The sound of passing cars is unmistakable under an overpass on Commonwealth Avenue, where the Back Bay, Kenmore and Fenway neighborhoods meet. The grassy areas are few and far between, and most of the ground is covered with gravel or exposed dirt.
“There’s nothing that tempts you to just walk through here normally,” said Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the 13-acre tract of land to its former glory.
Charlesgate Park, as the area is officially known, was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and was the ‘closure’ of his iconic Emerald Necklace Greenway, seven miles of winding parkland from Boston Common to Franklin Park in Dorchester.
But a few decades ago, the city built roads and a freeway overpass through Charlesgate Park, breaking the clasp and creating dangerous conditions for walking. The Emerald Necklace Conservancy, along with neighborhood organization Charlesgate Alliance, is leading efforts to revitalize the park so pedestrians and cyclists can safely navigate through it and into the rest of the city’s park system.
Charlesgate Park once allowed people to walk from the State House in downtown Boston to Franklin Park between Roxbury and Dorchester while staying in the parkland all the way, said Parker James, co-founder of the Charlesgate Alliance.
“The reason Charlesgate was the crucial link between all these parking systems is because Olmsted started there first and grew from there,” he said. “Well, I always say it’s like all roads lead to Rome.”
“By connecting that vital link that binds the Esplanade together, the Emerald Necklace [and] Commonwealth Avenue Mall, they connect all of Boston’s parking systems in a way that hasn’t worked in the last 80 years,” Mauney-Brodek said.
Restoring the park is a monumental task involving a long list of government agencies and nonprofit partners. After several years of planning and construction support for the project, those involved are hoping for construction to begin in 2023.
Landing Studio, a Somerville-based architecture firm, partnered with the Charlesgate Alliance and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy in 2017 to design concept plans for the new Charlesgate Park. The project will be advanced in stages, incorporating input from surrounding communities – including ideas already brought forward such as bike paths, a playground and a dog park.
However, the main priority of the project is to make it safer for pedestrians by adding sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian signals.
“People with young children or people with all kinds of mobility needs are somehow forced to navigate alongside this dense, high-speed traffic,” said Dan Adams, partner at Landing Studio.
The renewal has already started. Lighting and fences in Charlesgate Park have already been repaired. And this summer there are plans to remove two non-structural concrete walls that currently stand under the flyover.
The revitalization involves city and state agencies, each with an interest in the park’s land, dividing funding for various aspects of the project. For example, the Department of Conservation and Recreation will fund the removal of the non-structural walls at Charlesgate. As not-for-profit organizations, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and the Charlesgate Alliance independently raise money and apply for public funds.
Partners driving the project also hope to restore a bridge connecting Charlesgate to the Back Bay Fens and improve the water quality of the nearby Muddy River.
After revitalization Project leaders hope Charlesgate Park will become part of people’s route through the area – without vehicles.
“It empowers people when we address the challenges of climate change,” Mauney-Brodek said. “Giving people more ways to get to work, school, home, grocery shopping or other errands… it’s better.”
Sara Abdelouahed is an intern in GBH News’ Special Projects team.