Private Capital For A Public Vision

Carter Playground renovation welcomes a new generation of residents

By Elizabeth Zipf
Photos: Hill International, Inc.

A once-underused city park located along Boston’s Columbus Avenue Corridor in the South End and Lower Roxbury neighborhoods, the new William E. Carter Playground represents more than the typical urban green space. The $26-million project is a result of a unique public-private partnership between Northeastern University and the city, and offers a myriad of shared benefits to city residents and university students.


Carter Playground ushers in a new era of recreation, complete with modernized playing surfaces, specialized equipment for children with disabilities, and a temporary Seasonal Air Structure (SAS) “bubble” over one of its fields to facilitate year-round use. The park’s transformation is part of the university’s commitment to making physical improvements along the edges of its campus that benefit neighboring communities. Achieving the project was a complex undertaking that involved constant coordination with a number of key private and public players and project stakeholders, as well as meeting construction challenges with creativity.

Realizing Shared Goals
In 2013, the university proposed an amended Institutional Master Plan and cooperation agreement for city review and approval, with specific goals to address Carter Playground’s need for a complete renovation.

The project was an opportunity for the university to work with the community to improve a vital recreational resource, while providing a prospective partnership for the city. To that end, Northeastern provided the funding for the project and has committed more than $80 million to maintain the park.

The university’s planning department, community affairs, and general counsel took the lead in drafting a reciprocal licensing agreement with the city’s parks and recreation department for a 30-year period, with contingency options. The city remained the primary land owner of 5 acres of the renovated site, and the university leased 1.5 acres of land to the city to expand the athletic-field footprint and offer more programming opportunities at the park.

Supporting A State-Of-The-Art Park
The university selected Hill International, Inc., to help realize the vision of a shared-use space. Hill provided owner’s representative services during design and construction. Project features comprised two multi-purpose, state-of-the-art turf fields, tennis courts, an inflatable air structure, and playground.

Designed by Stantec and manufactured by Field Turf, the new turf fields include a shock-absorbing brock pad underlayment, slit-film synthetic fibers, and a combination of sand and crumb-rubber infill to foster a resilient and high-performing turf surface. In addition, much of the storm-drainage capacity for the 6.5-acre site is located in the turf field-base stone layers, making the fields more resilient. The turf underdrain system accommodates rain, making the fields playable not only after rain events, but also during them. The infiltration rate of the turf fields is considered “free-draining” with little to no surface-water accumulation. The tennis courts are situated on an innovative post-tension concrete slab. The five tennis courts will be used primarily by the community and Tenacity, an enrichment program for city youth.

The playground area includes equipment tailored for children up to 5 years old, as well as other equipment for children aged 5 to 12 years; there is also equipment specifically for children with special needs. Features such as ADA-accessible ramps, surfaces, slides, merry-go-round, and swings make the playground more inclusive. Rubber safety surfacing throughout the area reinforces fall safety and serves as an impact-resistant surface. The playground area also sports a splash pad with various water jets, a runnel, and an ADA-accessible water table.

In addition to general project oversight, one key responsibility was the value-management program, in which Hill designated a targeted list of cost-reduction opportunities while maintaining the university and design teams’ program and design objectives. The project also uses the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) v2 Rating System—a rating and accreditation program intended to define sustainable sites and landscapes.

Coordinating With Stakeholders
The Carter Playground project involved numerous stakeholders, many with interests in individual stages of the project, and with a diverse range of needs. The stakeholders included the university’s Athletics/Campus Recreation Department, Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, and operations staff; the Boston Parks and Recreation Department; the National Park Service; Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA); Amtrak; Boston Fire Department; and Boston Inspectional Services Department, among other agencies that required approvals prior to construction.

“The Hill team took the lead with stakeholder coordination and expectations management from day 1,” says Hill’s Senior Project Manager Ian Parks. “During the design phase, we managed university and city officials during the review, input, and acceptance stages for the final plans and specifications. It demonstrates one of many areas where Hill helped to streamline and oversee project decision-making while maintaining budget and schedule.”

Community participation and involvement were critical throughout the work. Hill coordinated a series of three public meetings with the parks and recreation department to review the proposed scope with the community. The meetings served as both information and Q&A sessions, as well as a conduit for overall project feedback on playground features.

Construction took place adjacent to the Amtrak Commuter Rail, MBTA Commuter Rail, and MBTA Orange Line alignment. The Hill team facilitated a closely coordinated effort with both Amtrak and MBTA to review design documents and work plans, set-up licenses for entry, and schedule flagmen and oversight throughout construction.

“Any activity that could potentially foul the railroad tracks was fully coordinated with the MBTA and Amtrak,” explains Parks. “These included the caisson drilling for athletic light poles, 90-foot athletic light-pole erection, micro-pile installation for the dome, and placement and inflation of the dome structure. The use of cranes for 30-foot ball netting and dugout erection, as well as placement of modular structures, were also managed by the Hill team.”

Managing Environmental Concerns And Safety Challenges
One of the early construction challenges was drilling and installing 143 micro-piles around the perimeter of Field 1 to support the foundation system for the SAS, which is the seasonal air-inflated dome to be installed yearly in November and to be removed in March.

Says Parks, “The proposed 36-foot drilling rig height was conflicting with 80-year-old heritage elm trees along the south-field perimeter, and was also within fouling distance of the railroad bed along the north-field perimeter. In addition, the trees could not be trimmed during the proposed drilling timeframe in late summer due to the risk of a potential beetle infestation in the city. So, we had to come up with a creative alternative.”

Approvals with the MBTA and Amtrak were still in progress at the time, and prevented activities within fouling distance of the tracks. Hill worked with the construction manager, Bond Brothers, and caisson subcontractor, Hayward Baker, to develop a plan to utilize low-headroom drilling rigs, 19 feet in height, along the north- and south-field perimeters at 36 micro-pile locations to circumvent elm tree conflicts and MBTA/Amtrak approval conflicts. The city and MBTA/Amtrak approved the plan, and the schedule was maintained for this critical path activity.


A Partnership With A Sustainable Future
The Reciprocal Licensing Agreement between the university and the city confirms that both the students and the surrounding neighborhoods will enjoy a park lifespan of at least 30 years with routine maintenance and care. In addition to providing recreational benefits, the partnership affords the community enhanced sustainability for future generations.

The renovation improves Carter Playground’s stormwater management system, reduces the burden on city infrastructure, and provides substantial benefits to downstream aquatic resources and habitats. The design of the SAS drainage system, for example, conveys drainage through a trench drain around the perimeter of the structure. The stormwater enters into the stone storage area under the field through a number of siphon structures that allow water to enter, but prevents the escape of air from inside the structure. This allows the same under-field storage area to manage water year-round without compromising the pressure within the structure.

In addition, Carter Playground is the first SITES-certified initiative in the city.

“Carter Playground champions green building technology, especially in site conservation, water management, soil and vegetation control, and sustainable-materials selection and construction,” Parks notes. “However, the project also connects us to a bigger picture for public health and sustainable awareness, thanks to the successful collaboration of private and public institutions. Carter Playground marks a step forward in the right direction.”

Elizabeth J. Zipf, LEED AP BD+C, is Senior Vice President in charge of the company’s Proposals, Graphics and Marketing Group. Reach her at