Bigger park planned for Monument Sq.

June 11, 2010
By

John Ruch

Monument Square could become a large park, with part of Centre Street turned into a limited-access “carriage road,” in a “radical” redesign that is being worked on by the city’s Centre/South Action Plan advisory group.

The redesign drew debate at a May 27 advisory group meeting, with residents expressing concern about traffic impacts, access to nearby private property and the uses of any new public space—including whether existing trees should be cut down.

But there was agreement that the square’s namesake, the historic Soldier’s Monument to local residents who died in the Civil War, should be more accessible and visible. The Monument is currently fenced in on a glorified traffic island. As it happens, the Monument is now undergoing cleaning and repairs.

“The Monument today sort of gets lost in the square,” said Ralph DeNisco of McMahon Associates, the Action Plan’s design firm.

But the early designs could “lose the point of the Monument” by crowding it out, said Pondside resident Kevin Moloney, who has advocated for the Monument’s repair and care for decades.

The “sanctity” and “dignity” of the Monument will be the “primary design objective” of the final design proposal, promised Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning at the Boston Transportation Department (BTD).

The Action Plan meeting also included an early proposal for Centre Street in Hyde and Jackson Squares. It involves removing some on-street parking, widening sidewalks in key spots, and narrowing the gigantic driveway into the JP Plaza shopping center.

BTD and the Boston Redevelopment Authority are advisory on the Action Plan, which is coming up with design guidelines for the entire Centre/South corridor in Jamaica Plain, as well as specific redesigns of key areas.

The process is moving quickly, with around two more meetings planned before a final design guidelines report is issued in the fall. Some parts of the Action Plan would be carried out quickly, including a plan for bicycle lanes and shared-lane markings on the entire corridor. Other redesigns, including the one for Monument Square, would wait until some unknown future period when funding becomes available. The general guidelines would be followed during any major streetscape work in the area.

Monumental plans

Monument Square is the major, and confusing, intersection of Centre and South streets, with Eliot Street also feeding in. The massive Soldier’s Monument sits on a green triangle in the fork between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Centre Street.

The intersection is dangerous, with 50-foot-wide expanses of asphalt and a pedestrian traffic light that is frequently ignored by drivers going full speed. The square also is used as an outdoor bus station by several MBTA routes, with buses regularly parked across crosswalks and blocking the view of all users of the road.

The intersection is also historic. The 1871 Soldier’s Monument shares its island with a small Revolutionary War memorial and a 1700s mile marker. Across South Street is the 1760 Loring-Greenough House, and across Centre is the 1853 First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist.

The stone Monument looks like a shrine with four steeples, topped off with a statue of a soldier leaning on his rifle and bowing his head thoughtfully. Originally, the Monument was on open green space. A locked fence was installed in the 1970s, and trees and a flagpole now shadow one corner of the triangle. A narrow sidewalk surrounds the island.

At the May 27 meeting, McMahon Associates presented the details of its two preliminary alternative redesigns for the square. One option simply enlarges the green triangle and opens it up to the public.

The more “radical” option eliminates the westbound leg of Centre Street and replaces it with green space, essentially attaching the Monument parkland to the large front yards of the UU Church and an adjacent office building. The existing traffic lights would probably be removed, and a new one installed at the current intersection of South and eastbound Centre.

The city and the designers clearly favored the more dramatic change. So did a majority of the approximately two-dozen advisory group members and residents, but only after several significant concerns were raised.

Gupta said that in response, McMahon Associates will come up with a hybrid plan that keeps the westbound leg of Centre as a limited-access road, possibly for bicyclists and other uses that are not through-traffic by motor vehicles.

There was interest in the possibility of new green space in the heart of central JP and suggestions that it could be a passive-use park, or possibly the site of a farmers’ market. But Moloney gave a brief history of the Soldier’s Monument, and cautioned the city not to forget why it is called Monument Square.

“It’s not a village green, not a farmers’ market,” Moloney said. “[It is] a somber recollection of the most terrible event in the history of our country.”

The official presentation included no information about the Monument and its purpose. Gupta said Moloney’s point was “extremely well-taken.”

“It’s important we respect the Monument for what it is,” Gupta said. “But there’s enough space here around the edges for things other people in the neighborhood might enjoy.”

The focus on the Monument captured the audience’s imagination. Several meeting attendees said they have never really paid attention to the Monument, and suggested that larger park space could encourage more people to respect it.

“You can’t even walk in front of it [now],” said advisory group member Michael Halle, noting that monuments are not only about the subject being memorialized, but also about the people who want to come and remember it.

“I’m not going to go over there, because it’s in a sea of asphalt,” said advisory group member Lauren Ockene.

But that led some debate to the kind of park space around the Monument, even though the design is not at that level of detail yet. Moloney expressed his longtime opposition to the “ugly” trees that block the view of the Monument, and worried that more trees in the redesigned park could also block historic views of the UU Church tower.

Ockene said that beauty is not just “two-dimensional,” but also includes the use of public space. She noted that there are few trees in the central JP strip.

Advisory group member Michael Epp backed Moloney’s retro design idea, saying he agrees that the Monument should be surrounded by open lawn. “I think, in this case, history has to take precedence over trees,” Epp said, describing the Monument as “sort of loved to death” by its extra decorations.

A more immediate concern to abutting property owners is that the radical redesign option sticks a new park in front of their front driveways. A UU Church official at the meeting said the church has “expressed our dissatisfaction” about that idea. UU Church pastor Rev. Terry Burke did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

Gupta said any design would retain some kind of paved private access for those driveways. The forthcoming final plan, which keeps that piece of Centre in place, should make that even easier.

Traffic was another concern, especially because the proposed redesign would turn the narrow eastbound section of Centre into a two-way street. Some residents worried that will cause more traffic back-ups, with frustrated drivers fleeing onto neighborhood streets.

McMahon Associates had traffic data—including recent counts and computer models—showing that traffic actually will flow better there because of the new traffic light, and also because a right-hand turn lane would be added on southbound South Street. Southbound traffic would be slower compared to today, but not significantly, DeNisco said.

The on-street parking around the curbs of the Monument traffic island would be removed. The MBTA buses also would need to find new stops. There were suggestions that the affected routes might be better off going all the way down South to the Forest Hills T Station anyway, though that would lengthen trip times.

Hyde/Jackson

Another focus area in the Action Plan is Centre Street between Mozart Park and JP Plaza in the Hyde/Jackson Squares area. DeNisco gave a sketchy presentation on street improvements there.

DeNisco said the area has about 79 on-street parking spaces, which are never totally or even “functionally” full. That indicates that some spaces could be removed and replaced with widened sidewalks at key locations, such as in front of a restaurant, he said.

Fernando Mercedes, president of the Hyde/Jackson Square Business Association, said that the loss of parking should be minimized, and warned about tampering with existing loading zones.

Gupta said the city is paying attention to off-street parking as well. Officials will speak to the owners of the area’s Hi-Lo and Stop & Shop supermarkets about possible public use of their private parking lots. The city also intends to “spruce up” and advertise a municipal parking lot near Mozart Park, he said.

Halle and Ockene called for narrowing the JP Plaza driveway. There were also concerns that the rough plans did not show a widening of the narrow sidewalk along the Bromely-Heath housing development. McMahon Associates planners said they are hoping to plant new street trees on Bromley-Heath land next to the sidewalk.

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