Centre/South redesign group forming

February 20, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

The city’s massive effort to redesign the entire two-mile stretch of Centre and South streets through the heart of Jamaica Plain moved closer to the planning stage this month.

At a Feb. 5 public brainstorming session, city officials announced the formation of a community advisory committee (CAC), an official group of residents that will advise the city for about two years. Nominations for membership on the mayor-appointed CAC are being taken now, and the group will be introduced at another public meeting in the spring. [See JP Agenda.] So will a professional consultant who will be hired to plan the redesign.

Actual construction of traffic and streetscape improvements to the streets is likely five to 10 years away, officials said. However, the planning includes short-term fixes that can be done much sooner.

Meanwhile, residents offered up many more ideas for change. Some were as simple as adding a bike lane. Some were as innovative as having the city perform sidewalk snow removal.

The Feb. 5 meeting happened to be the same day that the cell phone company MetroPCS began advertising itself in JP. MetroPCS commissioned the cell phone antenna poles that were installed on Centre last year with no local notice or input. In fact, hundreds of the antennas went up around the city with no public an-nouncement at all.

Public outcry about the antennas—whose plan and purpose were first revealed by the Gazette—led the Mayor’s Office to approve the Centre/South redesign process as a make-up present. JP Centre/South Main Streets (JP CSMS) was already working on the idea.

While the city promised that future public utility installations will be better announced, it is unclear whether any actual communication changes have been made. MetroPCS, which never responded to previous questions about the antennas, this month notified the Gazette that the antennas were now in service, and had a man wearing a MetroPCS sandwich board walking Centre Street on Feb. 5.

The Centre/South meeting at the Curley School that evening perhaps could have used similar advertising. Attendance on the frigid evening was about 40 people—a bit lower than at an initial December meeting where turnout was considered so low that this month’s meeting was planned as a follow-up.

Resident Rebecca Kushner noted that the meeting was not listed on the City of Boston web site’s official calendar. Officials could not explain why it was not listed, but promised that future meetings will be. The meeting was listed in the Gazette and on the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) web site.

Ines Palmarin, the BRA planner overseeing the redesign, confirmed to the Gazette that the future CAC meetings will be advertised by the BRA and open to the public.

Both Centre/South meetings so far have been held at the Curley School, which is the only big meeting venue near the geographic middle of the Centre/South strip. Both meetings appear to have drawn attendees largely from that central JP area.

Big ideas

The Centre/South redesign is ambitious, but not unprecedented. Since 2005, the BRA has been planning a similar redesign of four miles of Dorchester Avenue. One part of that plan is slated to begin construction this year.

In traffic terms alone, the Centre/South plan will have to address such major headaches as Jackson Square, the Hyde Square rotary, Monument Square and South Street at the Casey Overpass. Palmarin said that she recently joined the ranks of drivers confused by the large, poorly signed Hyde Square rotary.

Vineet Gupta, director of planning at the Boston Transportation Department, emphasized that the city intends to create an action plan for Centre/South, not a “report sitting on a shelf.”

He listed some of the city’s priorities: a uniform quality to public improvements on the street; continued work on handicapped accessibility; a “comprehensive strategy” for parking; decent traffic flow to avoid cut-throughs on side streets; and public transit improvements. (The process will be coordinated with the MBTA’s on-going Route 39 bus improvement process.)

Gupta also expressed a commitment to public art, suggesting that a group of local artists be recruited to walk the corridor and come up with some ideas.

On the positive side, Gupta noted that many things about Centre/South work fine already. He said that at a recent meeting in Charlestown, when he asked residents what they wanted their street to look like, “Someone said, ‘Centre and South streets in Jamaica Plain.’”

BRA planners already have been taking a close look at the corridor, according to BRA architect Jill Ochs Zick. She said that one item they noticed was that the U-shaped bike racks on part of Centre Street go largely unusued, with bikers preferring street poles instead.

In a controversial suggestion, she also raised the possibility of keeping some of the old catenary poles—which used to hold wires for the long-gone electric streetcars—as a place for some type of public art. Many residents and local City Councilor John Tobin have called for removing the poles.

Ochs Zick dashed JP CSMS hopes that custom streetlights could come to the corridor, but noted that about a dozen standard models are available—including the Victorian-style “acorn” lights that already stand in Monument Square and some other areas.

While the MetroPCS cell phone antennas were not discussed, under city contract, the antenna poles will have to be redone to match any change in surrounding streetlight design.

Colleen Keller, the JP Neighborhood Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, repeated Mayor Thomas Menino’s recent promise to install 25 BigBelly solar-powered trash cans on the corridor. The locations likely will be determined by the redesign process.

Keller noted that the trash cans save energy. “And they make us look much more cosmopolitan,” added Randace Moore, director of JP CSMS.

Local residents had many ideas as well. John Iappini, a Jamaica Pond Association member, noted that educating business owners about the importance of pitching in will be key. He complained that some business owners have a “cultural attitude” of not fixing up their storefronts.

“There are a number of business owners who are living in the 1950s and don’t understand that,” Iappini said of the need for private improvements.

City officials said education will be part of the plan, noting that the Dorchester Avenue project included a pamphlet for business owners.

Michael Epp, an urban planner and head of the JP CMSM Design Committee, suggested allowing more real estate density in certain areas, such as adding second floors to buildings.

Sidewalks drew a lot of attention. Resident and business owner Jeffrey Ferris noted that the new wheelchair ramps on the sidewalks—some of which had to be rebuilt due to errors last summer—are in many places out of line with each other, the street or crosswalks.

“Some of these things look like they were done by a crazy person,” he said.

Ochs Zick said designers will examine the placement and rationale for the ramps.

On a simpler enforcement issue, Kushner noted the growing amount of advertising signs, benches and other il-legal clutter on sidewalks.

Michael Halle of the JP Traffic and Parking Committee noted that the current policy of sidewalk snow removal—private property owners are completely responsible for it—makes for uneven results, with just one irresponsible owner making an entire sidewalk useless and dangerous. He noted that if city streets were treated the same way, there would be outrage.

Halle suggested that sidewalks in key business areas get equal treatment—snow removal by the city. “They’re travel lanes, not recreational areas,” he said of sidewalks.

Gupta said it’s worth considering, but noted it would require new equipment and union contract negotiations.

Halle also noted that the amount of suggestions produced by the brainstorming sessions is its own challenge. Speaking in terms of statistics, he noted that it would be easier for the final plans to cover the “average” of ideas rather than the “range” of ideas—to be mediocre instead of including the most innovative suggestions. He called for a final plan that is the best it can be.

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