MBTA yard design has lots of support, no funding

FOREST HILLS—The community and the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY) largely agreed on the design proposed by the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) for the Arborway Yard bus facility at a community meeting at English High School on Oct. 27, bringing a 12-year planning saga a step closer to completion.

As proposed, the MBTA would replace the current 18-acre temporary bus yard at the intersection of Washington Street and the Arborway with a state-of-the-art facility, along with surrounding green space.

The MBTA would also cede nearly eight acres of the current property to the City for future development that could include low-cost housing, commercial space and further green space, John Schwarz, deputy director of the MBTA’s Design & Construction Department, told the near 70 attendees.

The almost-$200 million project has no funding currently, and will not break ground before late 2011, at the earliest, said Richard Davey, MBTA general manager.

Finding the funding will be a “tall order,” Davey said, but he added that the MBTA will work on bringing down costs and “sharpening our pencils to try to find the $200 million” to build the facility as soon as possible.

We’re “trying to create a design that holds true to many previous agreements…a win-win-win situation,” Henry Allen, CPCAY chair, said, “a win for the MBTA, for the city and for the community.”

CPCAY member Allan Ihrer called it a “groundbreakingly fantastic project,” despite the fact that the groundbreaking won’t come for a year at the least.

The facility
The 90 percent design presented at the meeting is nearly complete and needing only minor adjustments based on community input. The 100 percent design should be complete by spring, Davey said.

The 10.1-acre facility would include a 118-space “bus barn” building, a 10-bay maintenance and fueling facility, an underground 275-space parking garage for MBTA employees and a bus wash station. The MBTA administrative building already present at 500 Arborway would remain, Schwarz said. The City of Boston owns a small building on Forest Hills Street that would be demolished for the construction.

Almost eight acres along Washington Street, on the north side of the 18.3-acre property, would be given to the City to develop further. That space will be subject to a community process to decide what will eventually be built there, based on outlines from the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII). Suggestions for parks, low-income housing and commercial space have been put forth. A copy of the FHII is available at the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s website.

The remaining space on the property would become a perimeter park that would reconnect Franklin Park with the Emerald Necklace, Schwarz said. The park would be owned by the City but landscaped and maintained by the MBTA.

The facility would be surrounded by a noise-reducing wall that would rise no more than eight feet from the adjacent park, keeping shadows low and unobtrusive. The buildings’ roofs would be white, preventing the buildings from becoming “heat islands,” David Stockless, one of the architects, said, in response to a question from the audience.

Neighbors said they support the project, though they still had minor concerns. One neighbor mentioned a flood in 1996 in which Stony Brook, now underground, rose, contributing to millions in damages around the City, citing concerns over the low grade of the proposed park and the possibility of more flooding with heavy rain.

Brad Mills, another architect, along with Davey, promised to address drainage issues in the 100 percent design.

Another neighbor asked about the possibility of installing a playground and others had specific questions about the sound-barrier wall’s visual impact from the neighbors’ side.

Stockless assured the crowd that all the sound and shadow mitigating measures met or exceeded city requirements. Any playground would would be part of the City’s development of the eight acres.

Fred Vetterlein, a neighbor, suggested installing fences or muraling walls in order to improve the look of the site until construction is complete.

Kosta Demos, a nearby resident, said that the plan “looks pretty good,” and said he looks forward to when the area will no longer be a “pedestrian desert.”

The funding
Bill Mitchell, a former CPCAY member, expressed worries about the cost of the project, saying that though it was originally budgeted at $94 million, it might end up costing a third of a billion dollars, which Davey admitted might happen. It is currently budgeted at almost $200 million.

This project was a part of the MBTA’s Capital Investment Program (CIP) in the past, though that is no longer the case. The CIP is a document that outlines and authorizes the MBTA’s use of funds over the next five years. The MBTA cannot operate or build any projects not included in the CIP.

Davey said he is hoping to have it back for next year’s CIP by cost-cutting the project as much as possible, though he assured those present that no measure would adversely impact the community. He is also looking for different sources of funding, he said.

The MBTA is “working very hard to figure out a way to bring that cost down to make it more feasible and affordable,” Davey said. “At the same time, we are working with our federal partners and the city to figure out a way to move this project forward.”

“I know how deeply the community has worked on this over the years, “ state Rep. Liz Malia said at the meeting, adding that out of meetings, community process and hard work “come results.”

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz remarked that this was the “least contentious meeting” she’d seen on this project since taking office, adding that the current design is “a product of a lot of hard work over many years,” and that she’s “glad to support it.”

District Six city council candidates Jim Hennigan and Matt O’Maley were also present at the meeting.

The fracas
The controversy-fraught and years-long process started in 1998, when the MBTA announced plans to build a major new transit facility in Forest Hills to replace Bartlett Yard in Roxbury. The Gazette broke the news after JP resident Karen Wepsic brought a small legal notice from a daily newspaper to the Gazette’s attention, saying that the T was seeking contractors for the project.

With strong backing from Mayor Thomas Menino and other officials, residents were able to form CPCAY and get design review authority. That led to years of complex negotiations and an agreement that several acres of land would be given to the city for redevelopment into housing, commercial space and green space.

In 2001, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was negotiated and agreed to by the MBTA and CPCAY that reflected the give-and-take needed to uphold residents’ rights to a safe, livable environment and the need for MBTA buses to be maintained.

The MOU settled the number of buses stored at Arborway Yard at 118 and also stated that there would be no diesel buses at the site, a complaint frequently made of Bartlett Yard. The bus facility would be designed to meet visual and acoustical mitigation measures, including light pollution, sound barriers, and visual screening.

Since then, the MBTA has spent about $30 million on design and on building the temporary bus facility, which consists of fenced-in prefabricated buildings and a large parking lot.

In 2007, CPCAY met to approve a final design for the site, as the Gazette previously reported. MBTA officials stunned everyone by announcing that, despite their previous agreement to the design, they needed a facility 1 acre larger than previously agreed.

In 2008, CPCAY finally approved a design with a more modest expansion in a controversial vote. Since then, it has pushed for full funding to complete the design and enter construction.

In a March 1 letter to MassDOT previousy provided to the Gazette by CPCAY, Mayor Thomas Menino and other local officials urged funding for the project and anything else required to get construction started in the next fiscal year. The letter was also signed by Chang-Díaz; state Reps. Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez; and then-City Councilor John Tobin.

In interviews with the Gazette last year, Menino brought up the Arborway Yard, calling it an “issue that frustrates me so much… Let’s get it done.”