Proposed Closing of Portion of Dartmouth Street Raises Questions and Concerns

With the city authorizing further study on the permanent closure of a section of Dartmouth Street near the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library to vehicular traffic, the question remains about what this would ultimately mean for the future of traffic in the neighborhood.

Between June 7 and 17 of last year, the Boston Planning & Development Agency and the Boston Transportation Department engaged in their Copley Connect pilot, which shut down access of Dartmouth Street between Boylston Street and St. James Avenue to motor vehicles to create expanded pedestrian space.

“For the first time, Copley Connect unified two of

Boston’s most iconic civic spaces—Copley Square and the Boston Public Library McKim Building Plaza—into a grand civic space, bookended by Boston Public Library’s McKim Building to the west and H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church to the east,” according to a BPDA board of directors memo dated Jan. 19 of this year. “This new public space maintained the existing bike lane and featured café seating, food trucks, performances, block parties, outdoor yoga, dance lessons, and programming for library activities.”

At its Jan. 19 monthly hearing, the BPDA board of directors voted to authorize a request for proposals (RFP) to engage a consultant design firm for a one-year term for an amount not to exceed $100,000 to assist the city in the preparation of the “Copley Connect Design Services planning study.”

The RFP will allow for the hiring of a consultant to build on the pilot program by developing a range of possible design alternatives for future use of the street. BPDA staff is currently refining the language in the RFP, which will be shaped by conversations the city’s Transportation Department is having with stakeholders in the neighborhood.

“The pilot found that the vast majority of those who completed surveys had very positive opinions of Dartmouth Street being made a permanent car-free space, and a majority of respondents were highly likely to visit more often with such a change,” according to a the BPDA’s Jan. 19 board memo. “An analysis of motor vehicle routes in the area found that travel times during the pilot were generally comparable to pre-pilot travel times. Motor vehicle traffic decreased substantially north of the pilot block on Dartmouth Street, which made for more comfortable walking and biking conditions.”

This matter was among the topics discussed at the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay’s board of directors meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the French Library, according to Elliott Laffer, chair of the NABB board.

Ted Schwartzberg, a senior planner with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, and Jacob Wessel, the city’s public realm developer, made a presentation on the city initiative.

Also on hand for the meeting were Rep. Jay Livingstone, City Council President Ed Flynn, City Councilor Kenize Bok, and Tiffany Chu, Mayor Michelle Wu’s chief of staff.

“It was an interesting discussion, and there was a lot of unanimous concern expressed by the NABB folks in the room and elected officials on the impact of closing the street,” said Laffer. “We certainly appreciate the city coming to talk to us and appreciate the elected officials and the representatives of elected officials coming to the meeting. We hope that this increases the understanding of what the severe negative impact of closing that block would have on the traffic network in and around the Back Bay.”

Despite published reports to the contrary, Laffer said city representatives on hand for the meeting maintained that “nothing is baked” concerning the proposed permanent street closure.

“The study is designed to find out what the impacts will be,” he said.

As Laffer sees it, though, the impact of closing Dartmouth Street is already evident.

“The real impact isn’t what happens on Dartmouth Street but what happens to the network,” he said. “Berkley Street is really the key to the whole thing.”

While on average, the closure wouldn’t have much impact on Berkeley Street traffic, the problem, Laffer believes, is when it does have an impact during times of heavy traffic, the effect would be severe.

“And Berkeley Street gets pretty messed up to begin with,” he added.

There are only five ways to drive from south of Stuart Street and Huntington Avenue to the heart of the Back Bay, said Laffer, including Berkeley Street, which is already “very congested”; Dartmouth Street, which would be cut off per the plan; Ring Road, a private street that provides very limited access between Huntington Avenue and Boylston Street; the combination of Belvidere and Dalton streets, which is “a very long route around and a very narrow street”; and Massachusetts Avenue, which, he said, is a long way from  Dartmouth Street.

“To take out the essential connector, it’s almost inevitable that those who can’t use Dartmouth Street will use Berkeley Street,” said Laffer. “Berkley runs so close to capacity, if anything blocks if off – if a car double-parks, if a repair needs to be made in the road, anything like that – traffic backs up from that point to the South End really quickly because the road is so close to capacity.”

The key intersection at Berkeley and Beacon streets, which carries traffic to Storrow Drive and also from Beacon and Charles streets and the rest of Beacon Hill, would get even more backed up that it already does, Laffer predicts.

“This is a very challenging intersection all the time for cars, bikes, and pedestrians,” he said. “It’s dangerous and frequently congested on a not particularly terrible day from Comm Ave to Beacon, and on a really bad day, for much longer than that. Frustrated people stop in the intersection on Commonwealth Ave and then Comm Ave gets back up is a very frequent occurrence.”

Laffer added: “It’s a very important issue that impacts more than the Back Bay. It will impact anyone who gets off the Turnpike at Copley Square and isn’t going to the South End.”

Still, Laffer said there’s “a lot of acceptance” on finding a more visually appealing connector between Copley Square and the Copley library branch than the existing blacktop.

Moreover, Laffer said it wouldn’t be “unreasonable” for the city to continue temporarily shutting down a portion of Dartmouth Street to accommodate special events on Boylston Street, such as the Boston Marathon or First Night.

But to close Dartmouth Street during regular commuter hours,  Laffer said: “Nobody in the Back Bay or anyone else I’ve talked to think that closing the street would be an acceptable outcome.”

Like Laffer, who also pointed out that Copley Connect didn’t accurately reflect the normal year-round vehicular traffic patterns, since the study was conducted in June, as well as during the pandemic, Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president and executive director of the Back Bay Association, was in agreement on the need for a more comprehensive and protracted traffic study surrounding the initiative.

“We have asked the city about what they plan to study because the most important element…is that they do a deep-dive, Back Bay-wide traffic study of impacts this would have on all 12 months of the year,” said Mainzer-Cohen, who wasn’t on hand for the Feb. 15 NABB board meeting.

Mainzer-Cohen said the study would need to closely consider the fact that every business in the Back Bay needs to receive deliveries of some type.

Additionally, Dartmouth Street, she said, is “the central vein to access Boylston and Newbury streets and the surrounding area.”

If the plan is to permanently close Dartmouth Street between St. James Avenue and Boylston Street, it would effectively put a stranglehold on “the heart of the magnificently planned Back Bay street grid,” she said, by forcing vehicles to go around the circumference of the neighborhood to get through its center.

“People end up going where they don’t want to go to get to where they want to go, and they have to go out of their way to get there in most cases,” Mainzer-Cohen added.

Like Laffer, Mainzer-Cohen agrees that there’s an opportunity to perhaps add some transitional paving between Copley Square and the library, as well as an opportunity to look at the roadway capacity and the possibility of expanding the library plaza over one of the existing traffic lanes.

“We are also open to some short-term closing to accommodate community events,” she added.

Mainzer-Cohen, however, expressed concern “that the city’s promotional materials appear to depict what we hope is an inaccurate portrayal that [a portion of] Dartmouth Street will be permanent closed.”

Rep. Livingstone said he can understand the city’s desire to enhance the area, especially given the Boston Parks and Recreation Department’s plan to update the design of Copley Square Park and the BPL’s plan to rehabilitate the McKim Building, including the Dartmouth Street Plaza.

“I agree that if the city is spending so much money renovating Copley Square and the steps to the Boston Public Library, that the space in between them should made as beautiful as the other two spaces,” he said.

And while Rep. Livingstone said he personally enjoyed the added pedestrian space in the area created via Copley Connect, he doesn’t believe that it would adequately justify the permanent closure of that segment of Dartmouth Street.

“I had a great time with my family on Dartmouth Street when it was closed, but the games that my kids played and the activation that they the city did with the space could have been on Copley Square,” he said. “I don’t see the benefit of closing Dartmouth Street for many months of the year when no one is doing any outdoor activities. Closing Dartmouth Street so people can sit outside, especially in the winter, is not something anyone is going to benefit from.”

As a resident of the Back Bay, Rep. Livingstone usually travels on foot, but on the rare occasions when he does drive in the neighborhood, he said he’s acutely aware of increased traffic volumes at Berkeley and Arlington streets for much of the day.

“And it doesn’t take much to trigger a cascading traffic jam off those ripples,” he added.

Construction in the road, a vehicle double-parked, or a car breaking down, he said, can cause “ripples throughout the area and remove part of the grid and only make those ripples significantly worse.”

But Rep. Livingstone said he too wouldn’t object to occasional closings on Dartmouth Street for special city events.

“Closing Dartmouth Street for occasional special events, as we currently do, I’m fine with,” he said, “and I look forward to greater public discussion on what these occasional big events would look like.”

Council President Flynn outlined his concerns with the Copley Connect plan, especially regarding its potential impact on public safety, in a letter dated Feb. 7 to Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief of streets, and Arthur Jemison, chief of planning for the BPDA.

 “Dartmouth Street, along with Berkeley Street, are two of the main thoroughfares for residents traveling north from South End and St. Botolph into Back Bay,” Council President Flynn wrote in part. “Our first responder units – Boston Police Department D-4, Boston Emergency Medical Services headquarters, and two supporting arms of the Boston Fire Department at Bay Village (Engine 7 Ladder 17) and South End (Engine 22) – are all located south of Back Bay. Currently, in the event of an emergency, these units would utilize either Dartmouth Street or Berkeley Street.”

Council President Flynn continued: “Permanently shutting down Dartmouth Street at Copley will not only increase traffic times at an already congested Berkeley Street, but also critical response times. With a significant number of residents, businesses, hotels, schools and colleges interwoven across Back Bay, it would not only be unwise but irresponsible from a public safety standpoint should there be an emergency in the area.

“Every second is critical when it comes to public safety,” he wrote.

(“Emergency vehicle access on Dartmouth Street will continue to be an important design consideration,” according to the city.)

Over the past year, City Council President Flynn said he has received numerous calls, emails, and letters from nearby residents and businesses, as well as from NABB, expressing  their concerns and opposition to Copley Connect.

“In the feedback I have received from residents in the area, a consistent theme has emerged regarding transparency and concerns about the community process, with their position being that it has been completely bypassed with minimal neighborhood engagement,” wrote Council President Flynn.

Meanwhile, Councilor Bok believes the biggest question ultimately comes down to what the area should look like.

 “For me, the biggest question we need to collectively answer right now is actually not about regulation or closure, it’s about how this space should look,” she wrote. “At a time when we’re redoing both Copley Square and the BPL front steps very soon, I think there’s an obvious opportunity to put in some beautiful pavers and create that continuous European square visual, anchored by the architectural splendor of Trinity Church and the Central Library. 

“As we know from Downtown Crossing, we can have special pavers in an area that cars, buses, and emergency vehicles still traverse, or that closes on Sundays or for special occasions. Even as I’ve heard major concerns from my Back Bay constituents about permanent closure, I’ve heard lots of enthusiasm for the beautification of that block, so I’m looking forward to zeroing in more on that aspect,” added Councilor Bok.

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