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Battle erupts over Esplanade fencing

Plan for ball fields draws criticism

Gordon Jacobs, 7, of Boston readied for a Little League practice at the Teddy Ebersol Field on the Esplanade this week. Gordon Jacobs, 7, of Boston readied for a Little League practice at the Teddy Ebersol Field on the Esplanade this week. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / April 18, 2009
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Teddy Ebersol's Red Sox Fields, built for the public in memory of a young baseball fan who tragically died, came under fire last year for being underused and tough to reserve for playing time.

Now a plan is in the works that might make access seem even more difficult.

The state wants to build a 6-foot, ornamental steel fence around the baseball diamonds and soccer field on the Charles River Esplanade.

"One of the problems with a 6-foot fence is that psychologically it creates a barrier to the access to the field," said Jeryl Oristaglio, president of the Esplanade Association, which aims to protect the parkland along Storrow Drive.

Meg Vaillancourt, executive director of the Red Sox Foundation, said a fence is needed, not only to protect the athletic fields from damage but also to protect passersby from errant balls. Currently, the fields are surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence.

Asked whether the new fence would seem uninviting to the public, Vaillancourt responded, "I don't think you can look less inviting than a chain-link fence. I'm sure it will be a definite improvement."

The Friends of Teddy Ebersol's Red Sox Fields - which includes the Esplanade Association, Red Sox Foundation, and Hill House, a community center - offered to contribute $50,000 of the estimated $184,000 cost of the proposed fence, leaving the state to pick up the rest.

Some fear that a fence would further separate the well-maintained fields from the other public areas of the park. Last summer, the Globe reported that the athletic fields were often closed to the public, with the chain link fence padlocked, when games weren't scheduled.

Youth groups and adult teams have not flocked to the waterfront fields, which suffer from a lack of parking and tight scheduling demands. In the past, teams had to book spring and summer games before Jan. 15.

"The risk that we face is that we are creating the perception, if not the reality, of privatizing public space," said state Representative Martha M. Walz, a Back Bay Democrat. "The flip side of this is, there are legitimate safety concerns for those who are using the fields. We need to balance these competing concerns."

A fence helps to keep young children within the athletic fields, which are bordered by busy Storrow Drive on one side and the Charles River on the other, Walz suggested.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which proposed the fence, got initial approval this week when the Massachusetts Historical Commission found it would have "no adverse effect" on the Esplanade, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Boston Conservation Commission still needs to weigh in.

But yesterday, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who chairs the Massachusetts Historical Commission, overruled the decision, saying that it should have undergone a full review and the commission should have provided a chance for public comment.

"There's some concern being voiced about public access to the field," said Galvin.

And the board of the Esplanade Association - whose designer is on the Friends' board and had supported the fence - decided this week to oppose it. The board said it would interrupt the sightlines of the long parkland and that the people who use the Esplanade deserve a chance to consider alternatives.

"It is a significant change to the character of the Esplanade. Right now, we have a field with a beautiful open vista," said Oristaglio. "Regardless of how beautiful the fence is, that open vista will no longer be there."

The spat is evocative of the fight over cherry trees that erupted on the Esplanade five years ago. Citizens Bank and its chief executive Larry Fish and his wife, Atsuko, donated 100 cherry trees which were planted on the Esplanade - but ultimately removed after park lovers protested that they spoiled the vista and clogged the park.

Similarly, the athletic fields were built largely with private money as a living monument to Teddy Ebersol, the 14-year-old son of NBC sports executive Dick Ebersol and a Red Sox fan who died in a plane crash.

The Friends group contributed nearly $2 million to the fields and still spends $100,000 a year on maintenance. The fields are closed every Monday for maintenance and when wet conditions could lead to damage.

"There is a high level of investment that went in there and . . . that's the level of care that was expected and that's what they expect from their $100,000," said DCR Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr.

Acknowledging that the public fields are underused now, DCR plans to post signs on the fence letting people know how to schedule games and when the fields are open and closed. The department is also sending out flyers to some 250 youth groups, inviting them to schedule the fields for their use. And it's offering teams a van parking spot to drop off players. The new fence, officials said, would have half a dozen gates that are kept open from dawn to dusk for anyone to use the fields when they are not already occupied.

"These are public fields and we need to maintain a level of public access and we need to be inviting to everyone," said Sullivan. "If, during the day, the fields aren't being used and you want to throw a Frisbee around, the doors are open and you're welcome to do that."

DCR plans to air the issue at a mid-May public meeting when officials will discuss $4 million in planned improvements along Storrow Drive, including the fencing, said spokeswoman Wendy Fox.