not most, of the core proposed improvements also appear in this new version. These include an enlarged and enhanced Visitor Information Center, athletic areas with improved flexibility and accessibility, the creation of an enclosed dog run, new tree plantings and seating, and numerous changes to the iconic Frog Pond, a large all-seasons water feature that serves as an ice-skating rink in the winter, a splash pad in the summer, and a reflecting pool during the spring and fall. Adjacent to the Frog Pond, the Tadpole Playground would also be expanded and revamped.

map of boston common
Existing Conditions Plan (Weston & Sampson Design Studio)

As noted by the city in last week’s announcement, the top recommendations outlined in the Master Plan include “clarifying park entrances, connecting and upgrading core visitor amenities, enhancing and diversifying programming, establishing park management protocols, and improving support facilities.” It further detailed other recommendations including the addition of an accessible entrance at Shaw 54th Memorial, a bronze relief sculpture first unveiled in 1897; pedestrian enhancements at the Charles Street entrance from the Public Garden; a refresh of the much-used Mayor’s Walk pathway that cuts through the mid-section of the park and links Charles Street with the corner of Park and Tremont; new pilot public restroom locations across the park; and improved activation of the busy Boylston Street plaza and entrance on the Common’s southern edge.

“Boston Common’s gorgeous tree-lined paths and open spaces have hosted so many moments marked in history, from shaping our collective conscience to celebrating our communities,” said Wu in a statement.  “We’re excited to be sharing a plan that honors the Common’s history, reflects the community’s vision, and creates a space that will be more accessible, more resilient, and more inclusive for generations to come.”

The release of the Master Plan kicks off a 45-day comment period in which the public is encouraged to sound off regarding which specific recommendations they believe should receive the highest priority when it comes to the eventual implementation. The public comment period concludes November 30.

“With this Boston Common Master Plan, America’s first public park will have a unified vision for evolving and adapting to meet the needs of Boston’s residents and visitors to our city as well as of the park itself,” said Liz Vizza, President of the Friends of the Public Garden. “Parks need people and people need parks. A shared space like the Boston Common is a critical place for community, civic life, and respite in our city that deserves our continued investment and attention to bring the Plan to life.”

A 19-page executive summary of the Boston Common Master Plan can be viewed here. Not included in the 300-plus pages of the master plan are a rough project timeline or an estimated budget for the project but, as previously noted by AN back in 2020, $28 million in funding has already been secured through the sale of the Winthrop Square Garage in the Financial District. The city-owned garage was demolished in 2017 and a Handel Architects­­–designed skyscraper is currently rising in its place. The so-called Winthrop Center project, marked by early controversy due to the tower’s (since scaled-back) height, is expected to be completed next spring.

An estimate of exactly how much the phased project will cost will be clearer come December when the city sets its capital budget.