The ongoing efforts to revitalize Charlesgate Park marked a major milestone on Tuesday, June 28, with a public event to commemorate the planting of 15 new community-sponsored trees in “The Grove” area, as well as a recent pledge of more than $150 million in funding from MassDOT (the Massachusetts Department of Transportation) to transform the area along the Charles River and over the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The Charlesgate Alliance, which was launched by neighborhood residents Parker James and Pam Beale in January of 2017 with the goal of reclaiming the “key link” that connects the Kenmore, Back Bay, and Fenway neighborhoods and unite the Charles River Esplanade, the Emerald Necklace and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall into a single-park system, raised funds the new trees.
The tree-plantings also coincides with MassDOT’s recently unveiled 2023-2027 Capital Investment Plan, which proposes making a $156 million investment in rehabilitating two bridges located in Charles River Park and on the Esplanade, respectively, which, according to a press release for the event, “will be the key to unlocking more than 13 acres of public parkland adjacent to the Charles and Muddy rivers. (Work could start on the first bridge as early as 2024, officials said.)
Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, which has been leading multiple stakeholders in the effort to revitalize and fund the proposed new par, described it as “truly a partnership project,” which has included MassDOT and the Department of Conservation and Recreation; the Esplanade Association and other nonprofits; and various state and city elected officials, among other partners. (The Emerald Necklace will also care for the new trees going forward.)
The Charlesgate Park site had in fact once been part of the Emerald Necklace before the construction of the Bowker Overpass and other nearby roadways “broke it into pieces” in the 1950s, she added.
Mauney-Brodek also described MassDOT’s proposed replacement of the two as a “truly green replacement,” which would be augmented by improved pedestrian and bicycle access, as well as by new plantings.
James of the Charlesgate Alliance credited myriad partners for the progress made so far to revitalize the park, including Sen. Will Brownsberger, Rep. Jay Livingstone, and City Councilor Kenzie Bok, as well as other elected officials past and present who weren’t on hand for the event like Rep. John Santiago and former Rep. Byron Rushing.
James also gave credit to the “staffers, too numerous to mention” who have pitched in, especially staff members from Councilor Bok’s office, who, he said, were particularly helpful in coordinating the tree-plating event.
Additionally, James thanked his other colleagues at the Charlesgate Alliance, including Beale and Randall Albright, who wasn’t in attendance, along with Dan and Marie Law Adams of Landing Studio, the landscape architectural firm behind the design for Charlesgate Park, and “without whom none of this would have happened.”
Like many on hand for the event, James credited Margaret Pokorny of the Charlesgate Alliance for spearheading the successful tree-planting efforts in the park.
“The credit belongs to Margaret Pokorny who led the charge to get the trees that have actually changed the microclimate here,” James told this reporter.
The 15 new trees represent seven different species but are mostly yellow birch trees meant “to create another level, and to activate another level of texture” in contrast to the surrounding black locust trees, said Pokorny, who credited a grant from the Red Sox for “kickstarting” this initiative.
Landing Studio’s design for the park also includes spaces for the plating of 150 additional trees in the immediate area, added Pokorny.
Michael Nichols, executive director of the Esplanade Association, said he looks forward to the up to 10 acres of direct riverfront parkland on the Esplanade that the project would create, and which would allow pedestrians to walk between the Esplanade and the other parks as the venerable landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, had once envisioned.
“It’s a really amazing set of benefits that are now possible,” said Nichols.
Likewise, Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, told this reporter she is particularly excited about how the project would result in a “convergence” between the “three-park system” comprising the Charles River Esplanade, the Emerald Necklace and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
Sen. Brownsberger said this work dates back to around 2012 with conversations around eliminating the Bowker Overpass, and while this proposal was ultimately deemed unfeasible due to the impact it would have had on the city, this “conflict” also led to the conversations around Charlesgate Park.
“It took the energy of the Charlesgate Alliance, and Pam and Parker, to bring us to this,” said Sen. Brownsberger. “We’re in it together. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Rep. Livingstone, who pledged to continue to advocate for more investments in Charlesgate Park at the state level, said, “I’m so proud to part of this group….and the trees are the first of many milestones I look forward to celebrating with you.”
Councilor Bok praised the many stakeholders for “pulling in one direction” on a project she described as “a wonderful and exciting thing to see and be a part of.”
Abby Jamiel, who was admittedly unaware of the ongoing work to revitalize Charlesgate Park when she joined Livable Streets Alliance as its Emerald Network Project Manager around three months ago, said, “It’s wonderful to learn the history, and to hear the voices who have been advocating this.”
Jamiel singled out the work of the “truly transformative” work of the Landing Studio for particular praise.
“I really love the big, bold moves,” she said. “This project is helping us reimagine the city.”
Equally impressed was Elliott Laffer, chair of Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, who said that Charlesgate Park is “going to be spectacular, as well as “the best thing you could do without making [the Bowker Overpass] go away.”