Cambridge’s historic structure sees new life as an urban green space and center of nature

The Massachusetts Audubon Society held a groundbreaking ceremony outside a historic powder magazine along the Charles River in Cambridge on Tuesday to announce plans to turn the granite structure into an urban natural center.

“This is the first urban green space that we have partnered on in a new era in Mass. Audubon, where we are focused on providing more green space and more programs to urban communities,” explained Audubon chairman David O’Neill speaking to area residents who have crammed into the stand-alone structure of Magazine Park.

Cathie Zusy recalled walking Magazine Beach Park ten years ago with neighbors in Cambridgeport, picking up trash and bottles outside the old magazine building. Everyone agreed that the park was an eyesore.

“When we started here we just couldn’t understand how the park could be in such bad shape,” she said.

So, in 2016, Zusy, a museum curator, formed Magazine Beach Partners to clean up the area, with the goal of turning the building at its heart into a center of nature.

“It has always been our dream for the park,” Zuzy said.

She partnered with local and state officials including the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and the City of Cambridge to redo the public space just off Memorial Drive.

Over the years, a canoe and kayak launching ramp has been built and accessible from a new waterfront path. Thousands of new native plantations have rejuvenated what had been barren plots, and the patio and terrace behind the powder magazine were enlarged.

As Magazine Beach was emptied of its trash and discarded bottles, thousands more began using the renovated park, but the on-site building was underused, if at all used.

It began as an ammunition storage site in the 19th century, then evolved into a public bath, an MDC (formerly Metropolitan District Commission) garage, and more recently a largely abandoned structure.

Shortly after its formation, Beach Partners Magazine contacted Audubon to take over the powder keg, O’Neill said. “But as an organization, we weren’t prepared or ready. And then when I joined about a year and a half ago, I got a call from Cathie Zusy and she said, “You have to come and see this space and see the opportunities that are out there here.” So we did.

The Audubon Society said the Urban Nature Center fulfills part of its five-year action program consisting of three major priorities: protecting resilient landscapes and promoting biodiversity; Commit to inclusive and equitable access to nature; and Take meaningful action against climate change.

During the ceremony, around ten people were scattered around the park: a man taking photos, several people exercising and others sitting by the river.

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said during his speech at the event that the new nature center would be an added attraction.

“This park will hopefully be a community and cultural center, and we are really lucky to have such a great partner in Mass. Audubon,” she said. “I have no doubt that they will be incredible stewards of this park and set the bar high for what community engagement can look like.

The Audubon Company plans to begin winter programming outside the facility in December and will open the nature center to the public in the spring of 2022.

Ida M. Morgan