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The Parks and Recreation Commission is holding its first public meeting on the NewCAL proposal on Monday at 7pm in City Hall, Room 211.

The Commission has tremendous power with regard to any changes in use of the City’s open spaces, and they have a manual that is designed to guide their decisions. A portion of the manual is focused exactly on the kinds of issues brought to the fore by the NewCAL proposal, i.e., possible changes in use of open spaces for other city departments or functions. Here’s what it says:

1. The Parks and Recreation Commission supports the long term preservation of open space in the City of Newton for the benefit of current and future generations of Newton citizens. Open space used for park, recreation and playground purposes should be diverted to other uses only as a last resort after all other reasonable options have been found deficient.

a) In considering the transfer of land for a proposed new use, the Commission will analyze the short and long-term need for the new use in balance with the public trust served by the existing public open space use.

b) The Commission will insure that the intrinsic long-term public values of park and playground open space are weighed explicitly and substantially in the balance and are not overridden by the expediency that publicly owned park and playground open space does not require purchase or eminent domain. The consideration of intrinsic public values will include an estimation of the costs necessary to provide equivalents to the existing park and playground open space. The fact that using park, recreation or playground open space for a new use would be less expensive is not by itself sufficient to warrant the transfer of the land or to reject another potential alternative.

c) The Commission will not divert park and playground open space to other uses unless there has been a compelling showing that there is no feasible and prudent alternative, including both publicly and privately owned potential sites, as well as potential sites that are not currently in open space use.

I don’t see how anyone can believe that the NewCAL process to date meets these conditions for change in use. There has been so much talk about how the city can’t afford to buy private land as a deciding factor in its proposal to use public land–in direct contravention to the manual. But I am also concerned that the Administration does not fully understand other aspects of what the manual says. For example, at the City Council Finance Committee meeting earlier this week, the Commissioner of Public Buildings gave an interpretation of the P&R Commission standard of review that was at variance with the manual. Listen to minute 14:00 and following on the audio record of the meeting. In that segment, the Commissioner clearly explains why Weeks Park was not chosen as a leading candidate for the NewCAL site. While, as a neighbor of the park and long-time soccer-involved person, I like the conclusion he reached, the manner in which he did so–in my mind–misinterprets the appropriate standard of review for the P&R Commission. I worry how it might be applied elsewhere. He said (more or less, sorry for any transcription error);

One of the things that we established early on was that on any site under P&R Commission jurisdiction, we would do every thing in our power to replicate anything that we impacted when we went to that site. If we took a soccer field out of play, we would try to recreate that field on that site. [Emphasis mine.]
Compare this interpretation to the P&R Commission manual, which requires a consideration of the cost to “provide equivalents to the existing park and playground open space.” Not the feasibility of shifting a particular use of a park to another part of the park, but of the open space itself.
The point is that the city, through it Parks and Recreation Commission, has recognized the inherent value of open space. The process leading thus far to the NewCAL proposal has not.