During the early years of automobile ascendancy, New York’s Robert Moses perfected the strategy of using the public desire for parks as a wedge for the creation of “parkways” that were actually an early version of a regional highway system. In Massachusetts, the Olmsted-derived Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) -- previously solely focused on preserving water-shed forests, beaches, and parks -- saw this as an opportunity to turn the narrow corridors between its “reservations” into a similar network of higher-capacity roads in the metropolitan region. At stake was the enormous power that came from giving out the huge construction project contracts.
By the 1960s, the state Highway Department was able to tap into the open spigot of federal Interstate funding and eventually usurped the MDC growth strategy. (Some people say there was also an ethnic dimension: the Turnpike gave its business to Irish Democrats, under Republican governor’s the Highway Department favored Italians, and the MDC was one of the few remaining WASP strongholds.) But it has only been in the past few years, as the last of the highway-focused staff fade into retirement, that the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR, the new agency into which the increasingly discredited MDC was merged in 2003) has begun exploring ways to turn its parkways and boulevards back into linear parks that allow leisurely walking, bicycling, and driving while increasing public access and enjoyment of nearby natural resources.
Case in point: the pending redesign of 3-mile-long Morrissey Boulevard which, while capable of further improvement, is a gigantic step forward – hopefully the first fruit of the finished (but for some reason not yet released) Parkway Redesign Guidelines study done for DCR by Toole Design. While Mayor Walsh has expressed “concerns” about the plan, the fact that repeated traffic counts and analysis of future trends shows that the new design has plenty of capacity to handle anticipated traffic while also significantly improving neighborhood access to the harbor along with pedestrian and bicycle safety should ultimately win the day. Boston, hopefully, is still place where facts matter and livability for all is a priority.
FROM BURIAL TO REDISCOVERY
In 1953 the MDC widened Morrissey Boulevard into a six-to-ten lane, high-volume, fast-moving highway. But even though the creation of the Southeast Expressway (today’s I-93) in 1959 eliminated Morrissey’s role as the main gateway to the south shore, nothing was done to restore the adjacent community’s former access to the Harbor or to end the unspeakably unsafe conditions for walkers or bike riders. This was allowed partly because Massachusetts was still ignoring its rivers and coast, letting the sewerage-laden stinky water be hidden behind guardrails, fumes, and engine noise.
Today, fortunately, Boston and other coastal cities are rediscovering their shorelines, cleaning the water, and upgrading recreational facilities. Boston Harbor can be magic – beaches, playgrounds, and parks along the Harborwalk promenade opening out to stunning views across the now-clean water, sailboats and ocean liners hinting of adventure and the world. Now the city is once again looking east – redesigning the shoreline to promote public access.
Morrissey Boulevard runs along the Dorchester-facing harbor from the Neponset River (and adjacent new Greenway) past Tenean Beach, Port Norfolk Park, Dorchester’s Pope and Savin Hills, Malibu Beach, Mother’s Rest, BC High, to U.Mass Boston. Its current design encourages speed, provides few safe crossings, and leaves narrow and dangerously deteriorated sidewalks on either side. It is a barrier rather than an entryway.
DCR DOING GOOD
To its credit, DCR has begun a major redesign of the road with the triple goals of dealing with increasing “stormwater and flooding”; “provid[ing] safe, convenient, and inviting pedestrian and bicycle accommodations balanced with appropriate vehicular accommodations”, and “strengthen[ing] connections to recreational facilities, natural resource areas, and neighborhoods.” To its credit, DCR asked for input from pedestrian and bicycling advocates and community activists during the pre-design discussion stage and then incorporated some of their ideas, such as additional pedestrian crossing signals, into the proposed plan. And to its credit, the current 25% design raises the road height while acknowledging that traffic volume only need a total of four lanes, the service roads only 1 lane, freeing up space for other uses including excellent bicycle facilities.
The plan slows down entering car speeds and improves the safety of cars leaving the service roads by sharply curving the entry and exit openings. The intersections have been cleverly revised to allow shorter light cycles, allowing both speedier multi-directional traffic and less pedestrian waiting time. Additional signalized pedestrian crossings, not previously permitted because the priority was on keeping through traffic moving as fast as possible, will for the first time allow regular pedestrian access to Malibu Beach and in the commercial areas from one side of the street to the other. The two-way and one-way protected bike paths along with separated sidewalks on both sides of the road make the Boulevard into a continuous greenway route. It’s all good and shows that at least some people at DCR understand that the highway era is over. DCR deserves huge praise for all of this.
But, somehow, for all the improved details, some of the larger opportunity has been missed. The city of Boston has adopted a 25mph default limit, but Morrissey is being designed to make 35mph (and probably 10mph faster) feel comfortable. The sidewalks are not being significantly widened, with space instead being used for unnecessarily wide shoulders, medians, and still too-wide lanes that will encourage drivers to keep speeding. (National standards state that truck-carrying urban streets need only one 11-foot lane and one 10-foot lane.) Including a planting buffer between the road and sidewalk is good, but it would be better to use 2 feet of the proposed 6-foot buffer for sidewalk, expanding the walking space to allow couples and families to stay together. (Tree grates could be used to protect the plantings at the narrowest points.) The plan should include off-sidewalk social and activity spaces where people can sit, meet, look out, and play. (Neighborhood discussions could suggest the best places and structure of these facilities.)
The entry and exit parts of a project as just as important as the center. Unfortunately, the Mt. Vernon Street north edge of the project will be allowed to remain inhospitable to walkers and cyclists, although there is plenty of space for a sidewalk and protected bike lane through the intersection. And, small but hugely important, the design does not include plans for a gateway from the Morrissey paths to the wonderful Neponset Greenway – this will (hopefully) become an important route for non-motorized travel into Boston in future years!
There are a number of remaining uncertainties. A vital part of the Harbor-side route is the long-planned path from the outlet of Dorchester Basin past the famously painted gas tanks and then through Victory Park over to Tenean Beach; but it’s not clear when, if ever, that will be constructed. The Harbor beach between the start of that path and the Savin Hill Yacht Club needs to be cleaned and covered with sand instead of the brick-brac and garbage now there; but that project, vital to the chance for Dorchester families to have Harbor access, is similarly unscheduled (and probably not even funded). It’s not certain how well the new road’s structure will control the current open-everywhere parking spaces in the commercial area from Freeport Street to Neponset Avenue. It’s still unclear why there is no crossing from the Ramada Inn to the shopping center – people are constantly running across this obvious desire-line despite the danger. Will the pedestrian overpasses get needed repairs?
And has anyone ever thought about putting large plexiglass noise barriers along I-93 to cut the volume of the adjacent neighborhoods? If Morrissey gets quieter, why not the highway, too!
BOULEVARD/PARKWAY OR HIGHWAY
The three sections of Morrissey Boulevard – south of Freeport, along the water, north of U.Mass – are distinct and appropriately require slightly different treatments. But the final result, the vision and official purpose of all this work, is to create a parkway – perhaps even a greenway -- not a highway, and to finally allow the Boulevard to live up to its name. The current redesign plan is good. Very good. But it could be great.
Thanks to Nidhi Gulati, Lynn Holmgren, and Peter Furth for feedback on previous drafts.
Related Previous Posts: