Word on the Streets

December 19, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Centre/South planning process begins

Passions ran high among the about 50 participants at the inaugural community meeting to develop a city-sponsored action plan to deal with streetscape and transportation issues along two of Jamaica Plain’s main thoroughfares, Centre and South streets.

Conversation topics at the Dec. 3 meeting at the Curley School ranged in variety and scale from best practices in planting street trees to debate on whether it is possible, through street design, to stem the flow of traffic along the streets.

The latter topic will take on some urgency as the MBTA’s ongoing community planning process to improve the Route 39 bus moves forward. Because of handicapped accessibility requirements, improvements to the route will almost certainly include the elimination of parking spaces in JP Center, Eric Sheier from the MBTA Operations Department said.

The MBTA plans to propose curb extensions for new bus stops along Centre Street, so drivers will not have to maneuver the unwieldy extended buses used along the route over to the curb. Under current conditions, drivers often fail to bring buses to the curb and end up discharging and picking up passengers in the middle of the street.

“Parking will be an issue because of accessibility. We will be losing a large number of parking spaces,” Sheier told the Gazette.

At a Dec. 15 meeting of the Route 39 Citizens Working Group, the MBTA presented a preliminary proposal for infrastructure changes to the route. That proposal indicates that without changes, in order to make current bus stops ADA compliant, the T would have to take over 45 parking spaces in JP. The MBTA’s proposal is intended as a jumping off point for discussion that will lead to a formal proposal for changes next spring, but it appears that the infrastructure changes being considered would actually lead to a net gain in parking spaces. [See related article.]

Present at the Dec. 3 meeting were about 50 community members. Colleen Keller, JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, said that number was lower than expected considering the scope of the project and the degree of community interest.

The process will develop recommendations for Centre Street running from Jackson Square to the Monument and South Street between the Monument and the Forest Hills MBTA Station. Keller said she had identified 14 separate community and neighborhood organizations concerned with the future of those roadways.

Many who did attend spoke strongly in favor of widening sidewalks and improving accessibility for bicycles purely for quality-of-life reasons.

“I definitely want to be looking at removing a parking lane,” said Michael Reiskind, a Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) member and longtime community activist.

Hitting the table for emphasis, Reiskind said he would like to see the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) “come up with 20 or 30 ways to discourage people from driving through JP. I’m serious, I want them to come up with 30 ways.”

Jeffrey Ferris, another vocal community activist and owner of Ferris Wheels Bike Shop, who regularly advocates against fossil fuel consumption, found himself defending car travel on behalf of local business owners.

“I don’t want you to take parking away from in front of my store because [as a society] we are not there yet,” he said.

Ferris and others questioned whether discouraging people from driving to the business districts by removing parking spaces would really have an effect on traffic flow in the area.

“We could all walk to local shops all the time, and I don’t think it would make a dent,” said Center Street resident Bea Apel, noting that the Centre/South corridor is used as a major access route to and from downtown Boston.

Reiskind, Ferris and Apel’s comments came in a small-group discussion session that took up the second half of the meeting.

The first half of the meeting was devoted to a slew of presentations by city officials from the BTD; the Boston Redevelopment Authority; the city Public Works Department; and Department of Neighborhood Development, as well as the state-run MBTA. The presentations left some community members saying they felt overwhelmed with details.

“Planning has to start with a vision for the 21st Century,” not with details, said Franklyn Salimbene. Salimbene is a member of the Jamaica Pond Association board of directors and the head of the Arborway Committee, a group that has long advocated for the restoration of streetcar trolley service to the area.

The Arborway Committee in the last year held a series of three workshops titled “Rethinking Centre Streets.” The workshops included forums on public health, transit and promoting local businesses in urban communities.

Salimbene’s comments about developing a “vision” were echoed by others associated with the JPA and the Arborway Committee. The comments came in an impromptu comment period after presentations by the city departments. The comments directly followed a presentation that discussed the placement of street furniture, street trees, signs and streetlights.

“Lets pretend we have to invent a street, as opposed to diddling with the details,” said JPA board member Kevin Moloney.

BTD Director of Planning Vineet Gupta responded by encouraging community members to discuss their visions for the roadways, but also to come up with concrete proposals. “It is extremely important to get to actual projects we can identify,” so case can be made to begin funding the proposals, he said.

In at least one of the three ensuing small group discussions, details and large-scale vision co-existed happily.

In addition to the general conversation about eliminating parking lanes and reducing traffic flow—which will require further discussion and possibly some visionary thinking—a number of specific trouble spots were discussed.

Hyde/Jackson Square residents singled out the sidewalk running from the Jackson Square T Station to Walden Street as ripe for improvement.

“There is a lot of concrete and little that is green” on those blocks, one resident said. “A lot of people say they feel unsafe [on that stretch]. I think it is partly because of the appearance.”

Noting that the narrow stretch is cluttered with telephone poles utility boxes and bus shelters, another resident suggested it should be at least doubled in width.

Other suggestions from the small group sessions included installing various “green” streetscape technologies along the roadways.

Ray Dunetz, a local landscape architect, said he would like to see rainwater gardens—gardens planted in shallow depressions along the sidewalk with water-tolerant plants that can filter rainwater runoff as it absorbs into the soil. He also suggested that the concrete sidewalks be replaced with permeable pavement to absorb rainwater, and that the streetlights be run on solar energy.

Others spoke in support of maintaining the distinct identities of the neighborhoods that Centre and South streets run through, particularly Centre Street between Hyde and Jackson squares, which has been marketed as the city’s Latin Quarter.

Some also recommended that street benches could be placed more thoughtfully along the roadways, particularly in Hyde Square, and some said they would like to see street art reflecting the history of JP.

Because of low turnout at the meeting, a second preliminary meeting that will “mirror” the first is planned for January, Keller said.

After that meeting, a citizens advisory group will be selected by the Mayor’s Office, based on nominations from the community, including by neighborhood groups. That group will work with a city-hired consultant to develop short- and long-term recommendations for the improvement of the roadways. The city plans to complete the action plan by next fall.