T demands bigger bus yard

John Ruch

Courtesy Photo
One of three designs for an expanded Arborway Yard bus facility the MBTA recently presented to the community. This one shows the north wall moved 50 feet north. It also moves a garage 10 feet and adds a parking space in the northeast corner.

FOREST HILLS—In a last-minute bombshell, the MBTA has declared that the proposed Arborway Yard bus facility—planned with community input for nine years—won’t work as planned. Instead, the MBTA is proposing a new plan that expands the facility by more than an acre, slashing into green space and community land.

The change involves pushing a huge exterior wall 40 or 50 feet farther north, toward the neighborhood.

Stunned members of the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY) say the new proposal violates community agreements in various ways and will cause garage noise to spill into the neighborhood. Some also warned it could mean many more buses on the site.

“It changes the agreements we’ve been working around all these years,” said CPCAY chair Henry Allen at the group’s June 4 meeting.

Allen said that while CPCAY doesn’t want this controversy to delay the process any further, “I don’t think any of us are prepared to do that at the expense of undermining or undercutting what we’ve worked so hard to achieve all these years.”

But MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told the Gazette in an e-mail that the design change is “slight” and “minor.” It will not lead to more buses or more noise, he said, also claiming the proposal will “benefit” the green space by securing funding for its maintenance.

Sentiment at the meeting appeared unanimously opposed to the expansion.

“They squashed our greenway,” said CPCAY member Alan Ihrer. “There’s a lot of loss here. The community loses an awful lot.”

“I don’t get it,” state Rep. Liz Malia told the Gazette after the meeting about the MBTA’s sudden change.

It is unclear whether the MBTA considers the new plan to be a negotiating point or an ultimatum. Pesaturo answered a Gazette question about the nature of the proposal by saying, “The MBTA has a responsibility to build a facility that meets its basic requirements of fueling, maintaining and storing a fleet of state-of-the-art buses.”

The MBTA did not appear at the CPCAY meeting. Ihrer presented its plan instead, explaining that MBTA officials had been invited, but, “They were unwilling to based on prior experience.”

When Ihrer cautioned, “I’m just the messenger,” Allen jokingly added, “Who we’re ready to shoot.”

There has been good news in recent months about the Arborway Yard at the corner of the Arborway and Washington Street. CPCAY members were expressing triumph and relief at successfully securing an extra $29 million to meet the construction budget.

Those emotions were expected to continue at a May 30 meeting of the CPCAY’s design subcommittee. On that day, the MBTA was scheduled to deliver the “90 percent,” or last rough draft, of the facility’s design.

Instead of showing up with the 90 percent design, the MBTA offered the new expansion plan—complete with full-scale architect’s drawings.

Merlin Southwick, chair of the design committee, said CPCAY had no idea the MBTA was working on an alternative proposal. The only reason the “11th hour” proposal wasn’t an utter shock, he said, is that Malia heard a rumor about the plans shortly before the meeting and tipped off the group.

Southwick said an MBTA planner at that meeting informed them that MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas “has declared to all parties that they’re not going to build a facility that doesn’t work.” And the facility planned for nine years with the community “in their judgment, does not work,” Southwick said.

A variety of reasons were given by Pesaturo and reportedly the MBTA planner for moving the north wall—a stand-alone barrier—so it is farther from the bus facilities.

One reason that drew CPCAY attention was that large buses won’t have enough room to make a sharp turn into a maintenance garage.

Pesaturo said it’s not a main rationale, and that there actually is enough turning room, but that more space would be better.

“The turning radius, as currently designed, leaves no room for error,” Pesaturo said.

Also, in another brand new element, the MBTA wants to park buses that are waiting for service against the north wall. Other reasons cited for the expansion were more space for towing “dead” buses and removing snow.

“Currently, a bus cannot make it through the facility under tow [under the current plan],” Pesaturo said.

A third argument for more space is another major change—the MBTA reportedly plans to gradually move its fleet from compressed natural gas (CNG) to so-called clean diesel fuel, and will install fueling stations for both. The facility was planned as CNG only, as the MBTA reportedly declared repeatedly that a dual-fuel facility was impossible.

There were other controversial changes as well. The MBTA now seeks to add an 8- or 15-space parking lot for service vehicles to the end of a fire lane on Forest Hills Street. And a footbridge spanning a driveway leading to underground parking on the Arborway—intended to preserve the road’s historic and pedestrian character—has been removed as inefficient and ugly, according to Ihrer.

Adding to the surprise of the expansion plan, CPCAY members said, is that the MBTA raised similar concerns throughout the years of planning and presumably addressed them in the design.

“Nothing is new,” Allen said.

Southwick told the Gazette that the MBTA’s bus operations division has been represented in the planning for about four years—at CPCAY’s repeated request. He acknowledged that the representative “did talk about the north wall being a tight turn.”

But MBTA engineers and architects have agreed with the current size of the facility up until now. If there truly isn’t enough turning space, Ihrer said, “I don’t know why we’re just finding that out now after five- or six- years.”

“Preparing alternate designs is (and always has been) part of the process of addressing issues when they are identified,” Pesaturo said. “The MBTA has discussed its need for additional room at the facility with the CPCAY design review committee several times.”

Pesaturo did not explain exactly why the CPCAY was not made aware that the expansion plan was being drawn up, or why earlier designs didn’t address the problems.

Several members agreed with resident Bill Mitchell, a former CPCAY member, that the space issue is “bogus.”

“The T has no credibility,” Mitchell said, noting it previously said several elements of the plan were impossible, only to agree with them later. Even if turning space really was an issue, he said, the MBTA could reduce the width of a proposed maintenance garage by 50- to 60- feet of currently “unprogrammed” space and have enough room.

Mitchell said he believes the expansion is simply intended to allow the MBTA to pack more buses onto the site, in excess of a 118-bus limit spelled out in a community agreement.

“It’s a land grab,” Mitchell said, estimating an additional 100 buses would fit on the site. Allen expressed agreement with that concern.

Asked if the expanded facility would be used to house more than 118 buses, Pesaturo simply said, “No.”

The expansion raises concerns about the other side of the wall, too.

The community was promised a “greenway” between the north wall and neighborhood property, both as a buffer and as a way to keep a green connection to Franklin Park because the facility will heavily impact the Arborway parkland.

The community also fought for about 8 acres of adjacent land to be put up for community-oriented development, such as housing and retail. As part of the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative, the Boston Redevelopment Authority recently produced a hypothetical illustration of possible mixed-use development on the land. [See related article.]

Moving the wall toward the neighborhood would cut deeply into the green space and into part of the community development land as well.

Ihrer noted that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the MBTA and the community says the greenway has to more than 60 feet wide. Under the current plan, it is 85 feet wide. But moving the wall would cut it down to 35- or 45- feet—and violate the agreement.

“When you cut [the greenway] down by half, you kind of kill the mitigating quality it had,” Ihrer said. He added that cutting green space also reduces the viability of housing development on the community land.

“It starts to limit things you can do on the site,” he said. “You start to get this very hard, urban landscape.”

Pesaturo claimed the expansion would actually improve the greenway, sometimes known as the Emerald Necklace Reconnector, by providing funding for it. Currently, no agency has taken responsibility for it.

“This minor design change would also benefit the ‘Emerald Necklace Reconnector’ for which funds are yet to be identified,” Pesaturo said. “Under the T’s proposal, the Reconnector would receive proper maintenance and care.”

He did not elaborate on that proposal.

The greenway is also supposed to mitigate the noise of buses, fuel pumps and power tools from the facility. The CPCAY spent more than a year doing noise studies and negotiating solutions and mitigations.

The current plan reduces noise from the facility with a combination of walls, special sound shields and sheer distance. The expansion plan undoes all of that, spilling noise into the neighborhood, according to local sound engineer Dicky Spears, who serves as CPCAY’s noise consultant.

“That standard the T agreed to should be held,” Spears said, adding he couldn’t think of a way to fix the noise created by the expansion plan. He noted that the sound-dampening solutions previously negotiated were right up to the city’s allowable maximum.

Pesaturo disagreed. “No, the slight repositioning of the wall will not result in increased noise levels,” he said.

The facility would also place light and exhaust pollution closer to the neighborhood, and free up more due to the larger gap between the facility and the exterior wall, CPCAY members said. If the facility indeed included more buses, that would mean more noise and exhaust, some members noted.

It is unclear what happens next in terms of process.

Southwick said he was told on June 4 that the 90 percent design is done. But, he added, no one had reviewed it, and it remained unclear whether it still contains the community-planned version or incorporates the new expansion. The CPCAY decided informally not to review the 90 percent design until the expansion proposal controversy is resolved.

“What is this—zero percent?” joked CPCAY member Pam Bender about the MBTA’s last-minute design proposal.

“The T isn’t negotiating,” Allen said. “They’re just saying they want this.”

“This does not resemble negotiation to me at all,” Malia said of the proposal and the MBTA’s manner of presenting it.

Southwick said the basic information he wanted from members was whether they might approve of the expansion plan, and if so, what they wanted as mitigations. The conversation didn’t get very far as everyone appeared to oppose the expansion. Curtis Jones, who lives nearby, said he is ready to picket the MBTA if necessary to halt the plan.

Allen said CPCAY members plan to meet with the MBTA and city officials about the expansion. Leslie Delaney-Hawkins, Jamaica Plain’s representative from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, and an aide to City Councilor Steve Murphy were in attendance, but neither of them commented on the controversy.

Allen indicated CPCAY doesn’t intend to take the controversy lying down. At the same, he said, another lengthy planning delay like ones caused by previous controversies would be unacceptable.

“We just cannot take it, psychologically, emotionally, whatever,” Allen said.

He said CPCAY will likely hold an emergency meeting within the next two weeks to discuss further information and action.

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