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Large events may become uncommon at city's beloved park

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / March 20, 2008

Boston Common should no longer play host to large-scale events that draw tens of thousands of people to its increasingly stressed lawns and walkways, the head of the city's Parks Department said yesterday.

Such events are better suited for the brick pavement of City Hall Plaza, said Antonia Pollak, Boston parks and recreation commissioner.

Pollak made the statement at a City Council hearing yesterday in which city officials and advocates for the Common wrestled with the question of what activities to encourage at one of America's oldest public parks. While some say that regular activity keeps the 48-acre park vibrant, deterring vagrancy and criminal activity, others point out that heavy foot traffic pummels its turf, diminishing the beauty of the space.

"The basic problem of the Common is it has been at all times all things to all people," said Henry Lee, president of Friends of the Boston Public Garden, which advocates for and helps maintain the Common.

Calling it the city's main stage, its urban oasis, and one of its most historic spaces, Lee estimated that about 1,000 events took place in the park over the past year.

While the city has completed or is beginning several projects to enhance green space on the common, proposals to expand the underground parking garage and perform subway work in the area raise questions among park advocates.

The Parks Department recently reopened the Parade Ground at the corner of Charles and Beacon streets after closing it for a year to allow the grass to recover from years of heavy use.

Now that it has been refreshed, city officials are hesitant to allow it to be trampled again by large-scale gatherings, such as Shakespeare on the Common, concerts, and the so-called Hemp Fest, an annual gathering of supporters of efforts to legalize marijuana.

"It was loved to death," Margaret Dyson, the city's director of historic parks, said of the Parade Ground.

James Barondess, a Beacon Street resident, said that regularly staging large events at the corner also brings trash and noise and damages what residents, colleges, and businesses in the area consider to be their front yard.

Pollak said the organizers of the annual Boston Pride Parade, which ended at Boston Common until the Parade Ground was cut off, have agreed to continue having their route end at City Hall Plaza, as it did last year.

In addition to the Parade Ground work, the city is resodding, blocking off, or paving over well-worn corners at the various paths through the Common. Work is also underway to restore Brewer Fountain and to repair fences.

At the same time, the MBTA is planning work at Park Street Station and on the Silver Line along Tremont Street. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is studying the feasibility of expanding the underground garage.

Some fear that the projects could harm the Common, so city officials and park advocates say they plan to press the MBTA and the Convention Center Authority to help pay for park upkeep if the projects go forward.

Councilor Michael P. Ross, who is chairman of a three-member special committee looking into the future of Boston Common, said that cafés, restaurants, and other commercial ventures might be a good replacement for large-scale events.

Margaret Ann Ing, associate vice president at Emerson College, said the school's seasonal café at Boston Common loses about $35,000 a year.

She said the café will reopen soon with an expanded menu and what officials hope will be a more inviting design.

Ross said he wants to look into why the college's café has not been profitable. "There's got to be a way to make this café work," he said. "One thing we can do well [in Boston] is restaurants."

He suggested having a group visit Central Park in New York City to see what makes its restaurants successful, including the iconic Tavern on the Green.

One barrier is that alcohol consumption is not allowed on the Common, said Thomas Kershaw, a Boston restaurateur and chairman of the nonprofit that runs the Frog Pond on Boston Common.

Kershaw said he had considered trying to open a jazz café at Frog Pond, but that it would require having an area of the park licensed for alcohol sales.

The option should be left open, Ross said. "We should be considering any and all possibilities."

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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