Centre/South redesign begins on fast track

John Ruch

The city’s ambitious redesigning of the entire Centre and South streets corridor through Jamaica Plain began last week with an ambitious schedule to match: 12 months of hardcore work could result in a plan and a budget request by 2011.

A citizens advisory committee (CAC) appointed by the city met for the first time on May 6 at Curtis Hall, where officials from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) laid out the timeline and the sheer scope of a planning effort that covers the 2 miles of streets and sidewalks between Jackson Square and Forest Hills.

Known officially as the Centre and South Street Corridor Transportation and Streetscape Action Plan, the redesign effort began six months ago with two community brainstorming sessions.

The CAC now will work on the actual plan—basically inventing it alongside city officials and a soon-to-be-hired consulting firm. Many of the 15 CAC members were prominent participants in the brainstorming meetings.

The BRA and BTD previously worked on a similar redesign of 4 miles of Dorchester Avenue. That enormous project is particular notable for its handling of troublesome intersections. Parts of the Dot Ave. project are under construction now, giving JP residents a chance to see a similar redesign in action. Members of the Centre/South CAC expressed interest in the Dot Ave. work and will receive a complete information packet about it.

Vineet Gupta, BTD’s director of planning, laid out a four-stage planning schedule for the CAC: creating a “corridor vision”; crafting streetscape design guidelines; identifying intersections for “major” and “minor” redesigns; and developing a comprehensive parking plan.

Gupta said the city hopes the CAC can complete the bulk of the plan by April 2010 so that city capital funding for actual construction can be requested in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget.

The “vision” stage is basically a refined version of the brainstorming sessions.

“Think of your favorite street in Boston, in Canada, in Italy, wherever,” Gupta said, and imagine Centre/South looking like that. The vision will include picturing what the street should look like in three-, five- and 10-year stages.

Gupta noted that the corridor already has a lot going for it, repeating his favorite story about Charlestown residents in a similar visioning process citing Centre/South in JP as their favorite street.

The streetscape design guidelines will consider what the sidewalk areas should look like. The goal is to have a consistent look and feel to the corridor, though not every object needs to look exactly the same.

Gupta pointed to the pedestrian way-finding signs recently posted in central JP by JP Centre/South Main Streets as “a very good start.”

The intersection redesigns likely will be the most construction-heavy part of the plan. “Major” and “minor” refers to the level of detail to the plans—that is, how much design advice the city can afford to pay for—rather than the importance of the intersections. Gupta said there can be about three major and five minor redesigns.

The CAC will decide which intersections get the full redesigns. Gupta suggested that major redesigns be done for Monument, Hyde and Jackson Squares. For minor redesigns, Gupta’s suggestions included Centre and Seaverns Avenue, and the five-way intersection where S. Huntington Avenue and Centre, Boylston and Moraine streets all meet.

Some of the Dot Ave. intersection redesigns have involved partly reorienting some streets and creating better crosswalks and small plazas.

The parking plan will include studies of both on-street and lot parking. Gupta noted parking is always a contentious issue. In fact, it already was at the CAC meeting, as member Lauren Ockene of JP Bikes and Bikes Not Bombs noted the dynamic between parking spaces and encouraging people to drive rather than use alternative means of transportation.

CAC member Michael Halle of the JP Traffic and Parking Committee asked for some of the parking studies to be done much sooner so that they can be the basis of planning. He suggested some small-scale parking experiments could be tried during the planning to see whether they work. Gupta seemed dubious but said the city could consider it.

One item the city definitely will do, Gupta said, is make sure the lane markings on the street include room for bicycles, possibly including an actual bike lane. “Accommodation of bicycles is a key piece,” he said.

There some major X-factors that could affect the streetscape well before the BRA/BTD plan is done. They include large-scale redevelopments in Jackson Square and the former Blessed Sacrament Church site in Hyde Square, and the MBTA’s Route 39 bus stop improvements.

MBTA Project Director Erik Scheier spoke to the CAC about the Route 39 plan, which appears likely to include extended sidewalks built at some bus stops on Centre. The Route 39 plan has its own citizens advisory group, three members of which are also on the Centre/South CAC.

Gupta called the Route 39 plans “a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem” for Centre/South planning, but noted the MBTA and the city will work in close collaboration on both.

As for Blessed Sacrament and Jackson Square, Gupta said the city may push some of the Centre/South CAC’s ideas on the developers even before they are part of a formal plan. A main partner in both redevelopments is the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), which has a member on the CAC.

The city will also share Centre/South information with another city CAC reviewing the Jackson Square redevelopment, Gupta said.

The Jackson Square CAC recently ran into controversy for banning the media from its meetings. [See related article.] That ban was the subject of some joking at the Centre/South CAC meeting, which featured an unusual amount of assurances from city officials that the process will be totally public.

“It’s a public process. Nothing is secret,” Gupta said at one point. Besides regular CAC meetings, the city will hold some large-scale community meetings to report the planning progress. While the debut meeting was public, the Gazette did not receive notice about it until two days beforehand.

The Centre/South CAC members include: Patricia Barry (South Street housing development); Samantha Brea (Hyde Square Task Force); Michael Epp (JP Centre/South Main Streets); Charles Fiore (South Street business owner); Halle; Mary Hannon (Asticou/Martinwood/South Street Neighborhood Association); John Iappini (Jamaica Pond Association); Carlos Icaza (Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association); Kathy Kottaridis (Forest Hills resident); Jennifer Mehigan (Hyde/Jackson resident); Ockene; Damaris Pimentel (Hyde/Jackson Main Streets); Michael Reiskind (Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council); Martha Rizzoli (JP resident); Sylvia Toruna (JPNDC); and David Worrell (Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation).

Official representation aside, several members bring additional expertise to the table. Epp is also a professional urban planner; Hannon is a real estate agent; Kottaridis is head of Historic Boston Incorporated; and Mehigan is the spokesperson for Boston Emergency Medical Services.

For more information about the Dorchester Avenue redesign, see www.cityofboston.gov/bra/dotav/dotavhome.asp.

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