Bigger bus yard plan approved

December 5, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

FOREST HILLS—The MBTA got approval to expand its design for the Arborway Yard bus facility by about one-third of an acre—in exchange specific new mitigations—in a controversial 7-4 vote on Nov. 19 by the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY).

The vote was actually a re-vote, reversing a previous CPCAY decision in April that opposed the expanded design. While the new design won over a majority of CPCAY members, it drew sometimes heated opposition from nearby residents.

“We have a strong position, and we’re leaving it…Say no!” said resident Curtis Jones, pounding the meeting table with a fist, right before the vote.

But after years of a “temporary” facility operating on the site at the Arborway and Washington Street—and a decade of stop-and-start planning—most CPCAY members at the Nov. 19 meeting at the State Lab seemed convinced that moving the design forward was worth more compromise.

“It may be hyperbole to say this, but I believe we’re at the point of either adopting this [expanded plan] or letting it sit for an undefined period of time,” said Merlin Southwick, head of CPCAY’s design committee, before the vote.

CPCAY member Allan Ihrer later told the Gazette it was a “hard deal, but we think it’s a good one.”

No one seemed enthusiastic about the approval. The vote was met with tense silence, and the meeting was immediately adjourned.

The MBTA can now finalize its bus yard plan and possibly start construction, which would be years from now. But MBTA officials did not attend the meeting, and it is unclear what they actually will do now. The MBTA’s press office did not respond to Gazette requests for comment.

In exchange for the expansion, the MBTA has promised to pay for a city park behind the bus yard and to design new noise-blocking roof structures over the bus yard. That is in addition to other mitigations that would come no matter the design, including giving about 8 acres of the site to the city for community-approved redevelopment.

Some CPCAY members and residents have questioned the MBTA’s ability and desire to pay for the new mitigations. No cost estimates or any other detailed information about them have been issued. The project budget, including design and construction, is already $229 million.

Jim Hunt, the City of Boston’s environment chief, said at an October CPCAY meeting that he could produce at least a rough estimate of the park budget in time for the next meeting, as the Gazette previously reported. That idea was key in cooling down controversy about the pending re-vote.

But Hunt did not attend the Nov. 19 meeting, and his offer of budget information was not mentioned until resident Anne McKinnon, a planning expert who often works with the MBTA, asked about it.

CPCAY chair Henry Allen responded with a lengthy attack on the Gazette for being “inaccurate, and you can quote me on that,” implying but not stating that Hunt had never said anything about providing budget information.

In fact, other CPCAY members later told the Gazette, Hunt was unable to provide the budget information, but CPCAY leadership decided to go ahead with the re-vote anyway. Hunt did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.
In any case, Allen and Southwick said, many budget details can only be known once the facility design moves forward. “If they don’t follow through on [the mitigations], we may have another fight on our hands,” Allen said of the MBTA.

The specific motion that CPCAY voted to approve included detailed “friendly amendments” from member and abutter Joyce Perkit. The amendments make the approval conditional on the MBTA and the city providing budget and design details to CPCAY before beginning construction. Despite successfully inserting those requirements, Perkit was among the CPCAY members who voted against the expansion.

Surprises

The Arborway Yard saga has been full of surprises, starting with the MBTA’s announcement a decade ago of its unilateral plan for the site. With strong backing from Mayor Thomas Menino and other officials, residents were able to form the CPCAY and get design review.

Over the past 18 months, CPCAY meetings have been a series of surprises, with previously solid-seeming decisions disappearing.

In June 2007, the CPCAY met to approve a final plan for the facility. But MBTA officials then stunned everyone by announcing that, despite previously agreeing to the plan, it would not work. Instead, the MBTA demanded a facility 1 acre larger.

MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas later apologized, but said the MBTA still preferred a somewhat larger plan for practical and safety reasons. He also promised that the MBTA could and would build the original, smaller plan if the CPCAY preferred it.

In October 2007, the CPCAY said it would consider approving a larger design on one major condition: the MBTA had to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of demolishing the 500 Arborway administration building now on the site and rebuilding it elsewhere. Most of the problems and complexities of the Arborway Yard plan are a result of the MBTA’s insistence on keeping the aging 500 Arborway building in the heart of the site.

MBTA officials conducted the analysis, but did not include several factors it promised to include at the CPCAY meeting. The analysis concluded that demolishing 500 Arborway is infeasible.

In response, CPCAY voted in April to approve the original, smaller design. But at last month’s CPCAY meeting, MBTA officials revealed a new expanded design, and CPCAY leadership called for an immediate re-vote to approve it.

That move was rejected as a high-pressure tactic presented with too little information. It ended with Hunt’s promise of more budget information. But it appears that offer would have gone unmentioned at the most recent meeting if McKinnon had not asked about it.

Ihrer told the Gazette that the group expected a letter from Hunt containing budget information. “We thought we would have it,” he said, while noting the difficulties of making such estimates.

Southwick told the Gazette that it turned out that “three weeks wasn’t enough time” for Hunt to provide the information. “We felt like we could go ahead. We felt there were critical time issues.”

McKinnon later contacted the Gazette and expressed confusion about the situation and Allen’s comments.

Controversy

Critics of the expanded design say that the MBTA is getting a tangible benefit in exchange for vague, possibly infeasible mitigation offers.

Allen noted that there will be no mitigations at all if the MBTA continues playing its trump card—the “tempo-rary” facility currently on the site.

Southwick raised doubt about the MBTA’s pledge to build a smaller facility if the community preferred it. “I’ve heard in unofficial conversations it’s unlikely it will be progressed to the planning point” without approval of the expanded design, he said in response to a resident’s question.

The MBTA’s history of not following through on Arborway Yard promises kept several CPCAY members and residents suspicious.

There was a conspicuous absence of officials at the meeting, particularly compared to the October meeting. No MBTA officials were present. The only city official was Colleen Keller from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, who did not speak at the meeting and left shortly after it began. The only other official present was state Rep. Liz Malia

“It’s not really a promise,” former CPCAY member Bill Mitchell said of the MBTA’s mitigation pledges. “It’s a rationalization that allows people to surrender.”

CPCAY member Dicky Spears was one of several attendees to complain that the expansion approval “gives away leverage.”

Jones complained that abutting residents have already “agreed to a reduction in the quality of their lives” and expressed outrage that the MBTA officials “want more.” Jones has previously called the expansion plan “colonialism” and likened it to a bowl of dog food presented to a pet who has no menu choice.

“It’s actually never been presented to us where this [mitigation budget] money is coming from,” said CPCAY member Karen Caplan Doherty, who voted against the expansion.

“I don’t see how you can approve this resolution without a lot more detail on this commitment to fund this [park] maintenance,” McKinnon said, adding that she doubts the MBTA would want to set a precedent of funding community parks.

Noise mitigation is another major issue. Everyone agreed that technical information on that subject cannot be produced quickly. But there are concerns that it may be too expensive, or even physically impossible, to carry out.

For the original design, CPCAY members and MBTA engineers worked for years on ways to cut noise from the future facility down to the city’s legal limit. That complex effort included plans for a special partial roof, or “canopy,” over part of the walled-in bus yard.

The expanded design changes all of the noise mitigation factors and puts the facility closer to nearby houses. The MBTA has proposed a much larger canopy—essentially placing a massive roof over a large section of the yard. While that is just an idea, the MBTA has pledged to make “equal or better” noise mitigations as compared to the original design.

“Is there anything like this built anyplace?” asked CPCAY member Michael Frank about the idea for the massive canopy. “Are we making this up as we go along?”

Spears, a recording engineer who worked on the noise mitigation effort, said the MBTA’s new canopy idea remains “conceptual and unproven.” He noted it likely would cost much more money.

The “temporary” facility on the site was also an issue. It consists of fenced-in prefabricated buildings and a large parking lot. In response to a resident’s complaints about the facility’s looks, Frank suggested adding fix-ups to it as part of the mitigations for the expansion approval. He said it would be practical to do so because, even in the best-case scenario, the new bus yard would not be built for years.

Allen said that sounds like a good idea, but that it should be a separate motion, not “mixed with the design.” Frank said the design approval is the leverage for asking for improvements. In the end, temporary facility improvements were not voted on in any form.

Allen continued making prolonged, shouted criticism of the Gazette immediately after the meeting in front of most meeting attendees, calling its Arborway Yard coverage “inaccurate” and “biased” and saying, “You can quote on me on that.” When asked for specifics, Allen complained that the Gazette had referred to meetings that he, Southwick and Ihrer had with MBTA and city officials as “private.”

Those meetings were not announced or open to the public. The results of the meetings included the re-voting idea, which surprised at least some other CPCAY members, as the Gazette previously reported. When asked for an alternative description of that kind of meeting, Allen did not provide one.

Allen also complained generally about another Gazette article on another subject that did not directly involve him. He declined to make further comment about the Arborway Yard.

Ihrer told the Gazette that he, Allen and Southwick will continue meeting with MBTA and city officials to make sure the planning moves forward and commitments are followed.

“It’s time to hold the T’s feet to the fire,” he said.

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly reported Karen Caplan Doherty’s vote on the Arborway Yard bus facility design proposal. Doherty voted against the facility.

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