Arborway ‘Gateway’ planning begins


Courtesy Photo
Arborist Dennis Pultinas of Earthworks works with over 20 employees volunteers from Novartis’s Cambridge office on the Arborway hillside on April 24. The goal of this project was to clean up the parkway edge of the hillside and especially to uproot wild grape that is weighing down and killing the trees.

ARBORWAY—Better paths, new plantings and a death sentence for a giant chain link fence were on the agenda of a state-run meeting last week to plan small-scale fixes to the Arborway between Casey Overpass and the Arnold Arboretum entrance.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) already knows the main improvements it wants for that stretch of the historic parkway, known as the “Gateway to the Arborway” in the new plans. But the May 5 meeting at Curtis Hall allowed about 40 residents to fine-tune the concepts.

The fast-moving, results-oriented planning process is the brainchild of the local Arborway Coalition organization. After a couple of further meetings, it will wrap up by July 18.

It is different from the Arborway Master Plan, DCR’s proposal for large-scale roadway changes for the entire Arborway. The Master Plan has come and gone over the years with no solid results and much controversy. The Gateway plan appears to be based on much more consensus and focuses on quick fixes. It does not include any major roadway changes.

The Gateway plan is just that—a plan. After July, a new round of state funding would be required to actually carry out the designs. There appears to be political momentum to do so, based on DCR comments and the general air of consensus. State Reps. Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez also attended the meeting. Also, according to DCR, the plan will be designed with some phases that can be carried out very quickly.

Pressley Associates has already been hired by DCR to draw up three alternative designs for the Gateway plan. The Cambridge-based landscape company has experience with high-profile park projects, including the Muddy River restoration and a Brookline parks master plan.
Gateway ideas

The meeting was led by Shaun Provencher, a DCR planner who lives near the Arborway on St. Joseph Street and described himself as an avid bicyclist.

He showed photos of the main areas getting attention in the plan: the Casey Overpass area; the long median strip between the main and outer Arborway lanes; and the hillside parkland between the main and outer Arborway at St. Rose Street.

None of the photos were flattering. At the Casey Overpass, drivers headed north are greeted by a grayish Arborway sign often decorated with litter and lost hubcaps. A new sign seems like a certainty in the plan.

The overpass is also “the wonderful Shel Silverstein ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends,’” Provencher joked. The title of the famous poetry book is literally true there, as any pedestrian brave enough to walk on the overpass sidewalk finds that it ends abruptly in a hillside.

The southern end of the median strip is grassy but torn up by drivers who constantly run over it. The reckless drivers ran over several young trees planted there recently. Farther up the median is a jumble of large granite blocks—“hippo teeth,” Provencher called them—intended as a crude guardrail. And at the pedestrian crossing to the arboretum entrance is a long, tall, black chain link fence apparently intended to keep pedestrians from dashing across outside the crosswalk.

The hillside is green, but has had its problems. DCR clear-cut about half of it early last year, sparking local controversy that led to the Gateway plan. Because of that early start, the hillside already has some detailed agreements in place. They include DCR and local organizations collaborating on long-term maintenance; a master list of preferred plant species for landscaping; and an invasive species control plan. Informal paths on the hillside would be either improved or redesigned under the Gateway plan.


Audience members mostly added details and suggested areas of emphasis for the plan.

A big theme was better pedestrian and bike access from the complicated South Street and Washington Street intersection beneath the overpass. Jeffrey Ferris, owner of the local Ferris Wheels Bike Shop, suggested a wider path and possibly a bike lane. There was also a suggestion to coordinate with the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative’s traffic planning for that area. [See related article.]

Michael Halle of the Jamaica Plain Traffic and Parking Committee noted that the Arborway generally has unusually wide traffic lanes. He suggested narrowing them to slow down traffic and give more room for a bike lane or similar bike access.

More and better street lighting was also mentioned and appears to be feasible under the plan.

Provencher made DCR’s ideas about the median strip pretty clear: the chain link, big rocks and run-over saplings would be replaced by a more attractive, lower fence. But residents seemed to bond over complaining about how people drive over it, reflecting the consensus in the room.

“I would love to see some giant boulders [on the median] so close together that you can’t get a Prius between them,” said a St. Rose resident, referring to Toyota’s popular electric/gas hybrid car. “Prius drivers don’t do that,” joked an audience member in response, leading to laughter.

Ferris raised a more serious idea of installing a formal bike path through the area, but the idea drew skepticism about how it would work.

While there is already a basic plan in place for the hillside, audience members had some notable suggestions and questions.

Ferris asked about the design concept—for example, whether it should be more of a lawn with large trees, or more forest-like. Provencher indicated DCR would go with a mix of native trees instead of a lawn because it is easier to maintain.

Volunteers already help maintain the parkland there. Halle suggested installing a water spigot on the hillside for plant-watering, or similar facilities. “Make it easier to volunteer,” he said.

Freeman, who said she was among the volunteers who have lugged water buckets from home to the site, expressed excitement about that idea.

On a bigger scale, there was concern about the grand red oaks that line the Arborway. Several have died in recent years and either have not been replaced, or were replaced with young trees that also died.

Jamaica Pond Project head Gerry Wright, who portrays Arborway designer Frederick Law Olmsted in one-man shows, suggested planting cucumber trees instead. Cucumber and tulip trees were Olmsted’s original ideas for the Arborway, but the Boston Parks Department overruled him and planted the oaks, Provencher said, adding that such a change raises historic preservation issues. As a parkway, the Arborway is technically both a roadway and an official historic state park.

Freeman backed the idea of other tree species, saying the current “monoculture” could leave the Arborway treeless if a blight wiped out all red oaks. Malia noted that a mix of trees was used on the Southwest Corridor Park for that reason.

Wright got some laughs while making a serious complaint about Provencher’s decision to illustrate the discussion with an old map of the Arborway instead of a modern-day one. Provencher apologized, saying it was the only map handy that day, and explained that it was an original 1890s map. “I recognize my design, sir,” Wright said in character as Olmsted, to laughter.

Arborway Coalition member Sam Sherwood called for better communication with DCR, including a real person to talk to and a plan-specific web site with such information as design illustrations.

“It’s really critical to making it work,” especially on long-term maintenance, Sherwood said.

The next step in the planning process will be Pressley Associates revealing its alternative designs. That meeting will probably be held next month. [See JP Agenda for updates.]

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