Perhaps the biggest surprise for Michael Nichols, the exiting executive director of the Esplanade Association, upon assuming that role five years ago, was just how many different stakeholders have an interest in the park.
“I was surprised at how many different ways people love the Esplanade. There are so many different constituencies – neighbors, runners, nannies, concert-goers, bikers, art enthusiasts, horticulture enthusiasts,” said Nichols, “so it’s just awe-inspiring to see how many different ways people love the park.”
During Nichols’ tenure with the Esplanade Association, the nonprofit, which works in partnership with the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to care for and maintain the Esplanade, invested more than $12.5 million in the park, while EA’s staff doubled in size from eight to 16 over the course of the past five years.
“I’m proud of the impact we’ve had across the board in the last five years, from programming to horticulture to capital improvements to the responsiveness of our staff and outreach to the public,” said Nichols. “It’s just been a great five years, and I feel like the organization has taken a major step forward.”
Nichols credits the hard work of the staff and board, especially Alexi Conine, board chair, for helping the group make such major strides in this time. “I’m most proud of the staff and board we put together and how much more impactful our organization’s work has gotten,” he said.
Asked to identify the Esplanade Association’s most notable achievement during his time with the organization, Nichols immediately points to the Charlesbank Landing project – a planned two-acre riverfront park enhancement anchored by the new, year-round Esplanade Pavilion, which, he said, will “make a decades-long impact on the Esplanade.”
Said Nichols, “It took my entire tenure to refine and improve the project. We’re past the halfway mark on fundraising, and most importantly, we have just received the gubernatorial and legislative authorization to move the project forward.”
Besides the plan for Charlesbank Landing, Nichols said he’s also looking forward to watching the progress of two other major projects ushered in during his tenure with the Esplanade Association – the opening of the Gronk Playground, a complete renovation of the Charlesbank Playground made possible by a $1.2 million gift from former New England Patriot Ron Gronkowski; and the planned expansion of Charlesgate Park, which aims to reclaim 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.
(The Charlesgate Park project is a partnership led by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy that besides the Esplanade Association, includes myriad other stakeholders, including the Charlesgate Alliance, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), and DCR, among others.)
Nichols’ tenure also saw the launch of the Owl’s Nest – a beer garden, now in its fifth season, that the Esplanade Association operates in the park in partnership with Everett’s Night Shift Brewery.
The Owl’s Nest, which was the first beer garden to operate on DCR property, “has been a really great addition to the park,” said Nichols.
Moreover, Nichols described the expansion of the Esplanade Association’s public art program over the last five years as one of the organization’s “hallmarks.”
“What started with ‘Patterned Behavior’ before I started has blossomed into eight murals on view in the park and some really incredible short-term installations, like the ‘Hatched’ and the ‘Frozen in Life’ exhibits,” said Nichols.
“Patterned Behavior” by Silvia López Chavez, the first public art mural on the Esplanade commissioned by the Esplanade Association, was installed on the walls and pillars that support the Bowker Overpass in 2017, while last year, the Esplanade Association commemorated its 20th anniversary by debuting “Hatched: Breaking through the Silence” – an original 15-minute multi-media performance led by Boston-based creative Maria Finkelmeier of MF Dynamics that was specifically designed for the DCR Hatch Shell. “Frozen in Life,” by artist Anna Thurber, which was commissioned by the Esplanade Association, in partnership with DCR, was on display from March 18-20 of this year in Fiedler Park and highlighted three season of the Esplanade’s plant species through the lens of more than 40 of Thurber’s ice sculptures.
While Nichols is departing from the Esplanade Association in the coming weeks to become the new president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, he remains proud of his time with the Esplanade Association.
“During the entire time I’ve lived in Boston (since 2008), it has been the closest park to my house,” he said. “I’ve always had an appreciation for the Esplanade and was really excited about having the opportunity to spend my energy making it better and really feel like I did.”