Obviously a lot has changed in the last 100+ years, and as we are now doing planning that will shape our neighborhood for the next 100+ years, it is time to re-consider the location, design, and use of Smith Field.
A lot of land - Not a lot of use
Often, Smith Field is empty or close to it. 14 acres is a lot of space, but Smith doesn't offer much to attract many users, as shown in Boston's Park Used Most Often data. Only 8 people selected Smith as the park they use most often, while 20 chose Ringer Park (10 acres) and 14 chose Rogers Park (8 acres). This is a small number of respondents, but I think the percentages would be similar in a larger survey. So while park size is necessary for some uses, a bigger park is not necessarily a better or more popular park, and after all, the point of having parks is for them to be used and enjoyed.
How much do we use what Smith Field now has?
Today Smith has 3 softball fields, 2 little league fields, 2 basketball courts, a small playground, open areas used for soccer, and a street hockey rink. Dogs and an occasional golfer are also seen at Smith. Do we need so many softball & little league fields? Could we use 14 acres differently to provide more recreational options for people who aren't interested in playing ball?
Urban planner Steve Cecil commented on Tuesday that the position of Smith Field limits the possibilities for the future of Barry's Corner. He explained that a 60 foot gap in active uses along a street discourages pedestrians from walking further. Smith Field's 400 foot long stone wall and often silent contents clearly qualifies as such a break in the continuity of pedestrian experience.
One possibility would be to narrow Smith Field along Western Ave. The playground and basketball courts behind it could remain where they are. The little league field that is currently along Western Ave could move either onto the 9-acre WBZ property or the abutting property that is already owned by Harvard.
This move would allow Barry's Corner to expand to the west and join with the existing (but empty) retail stores (former home of Charlesbank Cleaners) and down towards the new and much-improved Holton Street Corridor that was also discussed at Tuesday's meeting.
Should Smith Field be divided into multiple, smaller parks?
There are other locations in the neighborhood where decent sized parks could be created that would be more accessible to more people.
At Tuesday's meeting we saw three designs that would create a lot of new parkland in the Holton Street Corridor and other parcels such as the old Verizon building at 224 Western Ave (next to the Dunkin Donuts) have been mentioned as possible park locations. There are also some small commercial/industrial buildings along Franklin St and elsewhere that could conceivably relocate to make room for small parks in the neighborhood.
A balance of large and small parks is crucial. Tiny Winthrop Square in Cambridge (corner of JFK & Mt Auburn) was mentioned several times at Tuesday's meeting. It is a nice little park, but it is a very little park and it is not the only park in the area. The much larger Cambridge Common and JFK park are a short walk away and provide places for playing ball, running dogs, and other things you can't do in a 1/16th of an acre.
Shattering Smith Field into a dozen tiny parks is not the right answer. But being bound by inertia and 110 year old land-use decisions is also not the way to make a great 21st century community.