Massachusetts Ear and Ear Infirmary’s latest expansion plans elicited a largely critical public response on June 27 at the first public meeting to vet the proposal.
The $343 million project includes the construction of a 1,065-car garage below two existing parking lots, which would be converted into a 3-acre park, as well as a 180,000 square-foot expansion of its building at 243 Charles St. to accommodate more doctors and scientists under one roof, according to hospital officials. The expected duration of construction is 30 months, but in addition to state and city permits, the project would require state legislation to insure a long-term lease for the existing parking lots that are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
“We will not ask lawmakers to submit Article 97 [legislation protecting land acquired for natural resource purposes] in this legislative session,” hospital President and CEO John Fernandez said to the approximately 100 meeting attendees, “and we will go through any and all state and city permitting processes.”
Fernandez said the garage plans also take into account a proposal to reconfigure Storrow Drive and consolidate traffic under one arch of the Longfellow Bridge as outlined in Esplanade 2020 – The Esplanade Association’s long-tern vision for enhancing and restoring the park.
Despite the hospital’s assurances, a 32-year resident of Charles River Park expressed concern about the possible traffic impact on the already congested Charles Circle area.
“I don’t see how the roads can support all this traffic,” he said. “It’s going to be horrendous, and it’s really going to add to pollution in the area.”
Fernandez responded that the hospital would undertake a comprehensive traffic study based on the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program. “We’re going to work with the city and the state over the next couple of months to determine the scope of the study,” Fernandez said.
Meanwhile, a letter from Charles River Conservancy President Renata von Tscharner emphasizes the non-profit’s “grave concern about this permanent use of state parklands for non-park uses.”
“We believe that this is an inappropriate use of parklands because the proposed [hospital] building and parking garage would represent a permanent private use in a public park with little public park benefit and the potential to do great harm to the Esplanade’s parklands,” von Tscharner wrote. “The land in question is already dedicated public parkland, though it has been inappropriately in private use for on-grade parking at a fee to the benefit of [the hospital]. To build a private underground garage in parkland and to justify its new garden roof as a “public benefit” is simply not appropriate. In addition, the existing land contains many mature trees that would be destroyed for the proposed garage.”
Fernandez said the project wouldn’t move forward without community input.
“If we need other legislation to move this forward, we’ll tell you about it,” Fernandez said. “There will be no Article 97 [legislation] this session without community support. We can’t do this without you.”