Support grows for new T bus yard

FOREST HILLS—Despite the MBTA’s rejection of his proposal to move a proposed permanent bus yard to a new site on American Legion Highway, local activist Allan Ihrer continues to pursue the idea and gather support.

Ihrer, a long-time member of the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY), has proposed building the permanent Arborway bus yard along American Legion Highway between Walk Hill and Morton streets, about a mile away from the current site. The bus yard is slated to replace the temporary facility currently located on Washington Street near the Arborway in Forest Hills as soon as the MBTA funds the project.

That would allow the 18-acre site to be redeveloped from industrial uses to a large residential area, alongside two other large parcels on Washington Street undergoing just such a transformation.

The MBTA has studied Ihrer’s proposal and has decided against pursuing it, citing a 1999 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the MBTA and the City. An MOU is a legally-enforceable document.

“The MBTA has invested a lot of time and money over the years on designing a new bus facility for the 500 Arborway site,” MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told the Gazette. “To go back to square one and start all over with a new site, new community, new engineering and site concerns will cause a major delay in the project and will increase the cost to construct this project.”

“The T’s Forest Hills holdings have much more obvious development appeal than they did 13 years ago…The property has become too prime a potential housing development site to waste on a bus yard,” Boston Globe columnist Paul McMorrow wrote in a Jan. 29 piece supporting Ihrer’s idea.

Meanwhile, the Stonybrook Neighborhood Association has stated in a letter to the Gazette that its membership fully supports Allan Ihrer’s proposal of moving the Arborway bus yard project to the American Legion Highway site.

“This large property, which directly abuts our neighborhood, has great potential to upgrade and beautify the area, if utilized in a more appropriate way than the current plan,” the letter says. “We hope the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard, BRA, MBTA, Mayor Walsh and other relevant entities seriously consider and implement this proposal.”

The CPCAY had one meeting about Ihrer’s proposal, spokesperson Merlin Southwick told the Gazette, but its members did not arrive at a consensus. The meeting mostly focused on data to be sought out and questions that need answering, he said.

“There’s general agreement that there’s a big enough change of factors over a long period of time that there probably should be a large community discussion,” he said. “I believe it’s worthy of a larger community conversation and discussion.”

The proposed Arborway bus yard is expected to cost the MBTA another $180 million to $200 million to build, with Pesaturo explaining that the total might rise as high as $250 million including management, inspection, administrative support, engineering services and contingency plans.

According to Pesaturo, starting the process over at the new site would easily cost above $231 million due to a “number of unknowns,” including a “thorough environmental review process…remediation and site preparation.”

The current proposed 90 percent design of the bus yard for 500 Arborway is not compatible and will not be feasible to build on the American Legion Highway site, Pesaturo said.

“If the MBTA moved forward in designing the proposed bus facility at the ALH site, it would have to follow the Federal Transit Administration guidelines…and put the design out to bid to other consultants. This will take up to 12 months time and delay the process by this amount of time,” Pesaturo said.

The planning process for the proposed site, from concept to complete design, would “delay the project another three years,” with the two delays adding four years to the project, according to Pesaturo.

The MBTA-approved plan for the Arborway bus yard is currently not part of the MBTA’s Capital Investment Program (CIP). The CIP is a document that outlines and authorizes the MBTA’s use of funds over the next five years. The MBTA cannot operate or build any projects not included in the CIP.

That means that, as of right now, the permanent bus yard will not be built for at least five years.

The MBTA would also have to purchase two parcels of land adjacent to the new site to accommodate operations, Pesaturo said. Those parcels are owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which would means that the sale would require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature, and equal square footage replacement of open space.

“This is a very complex and lengthy transition process,” Pesaturo explained.

According to Ihrer, the American Legion Highway site was suggested when the project was first proposed in the late 1990s. The MBTA, then an independent agency from MassDOT, rejected it. The property is currently used as a composting site by DCR.

A developer familiar with the area, who wished to remain anonymous, quoted a market price of $1 million per acre—or $18 million total—for the site. That is based on recent sale prices of similar nearby properties, and knowing that the site will likely be similarly contaminated and need substantial cleanup.

The developers for the Hughes Oil site at 3593-3615 Washington St., Braintree-based John M. Corcoran and Company and Boston-based The Brennan Group, paid $3 million for the 3-acre site across the street from the bus yard. They are cleaning up the contamination on-site and will create 280 units of housing, 37 of which will be affordably-priced, a quarter-mile from Forest Hills Station.

The controversy-fraught and years-long process for planning a new Arborway Yard facility started in 1998, when the MBTA announced plans to build a major new transit facility in Forest Hills to replace Bartlett Yard in Roxbury. The Gazette broke the news after JP resident Karen Wepsic brought a small legal notice from a daily newspaper to the Gazette’s attention, saying that the T was seeking contractors for the project.

With strong backing from then-Mayor Thomas Menino and other officials, residents were able to form CPCAY and get design review authority. That led to years of complex negotiations and an agreement that eight acres of land would be given to the city for redevelopment into housing, commercial space and green space.

In 2001, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was negotiated and agreed to by the MBTA and CPCAY that reflected the give-and-take needed to uphold residents’ rights to a safe, livable environment and the need for MBTA buses to be maintained.

Since then, the MBTA spent about $30 million on design and construction of a temporary bus facility, which consists of fenced-in prefabricated buildings and a large parking lot.

In 2007, CPCAY met to approve a final design for the site, as the Gazette previously reported. MBTA officials stunned everyone by announcing that, despite their previous agreement to the design, they needed a facility 1 acre larger than previously agreed.

In 2008, CPCAY finally approved a design with a more modest expansion in a controversial vote. In 2011, the MBTA went back on a decade of negotiations and decided to demolish the building at 500 Arborway, which it had previously fought to keep. In fact, the approved design for the permanent Arborway bus yard was designed around that building.

Since then, the plans have idled, waiting for full funding to complete the design and enter construction.

Pesaturo also said that the decade-long delay to build the facility has not impacted any potential to expand the Orange Line or Southwest Corridor.

The temporary bus maintenance facility at the MBTA’s Arborway Yard on Washington Street Feb. 11. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

The temporary bus maintenance facility at the MBTA’s Arborway Yard on Washington Street Feb. 11. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

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