Editorial | Hoping that Healey hits reset at DCR

The Democratic nominee for governor, Maura Healey, has mainly positive things to say about Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration. By and large, we tend to agree. But, when Healey takes charge – as expected – at the State House next year, there certainly will be room for improvement and reform. And one agency that is ripe for an overhaul is the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

The DCR is an important steward in Dorchester and Mattapan. It’s charged with managing and maintaining many of our most critical assets: beaches like Malibu and Tenean; Morrissey and Gallivan boulevards; the Neponset Greenway; and parks like Pope John Paul II in Neponset and Ryan Playground in Mattapan.

There’s no question that there are many committed public servants at DCR who are passionate about these assets. But they have a lot of ground to cover across the Commonwealth and precious little funding at their disposal to execute well. Too often, that has led to a disconnect between the agency and neighbors in the communities we cover.

That dynamic was on display in a controversy that boiled up in recent weeks as residents learned about a DCR plan to remove a popular water feature at Ryan Playground in Mattapan. The wading pool is a magnet for families in warm-weather months and is one of the only assets of its kind in this part of the city. Earlier this year, regular pool users began buzzing as word filtered out that there was a plan afoot to remove the pool and replace it with a spray deck instead.

To some, this might seem a minor revision and, perhaps, even an improvement, since DCR argued that the deck would double the time available to use a water feature at the park. But the people who frequent the playground begged to differ. An upgrade, they said, would be welcome. But the pool should not be sacrificed in the process. And they should have been consulted in advance.

In a public meeting held on Oct. 5, neighbors were stunned to learn that not only was the pool scheduled to be demolished, but also that work was slated to begin at the site on Oct. 15. Neighbors and elected officials who joined the call insisted that DCR halt the plan and begin a new process for the playground’s renovations. Some even started an online petition.

To their credit, DCR has finally agreed to apply the brakes. But the agency was slow to make their own statement on the matter, leaving it to state Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley to convey the message. Sadly, part of that message seems to be that Mattapan is too low of a priority in the waning days of the Baker-Polito administration to mount a sensible public process in the first place.

State government —led by the next governor—should think hard about how to better link this agency or a successor agency to communities like Dorchester and Mattapan. In our experience, it has been far too difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get state officials to offer clarity on many important projects, up to and including upgrades to Morrissey Boulevard and the planned extension of the Neponset Greenway between Morrissey and Port Norfolk.

We hope that the turnover at the executive level will include a robust reset of how the agency operates and engages with stakeholders in our neighborhoods.

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