B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Plans for new BU sailing pavilion generate kudos, some concerns
By Brian Fitzgerald
Boston University's plan to build a new $3 million sailing pavilion on the Charles River will be the subject of an April 23 public hearing at the Massachusetts State House. Under a bill filed last July by Senator Robert Travaglini (D-East Boston), BU would lease 1.45 acres from the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) and construct a 6,000-square-foot building at a site halfway between the Mass. Ave. Bridge and BU Bridge.
The hearing (see sidebar), part of an ongoing public process that has included more than 20 meetings with neighborhood leaders and elected officials over the past year and a half, will provide another opportunity for community input on the project -- which has generated both enthusiastic support and criticism.
The new building would replace BU's current sailing pavilion, a small, dilapidated, 61-year-old structure on the Charles near the BU Bridge. The location of the old facility poses numerous safety hazards to boaters, joggers, and bikers. The relocation of the sailing pavilion is part of the MDC Master Plan, a document that examines how the commission's parkland along the Charles could best be preserved and enhanced in the years to come.
BU's preferred site for the sailing pavilion and docks -- the stretch of the Charles River Esplanade near Sherborn Street -- has been endorsed by several neighborhood groups, including the Kenmore Association, the Kenmore Residents Group, the Bay State Road Neighborhood Association, and the Kenmore Alliance for a Better Charles River.
"The site BU has in mind provides safe pedestrian access," says Terri North, president of the Kenmore Residents Group. "It's close to a footbridge over Storrow Drive, so people won't be tempted to run across a four-lane highway, which they sometimes do at the present site."
The sailing pavilion would be more accessible to the community, contain public rest rooms maintained by BU, and have pay phones and "blue box" emergency phones, a concession stand, and two drinking water fountains. BU, which would also renovate and expand an existing fitness area and maintain and landscape the grounds, plans to spend more than $750,000 on public amenities for the project.
"This is the first opportunity in many years for improvement at this end of the river," says North. "There are no bathrooms along this stretch. Right now, people who use that part of the Esplanade have to plan ahead, because they can't get water there."
However, the proposed location of the facility has become a point of contention with the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Esplanade Association, and the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA). The groups assert that use of the site impedes access to open space. These opponents further claim that the University is trying to rush legislation through without enough public input. They are also lobbying for the pavilion to be built on a smaller site east of BU's preferred location. A CRWA flyer claims that BU's proposed site "blocks prime riverfront parkland widely used by strollers, joggers, sunbathers, in-line skaters, and others." Proponents counter that the pavilion would serve as a much-needed destination point, and pathways will be realigned to accommodate exercise routes.
"The claim that BU is trying to ram this bill through without due process is ridiculous," says Pam Beale, president of the Kenmore Association. "There have been plenty of opportunities for public comment. Last July there were nearly 100 people at a meeting hosted by the Kenmore Alliance for a Better Charles River, and at least 80 percent of the people in attendance strongly supported the BU plan."
BU hosted a public meeting last June and offered to show the site to citizens interested in the plans. A walking tour took place later that month. Although BU's first choice was a site east of its current proposal, an alternative site was agreed upon after several people taking the tour pointed out that a building in this area would block a scenic sight line of the city. There was also a concern that the building would be too large, so BU removed the second story from its plans.
Still, when BU attempted to file legislation last July, opponents claimed that the University was moving forward with the project too quickly and demanded that the facility be built at an alternative site near the Charlesgate portion of the Esplanade -- a congested area that has little green space and is not adjacent to the Charles River Campus.
"Using that site would mean taking the sailing pavilion out of one pinch point and putting it in another," says BU Sailing Coordinator Brad Churchill. "It makes no sense. It would be unsafe. Right now, between the pedestrians, rollerbladers, and bicyclists, there are so many near-collisions at our present building. There is a blind corner there, and I see 5 to 10 accidents every year. I've administered first aid to a few people, and taken a few to the hospital. It would be the same story at the site the opponents are pushing for."
Edward M. King, vice president of government and community affairs at BU, has taken issue with the CRWA's claim on its Web site and on a CRWA flyer that the project is a "private land grab." "To characterize this as a 'private land grab' is false," he says. "We're leasing the land, not buying it. BU has to abide by the rules and regulations set forth by the MDC leasing policy. A land grab implies ownership."
The CRWA also points out that "neither the MDC or BU has filed an Environmental Notification Form (ENF) to begin this process." But Thomas Walsh, director of state relations at BU, argues that there is an established process in such matters, and that the filing of an ENF form is not the first step in the procedure. "We're following the same process as we did when we built the DeWolfe Boathouse across the river," says Walsh. "The filing of the legislation kicks off the process. In time, the environmental impact report will be completed. We can't do this without any knowledge of how the legislation will fare. We have to do everything in order."
Although the bill originally was filed last July, BU officials didn't push to have the legislature approve the bill in the summer 2000 session. Now that the bill has been refiled, it will come before the joint committee on state administration April 23. At the hearing, opponents are expected to ask legislators to postpone the bill. But proponents, who have also been writing local representatives in support of the project, will also state their case. "It would be wonderful for us to have this pavilion and outdoor exercise area so close by," says Katie Blenk, an administrator for Kids Are People Too Elementary School in Kenmore Square, which serves children with severe special needs. "Now, when we go over to the river, we have to come back after only a short time because there are no bathrooms, phones, or water available."
In the meantime, Churchill and his students continue to sail with caution at the present pavilion, avoiding powerboats and riding out the wakes that these and larger vessels create. "The big boats go under the span of the bridge that is closest to our sailing boathouse because that's the deeper part of the river," he says. "Our boats have hit other boats. Some are scratched up, and others have holes in them. What we have now is a terrible situation. And the building is basically a shack. It has no bathrooms. The opponents claim that the footprint of the new sailing pavilion is 17 feet longer than our old building. That's because of the public amenities -- the concession stand and the public bathroom. I'm looking forward to this hearing because people in the community will be able to hear both sides of the issue and decide for themselves which side is right."
Read the sidebar "Sailing pavilion hearing scheduled for April 23"