By Karen Cord Taylor
If you live in downtown Boston, you probably know this place from your car only. This is where either you paid your first toll on the Mass Pike after you sailed past BU, or where you got on the pike via a long, winding ramp after driving out from downtown on Storrow Drive. Either way, since you drove, you may not be aware of details you’d be conscious of if you lived in the area or walked through it.
But a task force has been at work for three years on a project that would realign the Mass Pike, re-order the entrance and exits ramps at that location and free up about 100 acres owned by Harvard for redevelopment into streets, sidewalks and buildings—a real part of the city. All this takes place roughly between the Harvard Business School and the BU Bridge.
The plans began because MassDoT realized the Mass Pike viaduct was in need of repair. Coincidentally, the viaduct was adjacent to land, the underlying rights to which Harvard bought in 2000 and 2003. Over a period of about 15 years, Harvard and the rail company CSXT entered into agreements that relocated most of the old rail operations between the Charles River and the Mass Pike to places farther west, and the land was sitting there, waiting. So when MassDoT announced it would have to rebuild the viaduct, after nudging from Allston, which is the neighborhood amid the tangle of ramps, streets, former rail lines and pike roads, everyone said, “Let’s do it right.”
After many community meetings, the planning is almost finished and has come down to three options for the viaduct, said Bob Sloane, who has represented WalkBoston on the task force. But what happens to the viaduct is not as interesting as what happens to the neighborhood.
Remarkably, said Jessica Robertson, a task force member from Allston, the neighborhood and Harvard basically agree on how to move forward. Actually, she used the word, “shocking.” Robertson called what is there now, “a huge waste of urban land.”
Kevin Casey, Harvard’s vice president of public affairs and communications, said Harvard sees huge potential in this project. “We look at the MassDoT approach as a new opportunity,” he said. “It changes the pike’s contours, creates a street grid providing development opportunities for Harvard and the region, while removing longstanding impediments to neighborhood circulation, and makes a nice connectivity between Cambridge and the Longwood area.”
Perhaps not a perfect connectivity between Cambridge and Longwood, but one that is better than the circuitous route people now use.
To help envision where the street grid would be, think about the Doubletree Hotel, isolated among roads and ramps, the elevated Mass Pike and the little building that says Houghton Chemical. The grid would be between that forlorn hotel and about where the Mass Pike is now. That grid would connect to the rest of Allston. The stub of Cambridge Street that becomes River Street in Cambridge at the Charles River would benefit from becoming a street that could be lined with buildings instead of an isolated road for cars.
Because MassDoT could leave the viaduct in place while it creates the new pike alignment this plan would also minimize disruption, Casey pointed out.
This project also provides a chance to deal with some of Allston’s streets that have been compromised by traffic. Robertson hopes that bridges will be repaired and made more friendly to pedestrians. She also hopes the new streets in the grid will be narrow ones that invite strolling rather than becoming wide raceways for cars.
The project includes plans for West Station, a new stop on the South Station-Worcester commuter rail line. Robertson said Allston used to have three stops on a rail line. Bringing one back seems the least that should be done. There is also the possibility of more rail connections to Cambridge and beyond with the Grand Junction line, which goes over the rail bridge under the BU Bridge.
Many devilish details still need to be worked out. One section is narrow. Making room for the park along the river, Storrow Drive, the Mass Pike and rail lines is hard, said Sloane. Whether to build the transit station now or later is also not determined.
Robertson worries about that. “MassDoT has a history of committing to building transit and then the highway is done and transit costs too much and is not built,” she said.
Casey said Harvard has no development plans yet for the area, which is near its enterprise campus along Western Avenue. “[It] will unfold over a long-term process, taking the better part of ten years,” he said. The area would not necessarily be occupied by Harvard buildings only. Robertson hopes for some affordable housing, since Allston, like everywhere else needs such a thing.
The Draft Environmental Impact Report is scheduled for release this fall. Meanwhile, the project’s cost is unknown and how to pay for it isn’t determined, said Patrick Marvin, a spokesperson for MassDoT. There is no official timetable yet either, but Sloane estimates that if everything goes well—a big if—it would be 2021 or 2022 before construction could begin.