Public Works responds to Hyde Square renovation concerns

November 25, 2017
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The Gazette published in its last issue a letter from two members of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the Centre and South Streets redesign who raised concerns about the ongoing renovation of Hyde Square. The Boston Public Works Department has issued a lengthy response to the letter. The Gazette is republishing the letter below and the response from the City.

Original letter:

As members of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the Centre and South Streets redesign, we were pleased to see the long-planned improvements to Hyde Square take place.  The new design clearly improves pedestrian mobility and universal access. Sadly, however, the design fails to fulfill the “green” component of Boston’s “Complete Streets” philosophy, in spite of the planning of the CAC. Indeed, in some ways the changes are a step backward from the streetscape that existed before the construction.

The Boston Complete Streets Guide has been recognized nationwide in part because of its integration of landscape architecture and rainwater management into streetscape design.  One of its three “imperatives” states that streets should be “energy efficient, easy to maintain, and include healthy trees, plants, and permeable surfaces to manage storm water.” On the topic “Why Streets Matter”, the guide states that “streets lined with healthy trees provide beauty, shade, and improved air quality.”

The Centre/South CAC spent many meetings between 2009 and 2011 considering how the corridor could become one of the first examples of a successful Complete Streets design. We discussed how landscape architecture and modern tree pit design could support healthy, long-lived street trees. About Hyde Square, our final Center-South Streetscape and Transportation Action Plan states: “Careful attention should be paid to ensure that the design can thrive with minimal ongoing maintenance. Tree pits and landscaped should be designed to allow vegetation to flourish, with features allowing for ease of ongoing maintenance. Added features, such as rain gardens should be included to capture and even reuse the rainwater that today simply washes across the asphalt and into the sewer.”

The reality of the design falls far from these admirable ideals.  While sidewalks have been widened and new traffic islands built, they are large expanses of impermeable concrete. A small island in a crosswalk once planted with cheerful sunflowers by neighbors is now paved over and bare.  There are no rain gardens.  Tree pits are poorly aligned to existing trees and are filled not with healthy soil but inorganic rocks, sand, and debris.  An existing linden tree, preserved through the outcry of residents last year, has had its upper roots hacked away and covered in cement.  Like other trees in the construction zone, it was inadequately protected and is unlikely to survive.  Narrow “columnar” trees with small canopies have remained, rather than being replaced with more appropriate shade trees that the new design permits.

While these failures are discouraging, it is not too late to satisfy at least some of Complete Street’s green imperative.  Additional tree pits and planting areas can be retrofitted back onto concrete islands and sidewalks.  Tree species can be selected as part of a corridor-long plan, as the CAC had intended. The substrate, fill, and watering plan for all the tree pits can be re-evaluated with Parks Department guidance to promote healthy trees. Compared to the roadway construction, these are relatively minor costs. Hyde Square and the Complete Streets vision deserve it.

Lauren Ockene

Michael Halle

Response from Boston Public Works Department:

Thank you for expressing your concerns regarding the tree canopy incorporated into the newly constructed Hyde Square project in Jamaica Plain.  We value feedback and dialogue regarding our projects and hope that this response addresses your concerns.

Project Overview

After a series of meetings with the Jamaica Plain community, The City of Boston released the Centre/South Streetscape and Transportation Action Plan in 2011.  The plan included a concept design sketch for Hyde Square featuring widened sidewalks, safer pedestrian crossings, space for public art, and street trees, while maintaining the iconic rotary as a gateway symbol.  The concept design was part of a larger vision for the corridor between Jackson Square and Forest Hills Stations.

The project design was developed building upon the principles and ideas set forth in the planning effort to enhance both safety and overall place making within the square. Curb lines were bumped out to increase pedestrian space and provide shorter, more visible crossings in the roadway to improve safety for pedestrians. The geometry of the intersection was modified so that it could function as closely as possible to a modern roundabout and to calm traffic. Trees were added to increase the overall tree canopy. New street lights were included for safety and the fixtures selected were made to match the aesthetic vision set forth in the planning process. The increased sidewalk space not only creates more of a sense of place for pedestrians but it has also created opportunities to introduce a public art installation that is currently under design in conjunction with this project. This artwork will provide further enhancement to the overall look and feel of the square.

To address your specific concerns and recommendations regarding the street trees:

Linden Tree Located in the Centre Street Southern Island

This tree was originally called to be removed by the project because it was deemed to be in poor health by the City Tree Warden and because the shape of the traffic island had been reconfigured to better accommodate the improved roundabout design.  The tree also presented a concern as it created a visual barrier for motorists entering the roundabout from Centre Street to clearly see an approaching vehicle in the roundabout. As you noted in your letter, in response to constituent concerns, the design of the island was adjusted to accommodate the tree while still following best practices for traffic safety in a roundabout. Additionally, the Parks Department trimmed the lower branches on the trees to alleviate the visual barrier concerns.  It was necessary for some tree roots to be cut in order to build the island around the tree, but the project team was sensitive to the importance of the tree to the community.  During construction, care was taken to minimize the impact on the tree and follow the guidance of the project’s Landscape Architect and the City Tree Warden.

Even with the particular attention paid to the tree during construction, it did experience some shock from the operations.  This is not atypical for a situation like this.  Given our understanding of the importance of this particular tree to the community, we have chosen to monitor its response to its new environment over the course of the next year rather than remove it.  If the City Tree Warden determines that it is unable to survive, Public Works and Parks will work together to have it replaced.

Tree at 382 Centre Street

The project plans called for this tree pit to be relocated closer to the curbline but there were underground utility obstructions that prevented the realignment.  The existing tree pit location was maintained but shifted forward to provide an ADA/MAAB compliant path of travel at the back of the sidewalk.  Because the existing tree was healthy and established and it fell within the new tree pit, it was maintained.  Public Works has no opposition to replacing this tree with a new tree that is centered in the tree pit but must defer to the City Tree Warden on the removal of any tree.  If deemed appropriate, the tree will be replaced when the new trees are planted.

Tree at 402 Centre Street

This tree was mistakenly called to be retained in the project plans and will be replaced when the new trees are planted.

Planting Medium in all New Tree Pits

During construction, all new tree pits are filled with gravel to the level of the existing sidewalk.  When the trees are planted, that gravel will be replaced with the planting soil specified in the contract by the Landscape Architect.  If the soil were placed during initial construction operations, it would risk being compacted too densely for ideal air and water infiltration.

Open Area in Northern Centre Street Median Island

The empty gravel area in the northern traffic island on Centre Street is designated for the installation of public art.

Recommendation 1: “Remove the now nearly-dead linden tree.”

As noted above, the City will monitor the linden tree and remove it if its health continues to decline.

Recommendation 2: “Take out the poor, gravel-based substrate in the area.  Make it a wide and deep area, according to actual arborists’ recommendations. (real soil, real access and engineering for water, no gravel)”

This is scheduled as part of the project.

Recommendation 3: “Plant a tree that will have a canopy shape and that is likely to do well in this very challenging spot.  The locusts in Hyde Square provide nice dappled shade and grow very reliably.  Oaks would be very nice also.”

This is scheduled as part of the project.  The four specified species for the project are celtis occidentalis (Common Hackberry), gleditsia triacanthos ‘halka’ (Honey Locust), quercus bicolor (Swamp White Oak), and tilia cordata ‘greenspire’ (Little-Leaf Linden).  All four species provide appropriate shade canopies and grow well in urban conditions.  The four species are included as approved species in the Boston Complete Streets Guide and were chosen by the project Landscape Architect for their shade, resiliency, and aesthetics.

Recommendation 4: “Provide some sort of barrier to road salt, as this site receives a huge amount.”

The six-inch granite curb and the setback of the new tree pits from the edge of the road function as a barrier to road salt, as does the “wedding cake” tiered granite planters in the islands.

Recommendation 5: “Take out the trees at #382 and #402 Centre, since they will never provide real shade or canopy.  Fortify their pits with new, heathy growing medium.”

See response above.  #402 will be replaced and #382 will be replaced with Parks approval.  Appropriate planting soil will be placed as part of the project.

Recommendation 6: “Create a large street tree pit in the large island at the Northern end of the rotary.”

See response above.  Area is reserved for a public art installation.

Recommendation 7: “Remove all of the rubble currently in the available street tree pits.”

This is scheduled as part of the project.

Recommendation 8: Replace the rubble with excellent soil or growing medium for street trees. 

This is scheduled as part of the project.

Recommendation 9: “Plant hardy canopy trees of varieties that succeed well in cities in all of the available pits including those at #382 and #402 Centre Street.”

This is scheduled as part of the project.

Recommendation 10: “Mulch the trees.”

This is scheduled as part of the project.  All tree pits will receive a minimum of 3 inches of mulch.

Recommendation 11: “Create a watering plan with businesses adopting the trees to water them.”

The City is in strong support of businesses developing a tree care and watering plan for the trees in this area.”

 

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