BBAC Hears Advisory Review for Clarendon St. Playground Improvements

Improvements to the Clarendon St. playground are getting closer to becoming a reality. The Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) heard an advisory review for the proposed changes to the existing play area at 260 Clarendon St. on Feb. 9.

The new playground is being designed by Weston & Sampson, and the proposal was presented to the BBAC  by Project Manager Nathan Frazee and designer Cassie Bethoney from Weston & Sampson. The team said that the community process for this project kicked off early last year.

Frazee said that the playground was originally built in 1979 and has undergone “improvements and changes over the years.”

Bethoney added that “overall, the park is well-loved” and used by hundreds of kids daily in the neighborhood from schools and those who reside in the neighborhood. Improvements were last made in 2008, she said, but the “park needs an upgrade now.”

Currently, the playground includes various types of swings and play structures as well as “really wonderful deciduous shade trees,” Bethoney said, which are planning to be kept. There are two magnolia trees that are in “poor health” on the Commonwealth Avenue side that the team plans on replacing in kind.

Bethoney said that a “very robust community process” has been held regarding these improvements, and the team has heard from those who use the park most regularly about what they would like to see, as well as the Friends of Clarendon Playground group.

She said the goal is to “keep as much tactile and natural elements as possible, keeping with the neighborhood in terms of materials.”

She said that the main entry will remain off of Commonwealth Ave. where it is now, and the service gate that is currently located along Public Alley 24 will be moved “to a more preferable location next to a storage shed for maintenance and emergency access only.”

The proposed project includes several play areas, including an area for sensory play, an area for open play, a structure for kids ages two to five, and a structure for kids ages five to 12.

There will be bucket swings and belt swings as well as a basket swing and a spinner, and the sensory play area will include things like a play hut and “other open-ended play elements,” Bethoney said

The playground flooring will be “resilient rubber surfacing,” in a light tan and green and proposed materials for the playground include natural wood and granite.

The existing fence will remain, but will be cleaned and repainted, and an additional picket will be placed in between existing pickets which “eliminates concern over head entrapment,” Bethoney said.

She also briefly spoke about other plantings for the area, and said that “any planting that goes in along the perimeter” should be “bulletproof” and “kid-friendly.”

Commissioner Jim Berkman said that the steel proposed for some portions of the playground “looked less natural” than some of the other elements, and also asked about lighting.

Frazee said that no lights are proposed for the playground.

“I think your decision not to have lights in there is the right one,” said Commissioner John Christiansen, but did say that access to electricity is something the playground should offer. 

Bethoney said that neighbors had asked for an outlet to be provided, so the new playground will offer that, as well as a water spigot for hooking up a hose. No drinking fountain will be provided, however.

The project team asked the Commission what sorts of details they are looking for when the project comes back before them for a design review vote.

Christiansen said that he would want to know that the neighbors and the schools are happy with the design choices made, and Berkman said he would want to see different options that all parties agreed upon.

Mary Beth Sweeney of the John Winthrop School for Young Children said that children from the school are “consistently using the playground,” and the school has been “closely following this project for over a year now.” She thanked the project team for listening to the ideas of the community when designing the new playground.

Justin Hajj, the Head of Learning Project Elementary School, said that the “plan does keep getting better and better,”  and asked a question relating to the proposed open play area wall along 109 Commonwealth Ave., which is an apartment building that abuts the playground.

Bethoney said that they “initially were hesitant to do anything. We don’t want to affix public property to a private building,” she said, referring to a potential trellis option. “Those are all details we would work out if the trellis was a viable option with the community and with the 109 neighbors.” 

Margaret Pokorny spoke on behalf of the Back Bay Garden Club, saying that the club is extremely happy that all of the tree canopy will be preserved, especially the replacement of the two dead magnolias.”

A parent in the neighborhood, who said she is one of the co-chairs of the playground committee, said she would like to see the open play area be kept “as big as possible,” and “would love it if we could keep that foundation wall as-is.”

Paul Lubin, who said he lives with his wife at 109 Commonwealth Ave., wanted clarification around the use of balls in the open play area, as currently, there are “all different types of balls that are hitting the building,” which he said can be heard from inside. He said that he and others work from home and this is a distraction.

“All of the screens on that side of the building might have been destroyed on my level,” he said.

Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) said that “I think there are many of us who are concerned about this issue,” adding that some schools restrict the kinds of balls that they bring to the playground.

“I think we need to talk to the parents,” she said, and that NABB “needs to do some work here to get this resolved.”

The BBAC did not vote on this proposal on Feb. 9, as it was just an advisory review. The project team will come back before the BBAC with a more final version of the proposal for a vote once they are ready to do so.

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