My dog Eddie and I recently ventured out to an area of Cambridge that I’ve heard about for years, but never visited: North Point (or “NorthPoint”). I’ve lived in Cambridge for almost two decades, and I used to work in real estate, so I knew big changes were afoot in the Lechmere area, but when I mentioned North Point to a few friends, I drew blank stares. A dog walker I met there appeared astonished when I told her I’d come from all the way across town. “How in the world did you find this place?” she asked, as if I’d travelled 400 miles from my house in West Cambridge, not four. It’s hard to believe that in a city of just 7.1 square miles, any neighborhood still could be uncharted territory to many Cantabrigians — it’s almost as if “Here there be dragons” were scrawled across that corner of the city map.
Now that I’ve made the voyage and returned safely home, with a well-exercised dog and a bunch of good photos, I can attest that if you’re looking for a dog-friendly outing, North Point Park is worth the trip (vaux le voyage in Michelin Guide parlance). If you have the time and energy, nearby North Point Common also rates a stop (mérite un détour).
What’s North Point? A Primer for the Uninitiated.
Long known as “The Lost Half Mile,” the area now known as North Point was for many years an industrial wasteland blighting Cambridge’s riverfront opposite Boston’s West End. Located at the extreme northeast corner of Cambridge, in the elbow of the Somerville-Charlestown line, North Point is a burgeoning 100-acre mixed use development that is finally taking shape after more than a decade of legal and financial wrangling and marketing hype. The massive project has been proceeding in fits and starts since the mid-1990s, and the area is still a decade or two, and a stronger economy, from being fully built-out. North Point formerly served as the Boston and Maine Railroad’s freight yard and is still moated by transportation infrastructure: Monsignor O’Brien Highway and the elevated Green Line tracks (to the south); the Zakim Bridge, Interstate 93, Route 1, and the MBTA Fitchburg Commuter Rail (to the north); and Charlestown Avenue and the Gilman Bridge (to the west).
The neighborhood is not on the way to anywhere else, and unless you work at EF Centre, attend Hult International Business School, or know someone who lives in one of the three modern condominium buildings (Regatta Riverview Residences, formerly known as Museum Towers, or One and Two Earhart), the only way you’d be apt to find yourself in North Point is on a Duck Tour. (North Pointers have to make way for Duck Boats all day long, as the amphibious vehicles splash in and out of the Charles River via a ramp just beyond the park’s northern edge.) For those interested in the grand vision guiding North Point’s future, the City of Cambridge Planning Commission’s 2010 publication “Cambridge Riverfront Plan: Reconnecting People to the Water” (see pages 31-36) provides background information and several planning maps.
North Point Park: A Riverfront Gem
North Point Park boasts large open lawns where dogs can safely romp (Cambridge leash laws apply) and paved paths that wind along the riverfront, affording lovely views of the Boston skyline and the Zakim Bridge. Operated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the park also offers a large enclosed playground and a landing for small recreational boats. Ornamental grasses border the pathways, accented by a profusion of daffodils (in full bloom last week). The trees are still young, but large enough to provide some relief from the summer heat. The park’s master plan envisions six tennis courts and a 40,000 s.f. public skatepark. (The latter attraction has been long debated, but is inching closer to reality under the auspices of the Charles River Conservancy.)
North Point Common: A Future Central Park?
North Point Common is a green space that runs alongside North Point Boulevard, opposite the Earhart Street condos. Designed by internationally acclaimed landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh and completed in 2009, the grassy common is threaded by a serpentine network of trails for walkers and bikers. Van Valkenburgh created a series of sustainably planted swales to catch, filter and redirect stormwater runoff from the surrounding paved areas. The Earhart buildings, two sleekly modern low-rise buldings by the Boston-based firm Childs Bertman Tseckares constructed in 2006 and 2008, are largely clad in glass to take advantage of the views.
The common is an attractive amenity for current residents, but not a magnet for outsiders, as it lacks river views and instead overlooks an industrial no man’s land to the north. That will change in a decade or so, when more than a dozen planned commercial and residential buildings (totaling five million s.f) are built on the common’s north side (toward Charlestown and the Orange Line’s Community College station). By that time, the area will be very densely populated — the developers envision up to 2,800 residential units — and the common (also known as “North Point Central Park”) ultimately may feel too hemmed in.
Getting to North Point
The North Point neighborhood remains somewhat cut off from foot and bike traffic by the tangle of highways and railways that encircle it, which may account for why its two parks appear relatively lightly used despite the paucity of other green space in East Cambridge. City planners envision a new footbridge spanning North Point Inlet and passing above O’Brien Highway, which would connect North Point Park to the plaza in front of the Museum of Science, but that piece of the plan still awaits state funding.
The park’s entrance is a short walk (.3 mile) from the Lechmere T stop along busy O’Brien Highway (turn left off the highway onto Museum Way and walk under the elevated railway tracks). But if you’re traveling with a dog and don’t live on the Green Line, you’ll probably have to drive — and pay for parking. Most of the on-street parking around North Point is reserved for condo residents and guests, and the gated surface lots are for commercial tenants. On a weekday, the small number of two-hour spots near the park were all taken. There are several public garages across O’Brien Highway, including one on the corner 1st Street and the garage at the Cambridgeside Galleria mall. (The Museum of Science’s garage is more expensive, even if you’re a member.)
There’s a special water bowl for dogs between the two children’s playgrounds, but hungry humans will need to pack a picnic and a water bottle; there are no food or convenience stores in North Point. There is one restaurant, however: Lingo Bar & Grill, on the first floor of the EF Centre, is open weekdays only, 8 am to 9 pm, and serves moderately priced sandwiches, burgers and salads. The bar is open until midnight except Mondays.