Why abandoned pier in Charlestown matters
Once in a lifetime opportunity to create iconic open space
THERE IS A GREAT deal of uncertainty in the US economy with rising energy costs and inflation, and our city of Boston is grappling with a host of issues such as homelessness, affordable housing, the public schools, and drug addiction to name some of the most pressing. These are critical issues that are major determinants of an individual’s quality of life and the health of our city as a whole. They all compete for funds from the state and city budgets and the time, focus, and attention of our public officials.
So, in this context, why should the plight of abandoned Pier 5 and the community’s desire to create an open space park there matter?
During the pandemic, we learned quite a bit about the benefits of the outdoors and the physical and mental well being that open spaces can provide. And, in trying financial times, even a trip to New Hampshire’s lakes can be a struggle for the average Boston family. An open space park, especially one that is waterfront facing, provides benefits to individuals, families, and the city as a whole.
The City Parks Alliance (), a Washington, D.C. based membership organization solely dedicated to urban parks with a focus on improving community health, just released a report that supports investments in city parks for health, economy, and the environment. According to the report, urban parks are becoming recognized as a powerful tool for urban communities and local economies.
The report indicates that people with access to safe parks exercise more and have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. People who live near parks and green spaces are 44 percent less likely to have a diagnosed anxiety order. Twenty minutes in a park improved the concentration of children with attention deficits. These are compelling statistics that are just coming to light in the aftermath of the pandemic; public policy and decisions on spending public funds are behind the curve of this research. In Boston, our city budget allocates less than 1 percent of the total budget to spending on parks. As the general population and elected officials become more aware of the health benefits of public parks in urban environments, this percentage should rise, not just in Boston but in many major metropolitan areas throughout the country.
Politicians have taken on the cause of access to open space and the waterfront in particular as part of their social justice platforms. Boston’s Mayor Michelle Wu was quoted as saying “As a coastal city, we need to get our waterfront right — by centering equitable access, climate resilience, and community.” Further, our city’s chief of open space and the environment, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, stated: “We are trying to embed equity in everything we do in the way that we make decisions…..Every single person in the city of Boston should see the water as part of their experience as a resident.“
Charlestown is the oldest settled land in Boston and has one of the highest population densities among city neighborhoods. It has one of the lowest amounts of open space in the city at 3.09 acres per 1,000 residents (compared with over 5 acres in East Boston and 7.59 acres for the city as a whole). Charlestown ranks third in the amount of income-restricted housing units in the city and is home to the largest public housing development in the Northeast, Bunker Hill Housing Development, a stone’s throw from the Navy Yard. A public space at the Pier 5 location would provide an opportunity for more neighborhood crossover and an attraction for all residents of Charlestown to enjoy as a harborfront park.
Charlestown, bisected by the Tobin Bridge and Route 93, has one of the highest asthma rates in Boston while our tree canopy, a proven tool for alleviating asthma, is the lowest in the city at 11 percent and is under further threat of more destruction from new development. Slated expansion of the Bunker Hill Housing Development as well as other proposed large developments throughout the city of Charlestown will add an estimated 11,000 new residents to our current population of 19,120, an increase of 50 percent over the next 10 years. (This, on top of a 16 percent growth in population from 2010-2020 compared with 9 percent for Boston.) The need for open space is evident.
In addition to health and recreational benefits, as one of the few remaining open spaces on the Boston waterfront, Pier 5 represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an iconic open space park in a historic area which attracts school groups, visitors, and tourists to see the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill. The site where Pier 5 now sits is where the British lobbed bombardments to start the Battle of Bunker Hill and the American Revolution. Every year, over a half a million people visit the USS Constitution and 4 million people traverse all or part of the 2.5 mile long Freedom Trail which covers more than 250 years of history and 16 nationally significant historic sites that tell the story of the American Revolution and beyond. Pier 5 could represent a finishing point to the Freedom Trail and its history and a capstone to a visit to the USS Constitution. Every historic trail should have a meaningful terminus and we have in Pier 5 the opportunity to make a spectacular one. If Pier 5 is ceded over to private development, the potential and promise of Pier 5 is gone forever.
Members of our Charlestown community have stood for a historic, climate resilient public pier at Pier 5 for over 30 years. The pier is owned by the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Agency, which has neglected the pier and not maintained it. They routinely call for requests for proposals to build on the pier despite strong public opposition. Most of the proposals that have been floated have failed under the weight of impossible economics. A more fiscally prudent approach would be to restore the pier to standards used for public assembly, not commercial development, and open this area up for public enjoyment for our community and a showcase for our history.\
We have over 3,200 petition signatures online () and in writing, asking the mayor to create a park on the Pier 5 site. We have held three widely-attended community events that proved the allure of gathering along the waterfront as family recreation. Other parks throughout the city are creating many active and innovative programming events. Mayor Michelle Wu has introduced some high energy gatherings on the Greenway, for example, that had robust attendance. Appropriate programming emphasizing health and history will bring even more residents and visitors to this magnificent and historic site.
Pier 5 is critical to our history. We are approaching the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill in 2025 and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Boston in 2030. This historic location, so integral to our nation’s founding, should be restored and celebrated so it can play a role in upcoming city-wide commemorations.
Many have noted the $4.7 billion cost to clean up Boston Harbor was paid for by taxpayers and rate payers with most of the benefits going to developers. Let’s return this site to the people who paid to clean up our harbor and create a destination for all residents to enjoy. It can be done. Look at the plans for Piers Park III in East Boston and all that it will provide for the community. Look at Pier 26 in New York City, which is an ecologically-themed park with public recreation, educational programming, and is a habitat for native plant species.
Help us get Pier 5 () and the need for a waterfront-facing park on the radar screen of our elected officials and as a worthy candidate for infrastructure funds that are now available. Reach out to our forward-thinking mayor and your City Council members and make your voices heard.
Sherrie Cutler is affiliated with ECODESIGN, Inc. and the author of Recycling Cities, Rosemary Macero is an attorney, and Kathy Elliott is a Charlestown resident. Cutler and Macero are members of the Pier 5 Association.