South St. parks to get improvements

March 16, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo by John Swan
The South Street Mall at the corner of Carolina Avenue is slated for renovation.

SOUTH STREET—The South Street Mall park and the little-known Agassiz Arboleda orchard/park are the targets of fix-up efforts aimed at linking the two green spaces like a miniature Emerald Necklace.

The Mall, at the corner of South Street and Carolina Avenue, is the first in line, with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department planning a $300,000 upgrade to begin a year from now.

But JP Centre/South Main Streets (JP CSMS) is looking at both parks. The group has secured a $5,000 grant to plan public art on the Mall as part of that upgrade, and hopes eventually to repeat similar artistic elements to visually link it to the Arboleda, only about 200 feet away at 80 South St. JP CSMS is now seeking funding sources for Arboleda upgrades, possibly including a decorative wall and a stone labyrinth, said Program Coordinator Jodi Lief Wolk.

There is also an idea of linking the two parks with plantings along an alley that runs from the Arboleda in front of the Agassiz Elementary School to Carolina Avenue, “almost like the Emerald Necklace idea,” said Agassiz Principal Alfredo Nuñez. “They’re not truly contiguous, but we’re trying to see it that way.”

Both upgrade ideas were spawned by JP CSMS planning efforts to bring more street life to the Centre/South business corridor. The group has hosted concerts on the Mall as part of its First Thursday art events—what Wolk calls “a little taste of what it could be.” Music, art and poetry events are a possibility for the Arboleda as well.

Jeffrey Ferris, who owns the Ferris Wheels bike shop between the parks and volunteers on Arboleda maintenance projects, said he agrees with the idea of more art events on the Mall.

“I think building on that would be one of the best things for the park. Use the space,” he said.

A year ago, JP CSMS put together a detailed upgrade proposal for both parks and sought a $30,000 design grant from the city’s Browne Fund. That didn’t work out, but the proposals will likely influence future discussions. And JP CSMS did get the $5,000 Browne Fund grant for the initial step of hiring an artist. JP CSMS design ideas came out of various public “visioning” meetings for the district.

South Street Mall
The Mall is a concrete-and-brick paved area of about 5,400 square feet fronting on South Street, with fenced-in tennis and basketball courts behind it along Carolina Avenue.

The Mall has two rows of street trees; no green space; a profusion of at least 14 wooden benches set at various angles; and a couple of decaying chess tables. The courts are in bad shape and often flooded after heavy rain, though they’re frequently used by basketball players.

As JP CSMS’s design proposal puts it, the park “does not currently even approach its full potential.”

The Parks Department did not return a Gazette phone call for this article. But, Wolk said, the Parks Department plans to upgrade the entire park, including the courts. A series of yet-to-be-scheduled public meetings will be held to gather input.

JP CSMS ideas have focused on the paved Mall part of the park, which it terms “Art Square.” Generally, they involve adding low-maintenance greenery and such new features as a water fountain, including a place for dogs to get a drink.

Specific JP CSMS art ideas include a custom-designed informational kiosk; some type of sculpture; an “Art Fence” along the courts that could hold art exhibits or even a movie screen during special events; and a community mural on the Peru Travel building, where there is currently an amateur mural commemorating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While JP CSMS has not focused on the courts, Wolk said her understanding is the Parks Department considers their future to be on the table as well, including whether to keep them at all. Ferris said he has heard advocacy for removing the asphalt and making the courts more of a green space, though he prefers a hard surface for sports enthusiasts.

Nuñez noted that neighborhood kids use the courts, especially for basketball. And, he said, the school sometimes uses the fenced-in area as well for special outdoor recesses when its own facilities are full. “It’s a nice place for them to be safe,” Nuñez said of his students using the courts area.

Agassiz Arboleda
The Arboleda began as a vacant lot on the site of burned house just north of Child Street. As Ferris recalled, it almost became a driveway into the school. But about 17 years ago, school parents turned it into an 11,000-square-foot garden and park. It is now owned by the city and overseen by Boston Public Schools.

In the early 1990s, the urban tree group EarthWorks helped plant an orchard of fruit trees in the Arboleda. The collection now includes about 11 apple trees, three plum trees and a peach tree, according to EarthWorks’ Laura Doty.

The Arboleda is open to the public, but it is not well known and is mostly used by school students for educational plantings and “observation of nature as it changes,” Nunez said.

“Right now, the space is not very inviting for the public,” Doty said. “You can’t really tell it’s there. It looks kind of like a vacant lot.”

JP CSMS focused new attention to the site in 2004, leading to a new volunteer “friends” group including the school, EarthWorks, the City Year program and residents, who help maintain it.

But, Nuñez said, improvements are needed to actively encourage the public to use the park. He described it as being seen as a “peek, but don’t go through” area now.

JP CSMS has proposed a variety of specific improvements for both the exterior and interior of the park.

For the main South Street entrance, it proposed a “plaza” involving a wider sidewalk with special paving to mark the spot and a 12-foot-high gateway bearing the park’s name. There would also be an informational kiosk like the one proposed for the Mall, and linking it thematically to that park. Signs and “street furniture” such as bike racks could also link the two parks, as could the idea of adding plantings in the alley between the two parks.

Also, an existing chain link fence could be replaced by a low stone wall with a built-in seat.

Inside the park, JP CSMS proposed a 500-square-foot circular labyrinth, or maze, made of flat paving materials. Historically, labyrinths were popular garden elements, especially for religious meditation.

JP CSMS also proposes improving the current path through the park and adding a curving path through the orchard section.

With the Mall planning coming to fruition, JP CSMS is seeking funding sources for Arboleda improvements, but nothing is definite now.

Residents interested in helping the Arboleda while getting a first-hand look can attend an EarthWorks tree-pruning workshop there March 25 at 10 a.m.

Artists interested in qualifying for the Mall design project should see the “South Street Art Initiative: Art Square” entry at www.callforentry.org. For more information, contact project manager Jean Mineo at (508) 242-9991 or jeanmineo@aol.com.