Centre/South planning winds down; one controversy remains

October 7, 2010
By

David Taber

An over-a-year-long community planning process to redesign Centre and South Streets between Jackson Square and Forest Hills began winding down Sept. 21 at a community meeting at the Agassiz School at 20 Child St. to review the draft plans.

The city has already implemented one element of The Centre and South Streets Streetscape and Transportation Action Plan: painting bike-lanes and “sharrows”—markings that indicate lanes should be shared by bikes and cars—along the corridor.

Another element, proposed improvements to Monument Square, remains controversial. Significant support and opposition was expressed by the about 40 meeting attendees.

The plan includes corridor-wide improvement guidelines as well as specific plans for major redesigns at Jackson and Hyde squares and Monument Square. Planning documents are available for review at www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org in the “Planning” section.

And many of its elements are years away. “I can’t see [construction] happening before 2013,” Vineet Gupta, head planner at the Boston Transportation Department, said at the meeting.

Next year, the city plans to hire an engineer to develop designs based on the community-developed planning goals, he said. And there is a small window of time left for JP residents to comment on those goals. The public comment deadline is Oct. 18.

Monument Square
By far the most controversial aspect of the plans—a proposal to cut off Centre Street between the Monument and the First Church of JP, Unitarian Universalist at the corner of Centre and Eliot streets—is based on an idea originally floated by a community member.

In response to a call by city officials for “radical” design ideas at a January action plan meeting, Michael Halle, a member of the city-appointed Centre and South Street Advisory Committee suggested that the roadway could be turned into green space. “I hope that is radical enough for you,” he said at the time.

Under the plan, the section of Centre Street by the monument would be turned into a limited-access “carriageway.” Traffic heading out of JP Center currently forks to the right of the monument onto a one-way section of Centre Street between the monument and the church. Traffic would instead head to the left of the monument and take a right at its far side. That Centre Street and South Street connector—currently a one-way street in the opposite direction, allowing those traveling on Centre Street toward JP Center access to South Street and JP Center—would be made a two-way street.

That plan is too radical for some. Jamaica Plain Buisness Professional Association (JP BAPA) president Carlos Icaza was among a handful of people who spoke out against the plan at the Sept. 21 meeting, and on Oct. 1 Icaza sent an email on behalf of the Jamaica Plain Buisness Professional Association executive committee saying that group had voted to oppose the monument redesign. Many spoke in favor of the Monument plan at the Sept. 21 meeting as well.

Loss of parking—about 25 spaces, though four could be added in front of the Loring-Greenough House on South Street—is key among the business groups’ concerns.

In addition to parking concerns, the JP BAPA e-mail says, the group is concerned that the MBTA, which uses the current loop configuration of the square as a turnaround for some of its buses, has not been a “party to the planning process.”

Gupta and DeNisco said at a previous Centre South CAC meeting that the MBTA has been kept in the loop about the progress of planning process, but had elected not to actively join the process until a clear plan a final plan for the monument is on the table.

MBTA staffer Greg Strangeways attended the recent meeting, and said that the MBTA is looking at possibly rerouting buses down South Street to Forest Hills or down Centre Street to Murray Circle at the intersection of the Arborway and Centre Street.

DeNisco said that either move would slow down bus service, “slightly.”

The draft plan for the monument also calls for traffic lights to be added to the proposed new two-way South Street and Centre Street intersection and, possibly, at the intersection on the other side of the monument, where Eliot Street, South Street and the JP Center end of Centre Street meet.

At the meeting, Icaza said the addition of the traffic light at the proposed new two-way section is the only part of the proposal he likes. “The only problem now is, we need a light,” he said.

The JP BAPA letter, however, panned the Eliot Street light proposal, citing concerns about “potential of serious traffic tie-ups going south bound from Centre to South with an additional directional traffic signal at Eliot Street,” and complained about, the removal of 360-degree travel around the monument.

“I can tell that you are trying to accommodate a lot of objectives…I do not think this is going to be a solution,” JP lawyer and JP BAPA member Laurie McKeown said at the meeting. The monument area is “already overloaded. You are expecting it to do more and it won’t,” she said, addressing city planners.

McKeown offered an innovative but unlikely solution at the meeting. “Why not just move the monument?” she said noting that the large structure’s location in the middle of the square forces planners to design around it, and that moving it “30 or 40 feet” would free up space for them to work with.

No one at the meeting directly responded to that proposal, and Gupta, who was on vacation last week and this week, was not available for comment. If the city did look at moving the monument, it would almost certainly be controversial, as the Civil War Veterans monument is important to many.

Gupta reported that the city had met with officials from the Unitarian church and other abutters and that—while some have concerns about parking—support for the design was strong.

He reported that church officials were particularly supportive. “They like green space and are not concerned about parking,” he said.

Still, based on those conversations, and comments at the meeting, he concluded by saying, “I think we are hearing today is that parking is a big issue, that it makes no sense to do this unless we can add parking.”

Mary Hannon, a member of the CAC, was among about a half-dozen meeting attendees who supported the plan, saying the new park space would provide a prominent public space for local events like farmers markets.

The space taken over from the road would be turned into a pedestrian-oriented “carriageway” that would still allow access for emergency vehicles and abutters.

JP resident Pete Stidman said he would like to hear more from the Fire Department about how they would use that right-of-way. “How often will the fire department be using it?” he asked, noting that high-speed emergency vehicle’s might clash with the intended recreational use of the park.

Hyde/Jackson Square
The plans for Hyde and Jackson Squares were much less controversial than the major changes proposed for Monument Square.

In Hyde Square, the plan is to widen the sidewalks at the intersection of Perkins, Centre and Day streets, turning the four-way intersection—Centre Street runs through the square—into a traditional rotary. Trees and benches would be added to the widened sidewalks, and added space on the east side of Centre Street would be turned into an elaborate garden.

Based on meetings with the Hyde Square business community, Gupta said, city planners are reducing the size of the sidewalk expansions to maintain parking and ensure that the green space is manageable. There were concerns that “the space would be abandoned,” he said.

Gupta said BTD is still meeting with local residents and the Hyde Square business community as it moves to finalize those plans.

The Jackson Square plans are for a lot of small changes that will serve as a “demonstration for corridor-wide improvements,” Gupta said.

They include: widening the sidewalk in front of the Bromley-Heath housing development, one of the narrowest stretches of sidewalk on the corridor; redesigning the entrance to the Stop & Shop parking lot; and adding raised crossings and curb extensions at various locations along the corridor.

At Chestnut Avenue, the city proposes to turn the parallel parking spaces on the street into “reverse angle” parking spaces that drivers would have to back into, and create a small plaza on the corner of Chestnut and Centre.

One community member suggested that, instead of bumping out sections of the sidewalk intermittently, the plans should call for larger consolidated bump outs to make plowing and business delivery drop-off easier.

Double parking was also noted as a concern from local residents, and Gupta said that BTD has heard from the business community that installing parking meters in the area could help promote parking turnover.

Fernando Mercedes, head of the Hyde/Jackson Square Business Association said that group is interested in exploring meters. “We have had parking problems for many years, and we consider parking meters to be a solution,” he said.

Next Steps
Speaking to the Gazette, Gupta said the public is invited to comment on both the “Final Draft Guidelines,” which outline the corridor-wide guidelines, and a document titled “09-21-10 Meeting—Final,” which outlines the proposed plans for the squares.

One more meeting will be held this fall to review the final action plan.

The development of the engineering designs will also be an opportunity to review some elements of the plan, and the BTD hopes to continue to seek community input and correct what some community members see as problems with the plan in that process, he said.