Strawberry pier will be a great park

You may not remember the date, but you sure remember the evening.

Hundreds of islanders lined Eagle Harbor shorelines around dinner time on Jan. 9, 1997, watching in wide-eyed wonder as the historic and recently restored strawberry pier building at the foot of Weaver Avenue was destroyed in a spectacular blaze. Firefighters quickly conceded that they had no chance to save the building – “Everywhere we went, the fire was always ahead of us, and heavily entrenched above us,” the fire chief said – and went into a defensive posture, their efforts buttressed by the unusual fact that the burning building stretched out over the water and so would, given time, thankfully extinguish itself.

While the blaze displaced several small businesses and apartment dwellers – and erased an iconic structure that had graced the Head of the Bay for some 70 years – it created more opportunities that have come into focus with time. A development was proposed for the four-plus-acre parcel, but a creative land swap brokered by the Open Space Commission brought the coveted land into the public parks fold in 2004. Since that time it’s sat deserted, an expanse of asphalt and a few stubby pilings recalling what once was.

Now the city has turned its attentions to shoreline restoration there, one of several efforts that include the Waterfront Park beach. Peter Namtvedt Best – who, in terms of driving public policy discussions, has quietly become one of the more influential people at City Hall – will give a briefing on the city’s goals for the strawberry pier at this Thursday’s park board meeting. Hopefully, his report will advance planning not just for the shoreline, but for the park itself.

We islanders are great at buying parks and great at designing them, but sometimes not so good at completing them. An extensive planning process for Blakely Harbor Park has yet to yield any real results six years on; amenities discussed for Meigs Park in the mid-1990s never did come to fruition. Funding and personpower are always in short supply, but for an ever-crowded Winslow, the strawberry pier park offers a chance for a quick and needed return.

Planning amenities on the site should be comparatively easy. For one thing, it’s small. Too, because of the tide’s clockwork retreat from the Head of the Bay – the water is 400 feet from the shoreline at zero tide, says Namtvedt Best, who’s apparently measured – and the muddy flats, the parcel isn’t well suited to active waterfront activities like kayaking. That by itself limits the range of possibilities to argue over; no docks, no piers, no ramps. The cultural history of the site is also extensively documented, and could be easily assembled for interpretive purposes.

A useful model would be the new Hidden Cove Park, where planning was quick, amenities simple and few, and an excellent six-acre park went into use in short order. Start the strawberry pier planning process now; then, concurrent with shoreline restoration next year, develop the park. Shoot for a dedication by the end of 2009.

Why not?

Islanders want parks they can use today, not five or 10 years from now, and the strawberry pier has the makings of a fine one. Such opportunities – like the great blaze of Jan. 9, 1997 – don’t come along every day.

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