The Esplanade Association marked a milestone via Zoom on Monday, April 5, when the longstanding organization held its 20th annual meeting.
Michael Nichols, executive director of the nonprofit that has worked in partnership with the Department of Conservation and Recreation for the past two decades to care for and maintain the park, detailed big changes already planned for it in 2021, including the planned demolition of the Charles River Bistro and a new paint job – and new shade – for the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge coming between now and July 1, as well as “widespread” landscaping improvements near the State Police Barracks to create a new entrance to the West End and the Museum of Science.
Already in 2021, the Esplanade Association launched “Hatched: Breaking through the Silence,” a 15-minute sight and sound experience led by Boston-based percussionist and composer Maria Finkelmeier (who was on hand for the virtual meeting) and her MF Dynamics team and created specifically for the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, which ran for 30 days beginning Jan. 22.
Also this year, Sen. Sal DiDomenico, together with Rep. Jay Livingstone, filed new, updated legislation to allow the state to lease Lee Pool complex on the Esplanade for a 30-year term, thereby returning the long-shuttered two-acre site to public use. The bill would allow the designated lessee to enter into a long-term agreement with the Esplanade Association, with the stipulation that it only be used for the Esplanade Riverfront Pavilion, a proposed $12 million, 10,000 square-foot facility that includes plans for an Esplanade visitors center and public lobby; public community rooms; year-round public bathrooms; a programmable roof deck; and a year-round café with indoor and outdoor seating, among other features.
“I work together with all my colleagues at the State House and City Hall to support the Esplanade Association, and I’d like to give special acknowledgment to Michael Nichols for working hand in hand to advance this legislation,” Sen. DiDomenico said at the annual meeting. “We look forward to working with you on this legislation and getting it over the finish line in this cycle.”
Rep. Livingstone, who called the Lee Pool site “one of the greatest transformative opportunities” in the city, said: “As a resident of Back Bay who uses the Esplanade on a regular basis with my family…it’s a place of sanctuary for us and of enjoyment.”
Besides the Lee Pool bill, Rep. Livingstone, along with Sen. Sal DiDomenico, also drafted language included in the state’s $17 billion, 10-year State Transportation Bond bill that would reconfigure Storrow Drive to create three new acres of greenspace on the Esplanade between the Longfellow Bridge and the Charles River.
Sen. William Brownsberger, who regularly bikes from his Belmont home to the State House via the Esplanade, thanked both the Esplanade Association and DCR for maintaining a park, he said, that he’s “been enjoying [his] entire life.”
City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who grew up in Bay Village and learned to sail on the Charles, called the Esplanade “definitely my park” and added she has visited it on a nearly daily basis during the pandemic. “It’s a key part of getting my 10,000 steps,” said Councilor Bok, who was also a strong advocate for the more than $14,000 grant that the Esplanade Association received this year from the city to support its ongoing tree maintenance.
DCR Chair Jim Montgomery, who was also on hand for the occasion, said throughout the pandemic year, DCR’s parks never closed – something, he said, that never would’ve been possible without partnering groups like the Esplanade Association.
Alexi Conine, chair of the Esplanade Association board, introduce the organization’s new slate of officers and board members for 2021-22 via a proxy vote, which included herself as board Chair; Frank Panayotou as Vice Chair; Harvey Beker as Treasurer; and Emi Winterer as Clerk.
New board members, who will each serve a three-year term, include Gonzague de Montrichard, Montez Haywood, and Catherine Morris, while returning board members, also serving three-year terms, are Audrey Foster, Jim Foster, Jeryl Oristaglio (who co-founded the Esplanade Association with Linda Cox), Tony Pangaro, and Carolina Säve-Natale.
Casey Baines and Matt Ostrow will each serve two-year terms in the role of Friends Council Liaison, and Ben Rosenblum (Ex-officio) will serve a one-year term as MIT Fellow.
Besides the Esplanade Association’s board and staff members, Nichols credited the volunteers, who during a typical pre-pandemic year donated 5,000 hours working in the park between April and November – the equivalent of two and a half full-time positions.
Through their volunteer efforts, the Garden Club of the Back Bay planted a new garden near the Storrow Memorial, and Nichols extended his gratitude to the organization’s Tracey Cannistraro and Catherine Bordon for breathing new life in to that area of the park.
Nichols also thanked REI, the corporate sponsor for the nonprofit’s volunteer efforts, as well as grad student Sevationan Gonzales for his ongoing contributions to the volunteer photographer program.
The Esplanade Association also honored DCR’s Steve Cyr, who oversees operations at the Hatch Shell; Mary McCarthy, DCR special events, for her work on “Hatched”, among other special events at the park; and Janice Parlon of DCR special events.
Looking back on 2020, Nichols said despite the cancellation of the Esplanade Association’s three biggest fundraising events – the Moondance Gala, the Dock Party, and the Esplanade 5K – “We came out stronger than we were going into 2020.”
(The Esplanade 5K, which Nichols said is the largest formal running event that takes place in the park each year, was eventually able to be held last year as a virtual footrace that drew 300 runners from three countries [the U.S., Brazil and India] and 13 states, and the event will likely go virtual again this year, Nichols said.)
Jim Doyle, the group’s horticulture specialist, said, with the assistance of DCR, 50 trees were planted in the park last year, representing 13 genera (different types), six of which are new to the Esplanade, while eight unhealthy or dead trees were identified and removed from the park.
This year, with different protocols in place due to the pandemic, the volunteer season started in September, said Doyle, with 150 people pitching in.
“But with smaller groups, we were able to get more done in the park,” he added.
Doyle also said a multi-year River Restoration program that aims to eliminate invasive species, as well as to increase biodiversity and resilience, is already showing results.
Alison McRae, capital project manager for the Esplanade Association, said that the group wrapped up its $275,000 renovation of the park’s Miriam and Sidney Stoneman Playground last summer, which was a fitting way to usher in the milestone 20th anniversary, she added, since building the playground was the very first undertaking the group that became the Esplanade Association ever partnered with DCR on back in 2001.
Besides replacing worn-out equipment, improvements to the playground, included the removal of barriers and installing a side gate to improve accessibility; the addition of new musical instruments and a new dedication bench; as well as the installation of 125 yards of new safety surfacing.
McRae said more site upgrades are planned for the Stoneman Playground and added that Charlesgate Playground is being modernized and its old equipment would be donated to other playgrounds in need of a refresh.
The Esplanade Association also undertook a survey last year, said McRae, that drew more than 700 responses from park users, who asked for more utilities like restrooms, water fountains and maps of the park; a new path to safely cross the park; and landscaping improvements, among other top requests.
For the past several years, the Esplanade Association has also been working with MassTrails and WalkBoston, among other groups, on a Pathway Safety Initiative, said McRae, that would focus on highly trafficked areas of the park like the area where the Esplanade Play Space meets the Hatch Shell.
Moreover, the Esplanade Association substantially increased its virtual output pandemic during the pandemic, and its GroundBeat: The Esplanade’s Free Riverfront Music Series,” which returned as a virtual event for its third season, was nominated for a 2020 Boston Music Award in the category of “Live Music Stream of the Year.”
Jim Diverio, the Esplanade Association’s director of development, said the Charles River Cleanup on the Esplanade would be returning Saturday, April 24, from 10 a.m. to noon (visit https://esplanade.org/volunteer/ for more information), as would the Moondance Gala on Sept. 18.
Following a Q&A with Nichols and others, those in attendance were treated to nearly 16 minutes of highlights from “Hatched,” which showed the visual and audio performance from multiple vantage points.