The Esplanade Association convened its second Back Street Neighborhood Project Meeting virtually on Thursday, Feb. 1, to discuss an ongoing project that intends to create safer access at two entrances to the Esplanade on Back Street.
Ali Badrigian, director of projects and planning for the nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to maintain and enhance the Esplanade, then detailed initial work completed at two crossings on Back Street – a private way divided into numerous different parcels that runs parallel to Storrow Drive – at Fairfield and Dartmouth streets, respectively, since the Esplanade Association held its first meeting on the project via Zoom on Nov. 5 of last year. (The Esplanade Association is undertaking this project in partnership with DCR and the City of Boston.)
At the more westerly of the two footbridges on Fairfield Street, an old, faded crosswalk has been filled in, said Badrigian, while two white stripes were painted on either side of a painted “green swath” to indicate the pedestrian crossing and the continuation of a bike path that connects to a greenspace (i.e. the Esplanade). A two-way Stop sign has also been installed at the intersection, replacing two, graffiti-covered Stop signs, which were there before.
At Dartmouth Street, the previous conditions included a Pedestrian Crossing sign installed by DCR, which was “peeking out from behind a very healthy juniper bush,” said Badrigian, but no painted crosswalk at the roadway. Like at Fairfield and Back streets, two white stripes haven been painted on either side of a green swath for the pedestrian crossing. A temporary westbound Stop sign was installed on the back of the Pedestrian sign in January, she said, although a proposed location for an eastbound Stop sign “on the back of the same signpost was determined to be a potential hazard for drivers on Storrow Drive.”
But Badrigian, who has been working on the project since November together with Rachel Surette, project operations and sustainability coordinator for the Esplanade Association, added, “We know that two crosswalks and one sign isn’t quite enough to improve safety outcomes on Back Street.”
Additional ideas to improve safety include permanent Stop signs at Dartmouth and Back streets, which the Esplanade Association is now advocating for, said Badrigian, and would involve Stop signposts for eastbound and westbound traffic; a painted white line at each post to maintain proper distances from the crosswalk; and the blocking of “an unsanctioned parking spot to improve sight lines and provide more room for two-way traffic.”
Also, the Esplanade Association is proposing ‘Do Not Cross’ safety signage at Clarendon and Back streets, said Badrigian, to discourage pedestrians from dashing across Storrow Drive at the “vestigial” park entrance.
Martyn Roetter, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and a ‘key project partner,’ described Back Street as “a very peculiar street in a very peculiar city.”
“It’s a very congested arena, and there are plenty of safety hazards,” said Roetter, who said while Back Street is a two-way street, it’s often reduced to one way in some places due to cars double-parked there – sometimes in undeeded spaces – as well as when trash trucks accessing the private way twice a week for garbage collections.
Roetter predicted that conditions could get even worse there due to the proliferation of motorized mobility vehicles, and he also cited a “tragic” incident on Dec. 6, when a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle near the entrance to the Esplanade at Back and Dartmouth streets.
NABB has several committees, including its Public Safety Committee, Parking Committee, and Development & Transportation Committee, which are all relevant to the issues now prevalent on Back Street, said Roetter, and could offer “recommendations on how to make Boston a safer place.” He said NABB is willing to partner with the Esplanade Association and other stakeholders to improve safety conditions on Back Street but added that abutters would also need to get involved for the effort to be successful.
Meanwhile, Badrigian unveiled a RACI (i.e. Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) graph, which compared and contrasted the additional ideas for Back Street safety projects.
The least-expensive option, she said, entails neighborhood engagement via NABB committees, windshield flyers, and future community forums. This has an estimated cost of around $150, with an expected time commitment of between five and 20 hours, “depending on the engagement option.” If this option were to move forward, NABB would be the “responsible” party, added Badrigian, while the Esplanade Association would be held “accountable.”
Another option would entail the maintenance of new crosswalks, which, Badrigian said, would have an estimated cost of $1,500 and an expected time commitment of about 10 hours per crosswalk. For this approach, abutters would be responsible and NABB would be accountable.
A third option would be new stop signs, which is expected to cost $1,200 and have an expected time commitment of about 15 hours per sign. The abutters would be the responsible party, said Badrigian, while NABB would be held accountable.
The final option would entail the installation of speed humps, with a peak height of about 5 inches, which are expected to cost $2,000 and take around 25 hours to install per hump. Again, the abutters would be responsible, and NABB would be accountable, said Badrigian.
(Since most abutting buildings have more than one owner, Roetter noted condo associations would likely have to agree to participate in the program. And according to the city’s directive on speed humps, engineering plans would need to be submitted and approved in advance by the city’s PIC (Public Improvement Commission, while their design and installation would be the responsibility of abutting property owners.)
Jacob Wessel, the city’s public realm director, said unlike steeper speed bumps, speed humps have a “more gradual flow” and are “less abrupt,” causing drivers to slow down, rather than to stop. Speed humps also keep drivers from exceeding between 5-10 mph, he said, while speed bumps have a speed threshold of about 20 mph.
Wessel said he would consult with attorneys for the PIC on how to handle matters on the private Back Street – a “scenario” he likened to the Back Bay’s public alleys, which fall under the city’s purview. But without a “cohesive proposal,” it would be difficult for the attorneys to advise on the matter, he said.
Jen Mergel, the Esplanade Association’s James & Audrey Foster Executive Director, echoed a recommendation made by Roetter, suggesting that the first step would be to look at a map to determine the different stakeholders (i.e. abutters) on Back Street to better understand their responsibilities regarding maintenance of the private way.
(Wessel advised Mergel that the city’s Assessor’s Office could provide a map of each property, which would include unit counts, but wouldn’t specify whether property owners are direct abutters to Back Street and therefore responsible for its upkeep.)
Mergel suggested that the different options for Back Street should be prioritized by looking at what’s “most dangerous,” as well as their respective feasibilities.
Moreover, Mergel asked whether a Street Safety Fund could be launched under the auspices of NABB to solicit donations from abutters for future safety improvements to Back Street. She also said the Esplanade Association could perhaps work together with NABB “to fundraise for a maintenance or restricted fund.”
To access an audio recording of the Feb. 1 virtual meeting, visit https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/sngouhosxjteubt549g22/Back-St-Community-Mtg-2_2.2.24.mp4?rlkey=c18dhytve5yzefecn4et1zcf0&dl=0.
For more information on the work done to-date, visit esplanade.org/crosswalks, and to learn about how the Esplanade Association is working to make pathways in the park safer in partnership with the Department of Conservation & Recreation, visit esplanade.org/pathways.