The state is wrapping up its plan to make part of the Arborway better for pedestrians and bicyclists—and more attractive for everyone—following a final design presentation last week.
The “Gateway to the Arborway” plan began this spring as a fast-moving, results-oriented process focused on relatively small-scale improvements to the Arborway between the Casey Overpass and Murray Circle. It is called the “Gateway” plan because the overpass can be considered an entrance to the greenest part of the historic parkway.
The planning was spurred by the local Arborway Coalition neighborhood organization and carried out by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). A new round of state funding would be required to actually carry out the improvements. But they are intended to be inexpensive and can be done in phases as money becomes available.
The plan only addresses the edges of the parkway, not large-scale traffic changes.
Gary Claibourne of the state-hired design firm Pressley Associates presented the final improvement ideas at the last of three public meetings, held July 15 at Arnold Arboretum. DCR planner Shaun Provencher, who lives near the Arborway, said the plan will be finalized sometime next month after public comments are taken into account. Claibourne’s design presentation will be available on the DCR web site at Mass.gov/DCR.
The final designs presented by Claibourne included:
• Turning the entire sidewalk along the arboretum from Forest Hills to Murray Circle into a 12-foot-wide asphalt path for both pedestrians and bicyclists.
• Building a sidewalk at the base of the Hillside, a wooded area between the inner and outer Arborway lanes at St. Rose Street. The sidewalk would connect the currently dead-end overpass sidewalk with the outer Arborway, including a new crosswalk around 250 Arborway. In a big change based on public comments, Claibourne is no longer calling for the sidewalk to cut into the Hillside. Instead, the green space will be extended into the current breakdown lane on the Arborway to gain breathing space, and the sidewalk will take a meandering park-like path through the flatter, northern end of the Hillside.
• Removing the chain link fence from the median strip between the inner and outer Arborway lanes around the arboretum crosswalk. It would be replaced with a 4-foot-high black steel picket fence running the entire length of the median strip. A variety of shrubs would be planted along the fence, along with a new row of the Arborway’s standard red oak trees.
• Installing new Victorian-style signs to identify the Arborway. A version for pedestrians/bicyclists involves a sign hanging from a crossbar. A larger square sign would welcome drivers and replace the existing drab signage. Several residents suggested that the signs include directions to the arboretum and Franklin Park—what resident Sam Sherwood called “signage that makes sense.”
• Establishing a vegetation management plan for the Hillside. The entire Gateway plan sprang from controversy when DCR mistakenly clear-cut part of the Hillside last year. Parts of the management plan are already in effect, while larger items such as planting new trees would come later. The Hillside would basically remain as it is: partly wooded and partly mowed. Claibourne also proposed new plantings along a retaining wall on the southern end of the Hillside. The entire Gateway plan would add 54 new trees to that section of the Arborway, for a total of 176, Claibourne said.
There is no clear-cut schedule for carrying out the improvements. Provencher and Claibourne offered as a pure guess that the median fence/planting part might go first. That’s because DCR already has an ongoing, statewide fence-installation contract in place, and the change would not involve any traffic engineering studies.
On the other hand, the simple idea of turning the arboretum sidewalk into a mixed-use path has a big complication. The historic stone wall that borders the arboretum is crumbling in several places. It is actually a retaining wall for the Arborway, and its failure is causing the existing sidewalk to buckle. The wall would need to be repaired before a new path goes in. That is outside DCR’s authority, because the City of Boston is responsible for the wall.
“It’s holding up a good deal of the Arborway itself,” Claibourne said of the wall. Provencher told the Gazette that its failure appears to only threaten the wide sidewalk area, not the main roadway.
The overall plan appeared to be welcomed by the audience of about 40 residents. But traffic safety remained a general concern to residents of a road plagued by speeding cars, bicyclists on sidewalks and similar hazards.
Michael Halle of the Jamaica Plain Traffic and Parking Committee was among several residents who complained about the deliberate lack of traffic engineering in the plan, calling it a “missed opportunity.”
Provencher has explained that traffic engineers were largely left out of the process to keep it moving quickly and to focus on low-cost improvements. DCR traffic engineers would be involved in the actual construction of such improvements as the new crosswalk and the removal of the breakdown lane.
The new crosswalk was a major concern because it would be located at the base of a hill with poor sightlines. When Don Eunson of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy suggested it be built as a raised crosswalk to slow down drivers, several audience members made a pleasant “ooh!” sound.
“The suggestion for a raised crosswalk is, I think, a good one,” Claibourne said. But, he added, DCR has never built one before, so the idea would be in uncharted bureaucratic waters.
Eunson called for higher curbs to keep drivers from running over trees. Halle expressed concern that the new fencing and shrubs could create a visual tunnel effect for drivers that could encourage more speeding.
Halle also argued against paving the mixed-use path, saying the existing sidewalk could be repaired to serve the same purpose. “It doesn’t let you do something you couldn’t do before,” he said of the paved path, adding that the concrete sidewalk keeps the area from looking like yet another paved road.
But Sarah Freeman of the Arborway Coalition noted that asphalt is used on the Emerald Necklace’s other mixed-use paths, which theoretically will be connected to the Arborway version someday.