Yard may go back to drawing board

October 19, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

FOREST HILLS—If the MBTA even wants to talk about a bigger Arborway Yard bus facility, it first has to seriously consider demolishing the 500 Arborway administration building at the core of the site.

That message—which could send the entire bus yard plan back to the drawing board—came out of an Oct. 3 meeting of the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY), held at the State Lab.

“We are going to be requesting that the MBTA, in good faith, do a very thorough cost-benefit analysis on replacing 500 Arborway,” CPCAY chair Henry Allen told the Gazette. Demolishing it “would solve of all [the MBTA’s] design problems with the facility,” he said. “That would be sort of the dream scenario, if you will.”

The MBTA has resisted the idea before. But General Manager Dan Grabauskas also recently apologized publicly for the
MBTA’s controversial announcement in June that the Arborway Yard design had to expand by an acre or more. CPCAY is banking on the MBTA’s newly cooperative tone to be a difference-maker.

CPCAY is also suggesting for the first time that 500 Arborway offices could move to a new building on the community redevelopment land that is part of the plan.

Meanwhile, CPCAY is supporting the original, unexpanded plan and declining for now to consider the MBTA’s current desire to expand the proposed facility by about a quarter-acre.

But the MBTA did present its proposed alternative designs at the meeting and responded to CPCAY questions. The MBTA raised what Allen called some “serious concerns,” such as the original plan’s routing of fuel trucks through buildings.

On the other hand, the new alternatives included at least one element that CPCAY says is non-negotiable. A small section of the site is earmarked for storage of trolleys in the event of Arborway Line service restoration. The MBTA is proposing “temporary” use of that site for bus parking and snow storage.

“That’s off the table,” Allen told the Gazette, adding that there is “no way” non-trolley use of the trolley section will be allowed while the trolley restoration controversy continues.

O’Reilly acknowledged the idea is politically toxic. “I can’t help but recognize that some folks see it, once we pave it, as something long-term,” he said at the meeting.

The alternative plans raised other serious issues with CPCAY members, including an acknowledged increase in noise after years of analysis and design to mitigate it. But, the CPCAY and MBTA agreed, little can be discussed about mitigations before a design is selected.

At the meeting, Charles O’Reilly, the MBTA’s director of infrastructure and engineering, said that demolishing 500 Arborway would be too expensive, but appeared open to doing the official cost-benefit analysis.

He also promised that no matter what, the MBTA will follow whatever plan the community approves.

“If the community doesn’t accept what we propose as an alternative or wants to go ahead with the 90 percent [rough draft] design as it is, we’re going to go forward with that,” O’Reilly said at the meeting.

“White elephant”

The Arborway Yard bus facility, at the corner of Washington Street and the Arborway, will house and maintain a fleet of MBTA buses and replace a temporary facility now there.

CPCAY has been helping the MBTA plan it for nine years. CPCAY has fielded many controversies, but the biggest is the fate of 500 Arborway.

500 Arborway sits in the middle of the proposed bus yard site. The facilities—a storage garage, a maintenance garage, a bus wash and a fueling station—would be built around it, resulting in a maze-like plan. The storage garage is currently designed as a roughly seven-sided structure to fit around 500 Arborway.

“The 90 percent design, where it’s designed entirely around 500 Arborway, makes no sense—zero sense,” Allen told the Gazette.

CPCAY member Allen Ihrer called 500 Arborway the “white elephant in the room” at the meeting.

The MBTA’s desire to expand the bus yard design is based on the facility being too small and tightly packed. By the Gazette’s measurements of the plan, 500 Arborway and a wedge of land in front of it cover nearly an acre—much more space than the MBTA’s current alternative designs seek.

The MBTA building is aging and widely loathed, including by MBTA employees. “Many people who work there would love to support a new building,” O’Reilly acknowledged at the meeting, adding that he didn’t like it when he worked there.

Five years ago, residents advocated strongly for demolishing 500 Arborway to free up space in the bus yard plan. CPCAY and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council endorsed the concept.

But the MBTA said demolition was infeasible because it would add tens of millions of dollars to the price tag. And that’s what the MBTA is still saying, only the numbers have gone up. O’Reilly said it would now add $45 million to $55 million to the price and a year to the timeline.

CPCAY members questioned those numbers, saying there would be many cost savings involved. That is the reason for the request for a cost-benefit analysis. O’Reilly said some analysis has been done, but suggested that more factors could be computed.

“You could save millions and millions…if you weren’t waltzing around 500 Arborway,” said resident and architect Rick Ames to MBTA officials at the meeting. “Look at the shape of that bus barn. It’s triangular!”

CPCAY also has an argument it didn’t have five years ago—a nearby alternative site for a relocated MBTA administration building. Part of the Arborway Yard site along Washington Street will be given to the city for community-directed redevelopment. CPCAY members suggested that if 500 Arborway is demolished, a new administration building could be built on that community land as an anchor for the redevelopment.

That land would be essentially free of cost for the MBTA, and the building could include commercial tenants, Allen said. The idea came out of the Boston Redevelopment Authority-led Forest Hills Improvement Initiative planning meetings.

Another difference from five years ago: The MBTA has a new general manager, and one who has pledged cooperation with CPCAY in the wake of the June expansion announcement fiasco.

Asked if CPCAY feels it has new political leverage to reopen the 500 Arborway issue, Allen said, “I don’t know it’s so much leverage. For the first time, there’s an openness on the part of the MBTA to even look at it seriously.”
Bigger is better?

While CPCAY is taking the political tack of sticking with the original 90 percent design for now, members at the meeting acknowledged MBTA concerns that the facility is too tight. Many members expressed interest in the MBTA’s offer to pay for design and maintenance of a green space buffer to the north of the bus yard in exchange for the expansion.

The MBTA is now proposing to shift the northern section of a huge wall that will surround the yard by 15 feet to the north. That would add about a quarter-acre to the facility. It would also cut into the land designated for green space.

The expansion is needed to make room for bus traffic, the MBTA says. The original plan has buses traveling a tortuous, one-lane path through the facility—including driving straight through buildings.

The MBTA now says that at least two lanes are needed to avoid blockages and make room for towing, bus turning, temporary repairs and snow-plowing. And driving through buildings is considered unsafe for employees—especially because the MBTA now expects fuel trucks to use the path as well.

“Honestly, it was stupid as well as dangerous,” Grabauskas said of the driving-through-buildings element in a Gazette interview last month.

Allen told the Gazette that element deserves a “hard look,” but also noted that the MBTA said it can build the original design and “find a way to make it work.”

At the meeting, MBTA officials presented a no-expansion design that essentially took the roof off part of the travel lane and found a bit more room by shrinking a bus maintenance garage. Officials then said this plan wouldn’t work.

The expansion plan, on the other hand, creates three open lanes—two for travel, and one for short-term parking for quick-fix repairs. This plan also involves shrinking the maintenance garage as well as moving the main bus garage about 30 feet west.

There might be another advantage to this plan. The Boston Fire Department (BFD) has required a 12-foot-wide, paved fire lane to be constructed around the outside wall of the bus yard. That runs right down the middle of the green space.

But, MBTA officials said, they believe the expanded interior travel lanes could double as the fire lane. That would essentially return a huge section of green space to the community.

O’Reilly said MBTA officials recently held a preliminary meeting with the BFD about the idea and said it appears to be negotiable.

Noise

Noise has always been an issue with the facility. Years of analysis and wrangling were spent before the MBTA agreed to construct noise-blocking canopies on parts of the site facing the neighborhood to the north.

The MBTA now says part of that system won’t work, because the pillars holding the canopy up will likely be hit by buses.

“The concern…is that those would not last very long,” O’Reilly said of the pillars.

In addition, expanding the facility 15 feet closer to the neighborhood and putting travel lanes entirely outside will also increase noise.

O’Reilly openly acknowledged that noise would be worse. “We need to deal with that,” he said.

MBTA officials and the CPCAY agreed that there’s no point going to the time and expense of more noise mitigation studies until a design is settled on.

“It really is much too early to even talk about or think about that,” Allen told the Gazette.

Whatever design is agreed on, CPCAY indicated it is motivated to decide soon. Construction costs are increasing due to the delay, O’Reilly said. The CPCAY already undertook a massive political campaign last year to secure what was thought to be the final construction funds for the bus yard.

Allen said he trusts Grabauskas’s word that the bus yard is a high-priority project for the MBTA and that funding will be secured for it.

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