Crowd unleashes ideas at planning session

November 3, 2006
By

PETE STIDMAN

FOREST HILLS—Parking lots dotted with crack baggies and drunks lying in the shadow of a “hideous overpass…”

An extended Orange Line and a Southwest Corridor Park with fingers reaching south down Hyde Park Avenue and Washington Street, teeming with bikes and pedestrians in the revitalized core of Boston’s greenest neighborhood…

These are some of the more extreme before-and-after images painted by some of the 125 residents who piled into the Covenant Congregational Church for the first Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII) meeting Oct. 21.

This and three other meetings organized by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in coming months will help create a “community vision” that the BRA promises will guide development, transportation, streetscape improvements and help determine zoning for the area. The BRA has also said they would forward ideas about three specific T-owned parcels of land just south of Forest Hills Station, which the MBTA is hoping to sell. The MBTA would then use the information in its Request For Proposals to potential developers.

The demands for mixed-use, affordable, owner-occupied housing and retail at the meeting might have been expected, but the crowd also called out loudly for major improvements to bicycle and pedestrian accommodations, a major chain grocery store and giving almost everything in sight of the T station a big facelift. More repeated than any other theme, though, was Forest Hills residents saying that they just don’t feel connected.

“When I first moved here I told my friends, ‘We just made it into JP. We sneaked in just inside the line,’” said Shierronda Almeida. “We’re like the stepchild over here.”

The Arborway overpass and the “wasteland” underneath it, said residents, form a barrier when they try to walk or bike to the shops on South Street or JP Center or cross over to the Southwest Corridor Park.

The sentiment was echoed, though imperfectly, in numbers collected by an online survey conducted by the BRA. Over 60 percent of nearly 200 self-described Forest Hills residents chose traffic as the area’s leading problem, and over 84 percent chose “Encourage walking, bicycling and public transit” as the best way to manage parking supply and demand.

The way the questions were asked on the survey didn’t provide an explicit way to choose the need for improving pedestrian connections, but that point was made clear repeatedly at the meeting and in the write-in comment fields of the survey.

The BRA sent out the survey to over 100 people. Several recipients then forwarded it to their neighborhood associations and other community organizations’ e-mail lists.

“Currently, to get from my home to JP Center,” wrote one anonymous responder, “I’m forced to walk through a parking lot and a bus station, and to cross railroad tracks and walk in front of a bus line. Not the best thing for a healthy urban flow.”

“My vision would be more of a connecting point, where you can bike right through,” said resident Marie Kennedy in one break-out group at the meeting. A resident from another group came up with the idea of extending the Southwest Corridor Park South of the Forest Hills MBTA station, taking advantage of the T parcels in question as open space.

Perhaps the grandest connection-making vision came toward the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, when resident Elizabeth Wiley, employed by the green-building-championing HKT Architects, proposed a green-themed Forest Hills.

“There are these green spaces that are hugging us,” she said in a Gazette interview just after the meeting. “Let’s use that as an overarching theme for development. Now that concern about global warming is no longer just a hippie trend, there’s a coming together of strange bedfellows. A lot of research and development money has been going into green technologies.”

She proposed requiring green-building techniques in any new development and “21st century design” for all planning, including transportation.

Another attendee, picking up a decades-old JP battle cry, brought up extending the Orange Line. When moving the elevated Orange Line underground, was still a proposal in the mid-’70s, it included plans for tracks all the way from Medford to Needham along commuter rail lines.

Plans for stations in Needham and West Roxbury still exist on the MBTA’s Program for Mass Transportation, but have been considered low priority because of the high cost relative to benefits, according to Thomas J. Humphrey, an analyst at the Central Transportation Planning Staff of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“It’s an interesting thought,” said BRA project manager, John Dalzell in a Gazette interview. “Harvard used to be the Northern end of the Red Line, and it would diffuse the railhead obligation.”

If the line were extended, the switching yards between the arboretum and Washington, where Orange Line trains sleep at night, could potentially be relocated or reduced in size. Of course, such a project would require tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of state and/or federal funding.

And it isn’t just the T station, the train yard and the busy traffic that are creating obstacles, said one anonymous survey respondent.

“I was excited to be so close to the arboretum and thought I would visit often,” she wrote. “After living in the neighborhood, I am hesitant to go with my small baby since I must pass through the train station. I fear for my safety. Between teenagers loitering and the homeless drunk men, I keep away.”

Drunks, drugs and an idea for teens
Many at the meeting expressed concern about public drunkenness. Some said they also recognized the needs of thousands of teens flowing through the station to and from schools across the city. But, drugs, drinking and loitering teens were repeatedly cited as problems that need to be addressed.

“There are just weird people hanging out there,” said resident Jane Albert. “We need places or shops where people can hang out and build community.”

Some of this talk spread into lamentations over the existence of drinking establishments on Hyde Park Avenue, but this trend was countered by those who’ve lived in the neighborhood longer.

“In 1970 we had every race here, the kind of community we try to create now,” said Kennedy. “A lot of those old-schoolers are still around. When we talk about the businesses, I know people who think of the Fireside Tavern as their neighborhood bar. I celebrate the people who hung on through those bad times in the neighborhood, and I don’t see them here.”

New solutions for the public drinking problem, outside of enforcement, “upscaling” local businesses and banning the sale of nips at the local liquor store did not materialize. But one idea did address concerns expressed about loitering teens.

“I would love to take advantage of how Forest Hills is a hub for kids and save space there for a teen center,” said resident Jean O’Leary. Others echoed the idea.

New development
The names “Trader Joe’s,” “Whole Foods” and even “Star Market” were uttered openly, and often, as possible new businesses to lure onto one of the open MBTA parcels. Somewhat paradoxically, the crowd applauded when one group proclaimed “no large box retail.” A slightly less common, but well-supported, suggestion was a “City Feed” type store—referring to the locally-owned convenience store at 66 Boylston St.

Where such a store might go was left up to conjecture, but residents got specific on the image of mixed-use affordable housing and local independent retail space on the parcels, even coming to some consensus on the image of three- or four-story buildings. Some others expressed the idea that any development would only make traffic congestion worse.

Hourglass traffic
“The hourglass shape of this area is a problem,” said Almeida referring to the geography in which two large parks funnel all through traffic down Forest Hills’ two main streets. “Anything that connects [between Washington and Hyde Park] will relieve some of the congestion.”

Similarly, another resident suggested connecting Walk Hill Street over the T tracks to Washington. And still others said that simply timing the lights along Hyde Park Avenue would remedy the situation. Several repeated calls for a full traffic study of the area before any plan was put together.

“Our approach with the traffic study has been full integration with the community process. Unfortunately this has made it less visible,” said Dalzell. “We are going to do a full-blown, comprehensive traffic study for Forest Hills.”

Phase one of that project, said Dalzell, will be interactive, identifying problems through the community process and also taking into account other aspects of the initiative that might effect traffic flow or require changes. Currently, the BRA is collecting detailed traffic analysis that is likely to be released in late December or January.

Phase two will involve a more comprehensive engineering effort taking all the collected information into account.

“What we don’t want is just the traffic engineers’ take on the movement of cars,” said Dalzell. “We want to see how a bike moves through there also. The community advocacy on what the study should focus on will make the difference, otherwise, they will focus on cars.”

Next steps
The second meeting in the FHII series, titled “Best Practices and Ideas,” will refine the “community vision” collected in the first, get site-specific with development ideas and collect ideas for the streetscape and transportation issues. The date is set for Dec. 5, but the location has yet to be determined. The formal announcement will be placed in the Gazette.

The fourth meeting and first phase of the FHII is set to happen in February, 2007, and the final plan is scheduled to be presented to the community in May, 2007.