Last Thursday evening The Esplanade Association, presented their vision for a new and improved Esplanade. In the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Lecture Hall, Boston’s social elite, public officials, and a concerned citizenry mingled, responding timidly, yet positively, towards the ideas offered.
The assosiaction is a nonprofit group of volunteers who oversee the Esplanade stretching from Lechmere to the BU Bridge. The presentation was a slick showcase for Esplanade 2020, a study that highlighted possible improvements while creating a vision for the future. Boston Architectural College president Dr. Theodore C. Landsmark served as moderator between the community and a panel of well-informed officials. There was even a twenty minute slideshow, with a professional narration listing the association’s 10 major goals for the Esplanade:
Make the park beautiful, sustainable, and maintainable; rescue key gathering spaces which have deteriorated with time; return Storrow Drive to a true parkway; redevelop the Charles River Dam and the Museum of Science complex; reclaim parkland by rebuilding Storrow Drive and destroying the Bowker Overpass; introduce a “fast lane” to separate walkers and bicyclists; build beautiful, grand entrances to the park; make the park a major arts venue; develop a unified visual identity; and actually get the park the funding and care it needs.
The association spent two years on Esplanade 2020, consulting Boston’s eminent architects, designers, and historians. Esplanade 2020 is a comprehensive report of the park’s current state: where it succeeds, where it fails, and what work must be done to make it truly world-class.
The report pays attention to our own section of the park, the BU Beach. According to the report, the Beach was named when our “campus ran down to the river’s edge before Storrow Drive’s construction in the early 1950s,” today’s BU Beach gets its name from the oceanic roar of highway traffic. Closest to the water wind dirt trails, pounded into the Esplanade’s lawn by walkers, joggers, and bikers; had the original design anticipated this traffic it could have accommodated it, instead these dirt paths get muddy and unnavigable after the smallest shower. And because of the absence of any upkeep, “trees in the BU Beach are generally in poor condition and in need of pruning or, in some cases, replacement.” The asphalt walking path is too small to include both the joggers and high-speed bicyclists who utilize it; the noise from Storrow Drive, right alongside, destroys the tranquility the park promotes.
The Esplanade was once a member of Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the string of parks starting at the Commons, moving south with the Fens, and ending at the Arboretum. The Esplanade provided residents of Back Bay with a sloping lawn bordering the riverside promenade. It was a place for late Nineteenth Century socialites to see and be seen. A modest, single-lane road with crosswalks and low speeds, Storrow Drive cut a tolerable slice through the Esplanade’s lawn, acting almost as a driveway for Bay State brownstones. As the road grew busier it was expanded, slowing encroaching upon the Esplanade.
To restore the Esplanade to pre-overpass conditions, the association suggests that Storrow be scaled back and turned into a modest, low speed, two-lane parkway. They suggest demolishing the Bowker, restoring the parkland that it suffocates. The Esplanade Association’s report is clearly critical of the impact Storrow Drive has had upon the park, yet another example of the increased national criticism of highways as they celebrate centennials and their flaws overshadow their benefits.
The restoration is ambitious enough, but the association is also promoting massive improvements. Sports complexes, landscaped gardens, public art, a Ferris wheel; their imaginations have not yet yielded to reality. Throughout the presentation, their improvements were realized in rich, watercolor paintings by architectural perspectivist Frank Costantino. Sun soaked lawns and happy Bostonians, either strolling or pushing strollers, fill the picturesque, fantasy Esplanade. The well-landscaped gardens and clean, clear water of the Charles River create a sense of heightened reality; the paintings are a reflection of the attitude of the Esplanade Association to their project. Sylvia Salas, executive director of the nonprofit group, noted in her opening remarks that, “the report is not a plan or even a proposal. It’s a vision for what the park could be.” The Esplanade 2020 report is meant, instead, to reflect the appearance of the Esplanade in an ideal world, where funding and construction are not serious obstacles.
The Esplanade Association has met with BU officials to share ideas about building a BU Sailing Pavilion across the highway from the GSU. To my dismay, I learned from association member John Sheilds that during those meetings BU was passive and non-cooperative. If the student body pressured the University to become more engaged in this project and vision, students who start as freshman would see it realized by their senior year. If the University administration is petitioned to engage the Esplanade Association, BU could create a fantastic backyard park for its student body. If students believe in the vision presented, they should have BU privately represent their interests rather than risk their voice being ignored throughout the political process.
I know 2020 sounds like the distant future—but to anyone who plans to stick around BU for graduate school these changes could be realized by the time a master’s dissertation is submitted for review. The Esplanade Association’s vision is ambitious—especially so given their self-imposed eight year deadline. But it’s not an impossible achievement. Political pressure from the greater community could easily push this project through the bureaucracy of Beacon Hill and Government Center. Localized pressure upon Boston University from students could quickly remake the BU Beach into the beautiful, restful place depicted in these watercolor paintings. The effort may be incredible, but the reward will be worth it.