Editorial: Arborway Yard needs light

April 25, 2014
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Whatever minor tweaks or massive changes may eventually come to the Arborway Yard bus facility plan, there is one thing it unquestionably needs: daylight.

For too long, a deeply dysfunctional relationship between the MBTA and the Jamaica Plain community has marred Arborway Yard planning with crazy surprises and bloated construction estimates.

It’s time for political leaders with real leverage to hold a community meeting to get basic facts on the record, and perhaps consider the feasibility of changes large and small. Local State House officials, the Mayor’s Office and the Boston Redevelopment Authority were once deeply involved in Arborway Yard planning. A meeting hosted by a coalition of those officials and agencies would be welcome and surely enlightening.

As it is, local communication and input is left to the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard, a now venerable advisory group formed in 1998 when the entire plan was a surprise exposed by the Gazette. CPCAY officially has many members, but in practice, it is two or three longtime activists who meet privately with MBTA officials with diminishing leverage and returns. One of them, Allan Ihrer, has lost faith to the point of proposing his own alternative plan on an entirely different site.

As is clear from its latest comments to the Gazette, the MBTA is viewing CPCAY more as insulation from the general public clamor rather than facilitation of more input.

CPCAY has done little to shed light on the latest surprise, the pending demolition of 500 Arborway. And the MBTA is not quaking in its boots, blithely refusing to fully explain its actions and disingenuously pretending it can demolish a building in the center of a design without changing the plan.

Obviously, the Arborway Yard design must change. The MBTA is not going to hand a future contractor a blueprint with a big X drawn over a building that no longer exists. Something will go in that hole.

Years ago, CPCAY approved the MBTA’s expansion of the design by one-third of an acre, eating into land designated for private redevelopment and parkland, to better fit bus lanes around 500 Arborway. With that building going away, isn’t it feasible to shrink the design again and regain that land? That is a crucial question officials should already have answered.

Ihrer’s alternative plan, created in response to changing real estate trends, deserves a fair hearing as well. It has several attractive elements as well as questions and challenges—more of which the Gazette reports in this issue. It is gaining local support and should be addressed seriously.

Other changing realities should be addressed, too. One reason the bus facility plan ballooned to a perhaps unbuildable cost was noise mitigations, including a novel sound-dampening roof, demanded by CPCAY members. Yet a “temporary” bus facility has operated elsewhere on the site for over a decade, very close to houses, with only chain-link fence around it—and no apparent record of noise complaints. Experience may show that a much cheaper facility is possible.

The biggest change over the years to address, however, is transparency. The old model of a few activists meeting with the MBTA and “reporting back” to the community is insufficient and ineffective on its own. JP needs to hear directly from MBTA officials in a comprehensive, productive forum. CPCAY should join elected officials and key agencies in providing it.