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‘Devolving into a morass’: Town wrestles with future of Larz Anderson ice rink

Skaters at the Jack Kirrane Ice Skating rink on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. Photo by Zoe Zekos
January 19, 2024  Updated January 25, 2024 at 4:19 p.m.

The town’s contentious decision-making process on the future of the Jack Kirrane Ice Skating Rink in Larz Anderson Park has hit another snag.

A programming study, intended to help the town decide whether to restore the outdoor rink, build a new indoor facility instead, or combine the two, is now on pause. A deadlocked Park and Recreation Commission voted on Jan. 9 not to let the study move forward, expressing confusion and disagreement about its intent. A next step won’t come until Feb. 13 at the earliest.

It’s the latest delay in what has been a years-long effort to decide the fate of the 70-year-old outdoor rink after repeated failures of its refrigeration system in 2019 and 2020. Since then, the rink has run on expensive, temporary refrigeration systems, which cost $160,000 in the first year and more than $100,000 each year since.

Little progress has been made to answer the key questions raised by the degradation of the rink. How should the town balance the need for more space for hockey against a desire to maintain the historic rink and character of the park? How would a major new project be paid for?

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John Pan, a member of the Park and Recreation Commission, said at the Jan. 9 meeting that work is “long overdue” at the current rink, whatever course the commission decides to recommend and the town ultimately decides to pursue.

“We’re in a very bad situation right now,” Pan said. “Every month that we meet together and continue to talk about it, we’re just kicking the can down the road. We as the town need to come together and do something.”

In 2020, the town appointed a task force to help aid its decision, resulting in a 173-page feasibility study published two years ago. The study floated the possibility of building two rinks on the existing site, one outside and one covered or enclosed.

According to the feasibility study, repairing the existing outdoor rink would cost between $4.8 and $7 million, while the two-rink options would cost $36 to $51 million. It does not offer a cost estimate for the option of building a single, indoor or covered rink.

The potential for a large, expensive construction project in historic Larz Anderson Park led to fierce debate among residents, which has slowed decision-making, town officials say.

Two years later, the process remains messy and strained.

“This is really devolving into a morass of many, many different opinions. We’re just going to be stagnating here,” said Jim Carroll, another Commission member, after hearing public comments at the Jan. 9 meeting.

That meeting followed a Dec. 6 public hearing that was widely considered disastrous. One commission member later called it a “fiasco;” another called it a “boondoggle.”

It was unclear who was running the meeting. The representative of EDGE, the consulting firm hired to research the town’s options, was unable to answer a number of questions. A technical issue prevented people attending the meeting in person from seeing slides. And attendees on different sides of the issue yelled at each other over the Zoom call.

Campaigns on both sides of issue

An online petition calling for restoring the outdoor rink rather than building a new, enclosed facility has gathered more than 6,000 signatures.

Its proponents, led by the Friends of Larz Anderson Park, have argued that the rink is a “town jewel.” Building a larger facility, they contend, would both remove a rare venue for outdoor skating in the Boston area and threaten the green space and nature of the park.

“Everyone deserves to skate, sled, and be in nature without threat of a huge indoor rink,” stated a post on the Facebook page of Friends of Larz Anderson Park. Supporters of restoring the outdoor rink, including the town’s Preservation Commission, have also cited its historical significance.

“The entire Larz Anderson Park, including the Jack Kirrane Skating Rink, is a national and state historic site,” said Arisa Boit, a leader of the Friends of Larz Anderson Park. “It is deeply concerning that despite the Preservation Commission’s summer 2022 letter that supports maintaining the existing rink, discussions continue about a proposal to construct an indoor hockey facility that does not include the preservation of this extraordinary asset of the town.”

The campaign has high-profile backers, including all 15 Town Meeting members in Precinct 15, which contains the park and Select Board member John VanScoyoc.

“Outdoor skating at Larz Anderson Park has been a favorite winter activity in Brookline since the 1950’s,” VanScoyoc recently wrote on the social media site X. “It will be better than ever if the Park-Rec Commission focuses on restoring (not enclosing) the Jack Kirrane ice rink.”

Families skate at the Jack Kirrane Ice Skating rink on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. Photo by Zoe Zekos

Although supporters of a new indoor facility are a less organized coalition, they have also made their voices heard in front of the commission and in other venues.

They argue that the town needs a modern facility that can be used for both public skating and hockey.

Currently, hockey at both the youth and high school levels is limited in Brookline by the size of the rink and its exposure to the elements.

The rink is open for a shorter season than nearby rinks, from mid-December until the first week of March. The Reilly Rink in nearby Brighton, for example, is open from September until April. Proponents of restoring the outdoor rink at Larz Anderson argue that updated design and equipment could extend the season.

Brookline Youth Hockey, which serves about 400 participants each season, often must rent space in other towns at off-hours and at higher prices because of the limited season available at the Kirrane rink, according to board member and past president of the organization Bob Allen, who is also a former chair of the town’s Select Board.

“We tend to lose a lot of kids to either club hockey teams or neighboring communities,” Allen said. “We feel this impact most with our learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs.”

Because of the size and weather conditions, neither the high school hockey teams nor Brookline Youth Hockey can play official league games at the Kirrane rink.

“In a perfect world, we would like a rink that is protected from the elements and allows us to run a longer hockey season comparable to neighboring communities,” Allen said. “A town the size of Brookline should have a rink they can be proud of.”

What’s next?

Clara Batchelor, chair of the Park and Rec Commission, said she recognizes that there are two factions at loggerheads. “I hope we can move ahead in a very respectful way. But it’s pretty heated,” said Batchelor. “I would hope that a compromise could be reached.”

The Commission will meet next on Feb. 13, when it is slated to vote on a scope of work for the EDGE contract.

Once that work is allowed to go forward, EDGE, which specializes in building and operating athletic venues in Massachusetts, will study various possible uses for the rink, how each might benefit residents, and what revenue each use might generate.

The commission is also interested in a “cultural and historical” study of Larz Anderson Park as a whole, which was recommended in the feasibility study, Batchelor said.

The commission will eventually make a recommendation for how to proceed. The Select Board will consider the commission’s recommendation, and Town Meeting, which approves the town’s budget, would ultimately vote on funding the project.

Cost and funding loom as major issues. There are no funds in place yet for a restoration or replacement project.

Batchelor believes that ultimately the commission will need to work with the town administrator to come up with a final plan.

“The Park and Recreation Commission really isn’t that used to having projects with this kind of price tag,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the town’s feasibility study was 535 pages. In fact, the report is 173 pages, not counting appendices. 

Update: A previous version of this story stated that the Sierra Club of Massachusetts supports the campaign to restore, not replace, the rink. That statement was based on a Tweet from the MA Sierra Club directing followers to sign a petition from the Friends of Larz Anderson Park. That Tweet has since been deleted, and a representative of the Sierra Club said the organization does not officially support the campaign.