After delaying the opening of a popular water fountain in the Charlestown Navy Yard last summer and then putting a fence up to keep people out once summer ended, the Boston Redevelopment Authority on Tuesday presented an alternative: A new, kid-friendly splash pad to be built on the grassy knoll between Building 36 and the existing playground.
But while many people are upset about the closure of the Shipyard Park fountain, those attending the meeting this week said they weren’t sure the community wants a replacement.
Just a handful of residents turned out for the meeting at Constitution Inn, held at 7 p.m. on the evening of the president’s State of the Union address. But those who did come said they represented many other voices in the community—people who had been using the fountain to play in for decades and were frustrated with the way it was suddenly closed.
“This is something that people in the Yard have been using for 30 years,” Charlestown Neighborhood Council member Mark Rosenshein said. “So the fact that you’re changing it does not justify the need to change it.”
‘Dark of night’
The issue first surfaced last June when residents began to wonder why the water hadn’t been turned on, according to CNC vice chairman David Whelan. After some complaints, the city turned on the water and families enjoyed the fountain as usual for the rest of the summer. But around September, once the water was shut off for the season, a fence suddenly sprouted up around the fountain.
“In the dark of night the rails went up,” CNC member Barbara Babin put it.
BRA project manager Geoff Lewis said the fountain had been closed off for safety reasons—the water is not filtrated or chlorinated and too deep for play without a lifeguard present and the fountain’s sharp granite edges and varying heights make it a hazard.
“It was built to be decorative,” Lewis said. We’ve looked the other way for all these years. That comes to an end. I understand it’s a problem for some. But that’s a situation we just can’t continue on with.”
CNC members wondered why the city couldn't just renovate the existing fountain to make it safe and acceptable.
“How much time was spent on turning something that the community has greatly enjoyed for a long time into something safe and wonderful as opposed to just shutting it down?” Rosenshein asked.
Lewis and others presenting on Tuesday said the fountain would require significant upgrades to conform to modern building code—changes that would ruin the fountain’s aesthetic look and cost more than building a new play area.
When the BRA met with the community about the fountain closure, residents seemed to “demand” a replacement for the area, Lewis said.
But CNC members said the community was demanding that the fence be removed so the old fountain could be enjoyed again, not that the city build a new one.
New splash pad
To ease residents’ concerns, the BRA has been working with aquatic design architects from Weston & Sampson to develop a new play area for children.
The existing fountain would remain, with water flowing this summer, although officials are still working out how to keep kids out without the fence.
The proposed “splash pad” would be located between the playground and Building 36, which houses classroom and study space for Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute of Health Professions. It would be a short distance from the Shipyard Park fountain and across the brick path from the Korean War Monument.
“It’s known as a splash pad or a spray deck,” said Cheri Ruane of Weston & Sampson. “The water flow is actually controlled by the kids.”
By pressing down on an activator bar or foot pad, kids can make water spray out of a series of features, with flow diminishing as the pressed item lifts back into place. The system would be timed according to the community’s wishes, so no water is running when kids aren’t there playing.
Karen Cusack, also of Weston & Sampson, showed two designs—a hexagonal area about 20 feet in diameter, or 1,700 sq. ft. in total, featuring nine play features surrounded by a low granite wall or a more oblong-shaped area about 1,900 sq. ft. featuring 12 play features. Both options would likely incorporate a rubberized flooring designed for even safer play.
Several residents questioned why the splash pad could not be located further back on the property, behind the playground and away from the IHP building and war memorial, with concerns about added noise.
Ruane said the land was steeper there and would require more grading and that ramps and handrails would have to be built into the feature to make the play area universally accessible, increasing the overall cost as well as making the project more complicated.
In addition, that location would bring the feature closer to Eighth Street, so a fence would probably be needed to keep kids away from the road, Ruane said.
Several people on Tuesday discussed the issue of skateboarders in the Navy Yard, saying youths like to use the sharp edges and varying heights of the current fountain to ride and jump from. The new fence has provided another challenge for them to enjoy.
“It’s far more dangerous now than it ever was,” Whelan said of the fountain.
In designing the new splash pad, architects accounted for the presence of skateboarders and worked to make it less attractive, with rougher edges and less jumpable features.
“While not skateboard-proof, every effort has been made to make it as inhospitable [to skateboarders] as possible,” Ruane said.
Residents also said that if the splash pad was built they would want a more natural color scheme used, no primary colors, and possibly an old nautical theme to tie it into the Navy Yard. They also preferred a flat, step-on type of activator rather than ones located above the ground.
There were also concerns about using potable water to feed the splash pad—even if the city would be paying the water bill, as BRA members said.
Rosenshein suggested using a more sustainable system that treats and re-circulates the water. He also was concerned that the feature look like a park and blend into the area when not in use—about eight to nine months of the year.
Overall, most people said they weren’t sure the community wanted the new feature, even if they would not be getting the fountain back for play use.
“I’m not so sure the community wants this water element in the park. It’s taking up more green space,” said Babin, a Flagship Wharf resident.
She questioned how the BRA intended to pay for the new project, noting that residents were still waiting on a bridge that had been promised to connect the development to the water shuttle after it was moved from Pier 4 to Pier 3 several years ago.
Lewis did not specify where the money would come from but did say the splash pad would cost much less than the bridge, which he estimated at about $500,000.
Navy Yard resident Barbara Lloyd Baker said even with a new play area the fountain would attract kids on a hot summer day, and skateboarders all other times.
“I am not convinced that putting a water park in is going to keep kids out of the fountain,” she said.
Originally, the BRA had promised to have the new feature open by this summer, but CNC members said the community needs more time to review the proposal and consider the options.
The council as a whole is expected to consider the project, and additional community meetings will be held, Rosenshein said.
In addition, the CNC may be looking to do some sort of survey of Charlestown to gauge interest: Do residents want a new splash pad or to keep the green space as it is?
CNC members also reiterated that the city needs to remove the fence.
Lewis said eventually the city hopes to post signs to help curb misuse of the fountain but that after 32 years of residents using it a certain way, a physical barrier was necessary to begin to change people’s behavior.