Saturday, July 20, 2024

The entrance to Danehy Park in Cambridge’s Neighborhood 9 on Aug. 18. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Danehy Park will undergo a major set of renovations, to be developed and announced over the course of the next year. In partnership with a landscape consultant team, the city will create a capital improvement plan meant to identify specific areas for improvement in the context of several major goals.

The Departments of Public Works and Human Services have released a list of goals for the project, many centered around climate change to align with ongoing work to handle hotter days and floods. The plan aims to protect the ecological balance of the site while allowing visitors to engage with nature, according to an Aug. 7 memo to the City Council and conversations with staff conducted afterward.

Complicating the plan is the site’s history as a landfill. There’s still waste under the park, and methane generated by the decomposition process typically vents safely, though some escaped during drilling in March – the reason grilling isn’t allowed at the park this summer.

Other major goals for the park are centered around inclusivity. Danehy was created before the American Disabilities Act was passed, so many parts of it need to be updated to match accessibility standards. Additionally, the redesign will seek to accommodate a variety of transportation needs by improving bike and pedestrian access to many areas of the park. Finally, the capital improvement plan will increase the variety of activities available to park visitors.

Staff expect to come to the council in the fall with a dollar amount for the plan, irrigation improvements and some other work, and more funding requests are expected in future years for longer-term recommendations.

Community gets a say

The Louis D. Pasquale Universal Design Playground at Danehy Park in Cambridge on June 28, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

To ensure inclusivity throughout the planning process, public outreach will expand. In addition to the typical process of holding public meetings and tabling in the park, supervising architect Kevin Beuttell said, the planning team will identify groups of people that might not be able to make it to public meetings, meeting them where they are by showing up at activities and events.

Adam Corbeil, Cambridge’s director of recreation, described the construction of the Louis D. Pasquale universal playground as a microcosm of the process of redesigning Danehy Park, hoping to replicate the success of that project in collecting public feedback.

“We spent a lot of time talking to caretakers, people with disabilities, different stakeholders and schools,” Corbeil said. “Our disabilities commission weighed in on their experiences in other parks. Through those conversations, we ended up with a really really solid product that has gotten a lot of good feedback, and we have a deeper connection to people that were lending their voice and the groups they’re connected to.”

Irrigation failure

Danehy Park during drought conditions Aug. 8, 2022, when an irrigation system failed. (Photo: Charles Teague)

The park, now 30 years old, experienced a monthlong irrigation failure in July 2022 during a drought. A dozen trees died, according to the departments of Public Works and Human Services, and residents observed that many more appeared to be in distress. Repairing the irrigation system was delayed due to issues securing materials and coordinating with a contractor. Many residents were frustrated at the city’s slow response.

“Some of these trees were very, very large trees. They take 30 to 40 years to replace. You can plant all the little baby trees you want and it really doesn’t help,” said environmental activist Charles Teague, an early critic of the city’s failure to prevent the deaths.

The city plans to plant 120 trees in place of the dozen that were killed by the irrigation failure. But Cambridge’s “Healthy Forest, Healthy Trees” report confirms that it may take 30 years or more for a tree to develop a significant canopy. Staff also notes that the net tree loss rate in Cambridge since 2009 has averaged 1.6 per year – and if that trend continues, tree canopy will be cut in half by 2070. The majority of tree loss takes place on residential, not public, land.

Turning on the irrigation system in the spring of 2023 “went reasonably well,” said the Department of Public Works, but multiple additional repair needs were identified.

Ongoing needs

Teague is also worried about the city’s ability to perform other park maintenance tasks. “They don’t have a plan,” he said. “They’re promising that over the winter they will start to think about a plan. And right here, right now, there are safety hazards.”

Some of the safety hazards he cited include broken pavement, faded paint on dividing lines on pedestrian paths and damaged fences.

Corbeil acknowledged the damaged fences, noting that dealing with safety hazards and standard maintenance would continue as normal throughout the drafting of the capital improvement plan.

“We’re not shutting down all the work at the park. There’s definitely a lot of substantial work that can still carry on, even while we’re going through this planning process,” Corbeil said.

Working with what’s there

A rendering of a proposed Gateway Pavilion in Cambridge’s Danehy Park. (Image: City of Cambridge)

One project that will continue is the Danehy Gateway Pavilion, scheduled to begin construction in January with $11 million allocated in May 2022. This represents an equity success for female athletes, who complained for years that their playing fields were in worse condition than those for male athletes.

In addition, the capital improvement plan is expected to improve the ease of future maintenance. Although the planning process has not officially begun, the consultant team has begun meeting with the maintenance team so that its recommendations are informed by current practices and difficulties.

For example, existing paths through the park weren’t built with modern maintenance vehicles in mind, so it can be difficult for them to access certain areas of the park. The capital improvement plan will likely include updates to those paths, Beuttell said.

Beuttell intends to “initially be pretty aspirational with our plans for the park,” while also staying grounded in Danehy’s existing structure. “We’re not looking to blow up the park and completely rethink it. But it does give us the chance, in some areas of the park, to look at ways we should be reorganizing the spaces.”