Community skeptical of Franklin Park Olympics use

March 13, 2015
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Boston 2024 underwent a barrage of aggressive questioning from community members about its proposed use of Franklin Park as an Olympics venue at a meeting March 5.

The majority of the roughly 80 attendees at the Franklin Park Coalition (FPC)-hosted meeting ranged from skeptical to outright hostile about the Olympics plan. Boston 2024 suggested it could improve the park, but details about the Olympics’ impact remained scant.

FPC President Christine Poff later told the Gazette that the lack of information is making it hard for FPC to decide whether to take a position for or against the Olympics plan.

“We didn’t get enough information last night to make an assessment. I hope [there will be another public meeting], but it looks like the 2024 people don’t have more information to give yet,” Poff said. “We expect to discuss this more at our annual meeting, but the information we got last night wasn’t specific or tangible enough.”

Boston 2024 CEO Richard Davey said at the end of the meeting that if FPC organizes another meeting, Boston 2024 would happily return and participate if invited.

The proposed Olympic bid would use White Stadium to house various horse events and the pentathlon, as well as identifying it as a back-up venue for archery. The William Devine golf course would host the cross-country horse race. In addition, the stadium is pegged as a horse venue for the Paralympic Games, which follow the main Olympics by about two weeks. Boston 2024 has suggested Olympic dates of July 19-Aug. 4, and Paralympic dates of Aug. 14-25.

The plan would increase White Stadium’s capacity from 10,000 spectators to 20,000 with a temporary structure that would be removed after the Games. The golf course turned race course would have seating for tens of thousands of people, which also would be temporary. The renovated stadium and a new pool would remain for later public use, and the golf course would be restored or somehow improved.

After a half-hour presentation by Boston 2024 members, FPC had originally allotted a half-hour for questions and an hour for discussion among FPC members without Boston 2024 members present.

Instead, the largely antagonistic, but generally polite, audience chose to spend a full hour-and-a-half of the meeting asking questions of the Boston 2024 team.

A few people in the audience proclaimed their support of hosting the Games, while the majority remained skeptical or opposed.

Audience members pointed out that the plan would displace many festivals, sports events and other normal activities in the park in favor of elite equestrian competitions.

Davey acknowledged that Boston residents like active community processes, saying, “Bostonians like to be heard early and often.” He also said that the Olympic process so far had been lacking in that respect. Franklin Park was chosen as a venue by Boston 2024 with no public input, and had not met with park advocates or local residents until now.

“The process [so far] has certainly been flawed in my mind,” he said.

But “I think this could be transformative if we can do it right,” he said. “This is as much about hosting the Olympics in 2024 as it is an opportunity to discuss where our city and our state want to be in 2030 and beyond.”

The Boston 2024 team covered proposed changes and additions to the park, such as permanent and temporary seating that would expand White Stadium’s capacity to 20,000, as well as the construction of a permanent pool to the Stadium’s vicinity.

“There has not been a lot of investment lately, but there could be,” Boston 2024 Master Planning Committee Co-chair David Manfredi said during the Boston 2024 presentation, noting that White Stadium in particular “needs a lot of help.”

According to the proposed plan, White Stadium would see thousands of seats renovated, along with the construction of new permanent facilities like locker rooms and a swimming pool. It would also get temporary facilities like additional seating and tents for media and other “back of the house” uses.

The new swimming pool is “the kind of legacy we’re talking about,” Manfredi said. The Boston 2024 also mentioned historic uses of the park as a community farm, implying some similar use could be another legacy.

According to Davey, the last three Olympics hosted in the U.S.—Los Angeles in 1986, Atlanta in 1996 And Salt Lake City in 2002—finished with a cash-positive balance, which has allowed those cities to fund legacy venues and programs.

Davey said any legacy facilities, like the pool, would be funded-long term post Olympics from those leftover funds.

When the Gazette asked how those facilities would be funded if the Games did not end with a positive balance, Davey said he would answer that question in private after the meeting, despite protestations from the audience.

After the meeting, Davey told the Gazette, “That’s an ‘if.’ We want to see if we can end it like other U.S. Olympics did.”

He did not cite a back-up source of funding.

Boston 2024 members did not apologize or explain why they had not reached out to FPC before this point. Boston 2024 has previously said that using Franklin Park as an Olympic venue would highlight the heritage of the Emerald Necklace system of parks on a world stage.

Former Boston 2024 President Dan O’Connell previously told the Gazette that if there is local opposition to the Olympic use of the park, other venues would be found. However, while the bid documents include alternative sites for many sports, there are no alternative venues listed for the horse events in either White Stadium or on the golf course. There is an alternative listed for the pentathlon.

At the March 5 meeting Boston 2024 members reiterated the promise to move to a different venue if Franklin Park did not meet various requirements, including community support. Davey specifically mentioned the re-evaluation of Boston Common as a venue for beach volleyball in favor of an alternate site due to community input. However, it is unclear how such a decision would be made.

Addressing Boston 2024’s and the City’s stance of rescinding Boston’s bid to host the games if it becomes obvious that the community opposes it, an audience member asked what would constitute clear, measurable items that would meet that criteria for public disapproval.

Davey responded that reaching out to elected officials is the best way for community members to be heard. He did not outline any measurable points or standards that would trigger the removal of Boston’s bid.

Davey also said that Boston 2024 is “not supporting or opposing” City Councilor Josh Zakim’s initiative for a non-binding referendum in November’s ballot.

When an audience member called for “structured communication,” which might include regular updates and a community liaison, Davey replied that the dozen or so community meetings hosted by the City already provide a means of communication. Those meetings are informational and not part of an official government body’s review process.

According to the current plan, Franklin Park would be sectioned off into two “secure perimeters” for the pentathlon and equestrian cross-country events: the area immediately around White Stadium and the golf course, respectively. Other areas of the park—including Shattuck Hospital and the Pine Street Inn-operated Shattuck Shelter—should see minimal to no impact, as they lie outside of those boundaries, Davey said.

The Boston 2024 team said that there is currently no plan in place for local traffic in the immediate perimeter of the park, which includes residential arteries Seaver, Sigourney and Forest Hills streets and Walnut Avenue.

Boston 2024 landscape architect Ricardo Dumont, meanwhile, presented a quick history of Franklin Park to the audience, while noting that he had not yet dived deep into the topic.

A few audience members proceeded to correct his presentation, noting that they are members of the FPC, and are already quite familiar with the park’s 100-year history.

Manfredi stated that Franklin Park would only be closed for about four weeks for the Olympics, based on the timeline used at Greenwich Park, a similar city park used for equestrian events at the 2012 London Games. The Gazette corrected him at the meeting: parts of Greenwich Park were closed for a year, while others—like the children’s playground—were closed for a single day.

Manfredi then amended his statement to say that White Stadium would be closed due to construction for nine months to a year, while the golf course is expected to be closed for only four weeks.

The equestrian events planned for the golf course would generally stay off the greens and fairways, Manfredi said, and the whole course would “then be put back better than we found it.”

Boston 2024 did not discuss any government approvals the organization would need to build on the historic park. Bid documents previously released by Boston 2024 say that it would seek “omnibus legislation” from the State House to acquire or bypass such approvals in one move.

Former Gov. Deval Patrick, who later was revealed by the Boston Globe to be a new Boston 2024 employee, made an appearance in the audience. Patrick did not identify himself, and Boston 2024 officials did not reveal that he is working for them. After the meeting, the Gazette asked a well-dressed man who had stood at the door during the meeting whether Patrick had left. The man claimed that people were “confused” and that Patrick “was never here.”

Also in attendance was local state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, whose political career ended with her arrest and conviction on federal bribery charges several years ago. Wilkerson noted that previous Olympics have triggered large-scale displacement of residents, and said that the hiring of women- and minority-owned businesses should be a goal of any bid.

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