Betting the Bank, Will the Esplanade be the New Seaport?

 

by Nancy Gaines, Improper Bostonian

For more than a year, there’s been a faint buzz in town about a big project. So big, like Edna Ferber’s literary landscapes. So big, that—even now, when it’s more a fever dream than a public dialogue—it’s really scary.

This is the notion to move Storrow Drive. Shoving it to the left (or right, if you’re from Newton). Narrowing, greening. All seemingly as plausible as putting the cows back on the Common. Almost as daunting as depressing the Artery, but, hey, that eventually worked.

As we know, crazy schemes like building a seaport district on empty car lots in Southie—or turning a former bathroom in the nation’s oldest public park into a sandwich shop—do come true in Boston, strong but slow. Or they do if you’re tough enough to dream, and push and shove and make a lot of noise.

So why shouldn’t the good citizens of the city move Storrow Drive to make way for another slate of waterfront dining options? The Esplanade Association, a private group of preservationists, are self-described big dreamers and pushy people. They ask why, and say why not?

This assemblage of rich people, fundraisers and volunteers was so appalled with the deteriorating physical and ecological condition of the Esplanade along the Charles River, it formed a group in 2001 to work toward restoring and enhancing it. Over the decade, they raised money for improvements to Esplanade plants, grass, trees and play areas (like the slide Tom Brady seems to love). They also corralled expert local developers, architects and urban designers to come up with a plan for the future. They worked with officials at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which oversees parkland. But mostly on their own, they confected what they consider a feasible blueprint for improving the narrow two-and-a-half-mile shelf along the Charles River. Called Esplanade 2020, the vision (as in both years and eyesight, get it?) that was published and circulated in February last year sees all this occurring within seven years.
“Opportunities like this come along once in a lifetime,” says Anthony Pangaro, a longtime Boston developer now a partner in the Millennium Partners Boston, which will fill the notorious hole in the ground at the old Filene’s. A member of the Esplanade 2020 planning advisory group, Pangaro sees moving sections of Storrow Drive and upgrading the parkland as “relatively simple, although not cheap. Mass. Eye and Ear already is making headway on a five-year plan there. If someone has vision, they get things done.”

And the document he helped create is nothing if not visionary.

Adds Fritz Casselman, vice chair of the Esplanade Association, “This is not a tomorrow thing, but it’s not a decade away either.”

The striking document has more than a hundred pages laced with colorful drawings, schematics and photos to show what could occur on the 103-year-old treasured cityscape. “But let me be clear,” says the chair of the association’s board of directors, Margo Newman, “these ideas are meant to be illustrative and thought-provoking, not definitive, let’s-build-it-just-like-this plans. The concepts have not been approved by any controlling agency.” Reclamation of the parkland under Storrow would raise the question of redirecting traffic. The plan’s tinkerers don’t cite specifics but say, for instance, “any rethinking of Storrow Drive should begin with the goal of protecting nearby residential streets and businesses by rerouting traffic onto other thoroughfares, most notably the Massachusetts Turnpike.”

Esplanade 2020 also calls for shifting lanes on Storrow Drive and removing elevated ramps. A new roadway tunnel would connect the Esplanade with the Public Garden and Back Bay.

The grand rethinking foresees new waterside walks, eateries, terraces, river swimming from a floating barge, and a restored pool and bathhouse. A whimsical Music Bosque—a “shady grove in the informal style of a French urban park like the Jardin des Tuileries”—would sit within a plaza with a rebuilt café and picnic areas, described in the plan as having “moveable tables, benches and chairs like those seen in New York’s Bryant Park,” plus a “new concept” year-round café.

Parks as in Paris, New York, San Francisco and London (yes, the Eye!) all make an appearance. In fact, Esplanade 2020 calls for no less than four new eateries, a restaurant and terrace near the Museum of Science, a kiosk that serves gelato near Community Boating, a “cozy café,” and a “concept café” (dare we think Tavern on the Green in its heyday?) replacing the pitiable Café Esplanade snack bar at the end of the Fiedler Bridge ramp. But “the café is the only real buy-in we agree on to happen next,” Casselman says. He notes one step forward was that this year the state for the first time put out to bid the operation of the existing Café Esplanade. With the new management, “we assume this will be a better operation,” he says, “and should tell us a lot. Does it attract people, or just people who are desperate for a hot dog? Will it make more money?”

Deploying glorious language in present “as if” tense, the 2020 plan describes the shack’s futuristic replacement as follows:

Carefully sited and beautifully designed, the new café has added an architectural jewel to the Esplanade. The building itself has been profiled in national magazines and on TV as one of the first public buildings in the U.S. built to ‘passive house’ standards—meaning that it is so precisely engineered and insulated that it runs on a tiny fraction of the energy that a comparable structure would require.

It goes on for another paragraph, throwing out references to composting toilets, a “signature fireplace” and the aforementioned Music Bosque. It’s nothing if not lofty.

“Restaurants are a way to transform outdoor spaces,” says Mike Ross, Boston city councilor, who is among many running for mayor. “Remember, you’re talking to the guy who wrote the legislation to bring a crumbling old building into the 21st century,” he says, referring to the Earl of Sandwich on Boston Common, formerly the abandoned “Pink Palace” public toilets.

Ross says he believes people want a “quality restaurant” on the Esplanade, one that “definitely” serves at least beer and wine, perhaps with valet parking, or guests could walk from parking in the surrounding areas. But “lack of parking never kept anyone from going to a good restaurant,” he avers. “If you build it, they will come.”

Sanguine though he may be, Ross is in the distinct minority of Bostonians who have even heard about any of these visions—or would discuss them. Mayor Thomas Menino’s office referred comment to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which had no comment other than to refer us to Parks & Recreation, where a spokeswoman offered only that she thought the Earl of Sandwich was doing very well. The state had no comment either. “It’s their vision,” said S.J. Port of DCR, referring to the Esplanade Association.

Meanwhile, of a dozen or more business people and restaurant operators we called, none had heard of Esplanade 2020. Not one.

Two civic-minded developers generally in the know had essentially nothing to say. Dick Friedman, developer of the Liberty Hotel next to Storrow, said, “intuitively,” the restaurant “strikes me as not a very good idea; it’s parkland, isn’t it?” But he said he didn’t want to discuss a plan about which he has no knowledge. Roger Berkowitz, owner of Legal Sea Foods, also said he had no knowledge of Esplanade 2020 and didn’t want to speculate.

Unawareness aside, there is—mostly—enthusiasm and goodwill out there. Told about the public/private proposition, one restaurateur said waspishly, “Oh good. Minimal bureaucracy.”

Another, less expansive café in the 2020 plan would be in the Upper Gatehouse at the Charles dam, which now houses a unit of the state police. Executive chef/co-owner Dante de Magistris of the nearby Restaurant Dante, located in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on the Cambridge side of the Charles near the Museum of Science, says he hadn’t heard of the 2020 vision, but “would love to be part of something new and exciting. The area needs more people than those who just walk by. It needs access from other streets, and parking. New restaurants, not just a bunch of chains, would be great. Something, yes, that I’d bid on.”

Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s in the Back Bay since 1985 (albeit at different locations), was enthused enough to ask how to get a copy of the 2020 plan. “They might have to build a parking lot,” he says, “’cause if they closed a lane of Storrow it would drive people crazy, but I like it. I love it!”

Esplanade Association chair Margo Newman emphasizes this is but a vision. “Any new structures like these proposed for the Esplanade would require a robust, formal public process.” And it’s early days. But, says Casselman, his group would be studying the café notion, with an eye to creating a Request for Proposals to be put out by the state. “There’s no price tag attached to the café,” he says. “We’d have to figure out seating, how big a kitchen, traffic, potential revenue. We’ll push something within a year.”

The next area of concentration, he says, would be redevelopment near the abandoned pool and bathhouse by the Teddy Ebersol ballfield.

For that location, the Esplanade Association plan forecasts, “the [Esplanade] Pavilion’s program includes bike, skate, and ski rental; a cozy café; public restrooms; shower facilities; meeting/class/events space; and storage space for the ball field sports.”

The Esplanade project would probably have to be underwritten via a public/private partnership (PPP), a risky investment vehicle. By law, the state would have to accept the low-bid developer. Such awards have sometimes forfeited quality. For example, the city of Gary, Ind., hired a nationwide private firm to run its water-treatment facility, and “the workers saved money by bringing water up to EPA standards only when they knew the water would be tested,” says PPP researcher Colleen Shea. Despite the risks, the efficiency and expertise required to make money is exactly what makes some private companies better at project delivery than a public entity would be.

Casselman says he thinks the plan could involve PPPs on a per-project basis, with his association raising money to fund about 60 percent of the redevelopment and the state DCR hefting the rest.

Public unawareness, official disinterest and daunting development aside, who could fault the notion of a more perfect Esplanade? On a recent visit, a humid Saturday in late May, EarthFest attracted thousands of people with live music from the Hatch Shell. But because of security precautions, they weren’t allowed to bring in food, never mind drinks. Bags were searched or confiscated. In other sections, strollers (of the mechanical and human kind), youth soccer players, bench sitters, playground-goers and a few souls on the tennis courts populated the park. The only place to grab a bite was the forlorn snack shack. Could this be replaced by a greenhouse bistro with fireplace and fairy lights?

“If we blow this or think too small,” cautions Anthony Pangaro, “then the chance is gone for another generation.”

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