Earlier this week Paul McMorrow wrote in his weekly Boston Globe column about the 140 acre Beacon Park railyard in Allston and how, with the rail operations moved to Worcester and the Massachusetts Turnpike about to be straightened with its toll-plaza removed and how this will become an opportunity for the area to be like Assembly Square in Somerville. That project, which has included the first new station on the Orange Line since Oak Grove opened decades ago, McMorrow says is “a model for turning around rotten real estate.”
Frankly, I find that somewhat optimistic for a development which hasn’t even finished construction yet. The pull out of Ikea and the rejection of Wal Mart don’t exactly bode well for the commercial success of the place and the massive amounts of parking made the whole thing about how the project was dependent upon the station sound ridiculous. No, Assembly Square will be like any number of a host of other projects: profitable for the developer/landlord, but dull and dreary for everyone because it is, fundementally, the same project as any other similar one where government officials want to attract young, white people. Oh, the apartments will be rented and the Starbucks, Chipoltle, Dunkin Donuts, GNC, gym franchise and faux-Irish pub (actually a sports bar run by people who don’t know how to pour a Guinness) will be profitable, but the place will never have the life of a real neighborhood, much less the long term residents or public characters or children. It’s suburbia for the 18-35’s.
But getting back to Allston, on the blank slate of Beacon Park Yards (I have no idea where the name comes from, seeing as how it’s a no man’s land and the closest park is the Hooker-Sorrento Playground) McMorrow projects not only an Assembly Square-style twenty-something suburb, but a commuter rail station for the diesel-multiple units (“trolley cars on commuter rail tracks,” according to McMorrow) the state may one day buy to possibly run a train from Back Bay to the innovation district and back. Apart from the fact that such plans are still tentative, I feel like it’s a big fuck you to the existing residents of Allston, who have to deal with some of the worst public transportation in Boston.
Instead of some pie in the sky scheme that could easily be canceled by the next governor, or blocked by suburban legislators so they can continue building stroads and 20-year long, massively overbudget highway projects, the powers that be ought to work on improving the existing transportation.
For example, the Boston College branch of the Green Line is constantly overcrowded. There are two reasons for this. One is that the power system on the Green Line is so hopelessly antiquated that they can only run two-car trains and the other is the MBTA’s front-boarding only policy, which results in everybody crammed in the first half of the car and nobody in the back. What they should do is rebuild the power system to run six-car trains and build actual stations so fares can be paid before boarding.
The stations should be Kenmore, Boston University Central, Babcock Street, Harvard Avenue, Warren Street, Washington Street, Chestnut Hill Avenue and Boston College. Eliminating stations would also speed up the line.
The route of the 64 bus needs to be changed. The detour up Falkland, Hobart and Brooks Street needs to be eliminated — it should stay on Fanueil Street until that road intersects Market Street. After that, though, I’m not sure about where it should go. I think there should be some bus service to the future train station on Guest Street (Boston Landing), but to do that without making into a time -consuming detour will require reconfiguring the roads, so maybe it’s best to keep the 64 on North Beacon Street. The 66 has one big choke point in the area: Harvard Avenue.
Although I’ve lived here for several months, I can’t say why traffic gets so bad on Harvard Avenue from Commonwealth Avenue to Brighton Avenue and then along Brighton to Cambridge Street. There seem to be a lot of things that cause back-ups, from people parking on Harvard Avenue, to drivers trying to go when the intersection is clear, but the lights red, to people crossing the street every which way and at every possible point to drivers having to do complex turns because of the median in Brighton Avenue to Cambridge Street’s absurdly high design speeds. It’s probably a combination of all of it, just occurring all at once. The 66 bus also has to make left turns against traffic to get on to Brighton Avenue, after pulling out of right-hand lane bus stops. I think what would work best would be signal priority for pedestrians and buses.
Another problem I have with McMorrow’s idea for Beacon Park is that, quite frankly, I don’t see the neighborhood organizations allowing the sort of development that would be best. Brighton-Allston is a highly dysfunctional district. As a journalist, I’ve met Marty Walsh and John Connolly and Matt O’Malley and Michele Wu and a host of Boston politicians who make it a point to show up to things and get to know their constituents. I’ve never met this neighborhood’s city councilor, Mark Ciommo. I never met the guy who challenged him in last year’s election. I’ve never met the local state rep or senator. Allston Village Main Streets doesn’t hold any events and neither does Brighton Main Streets. The Brighton-Allston Improvement Association meets irregularly. Moreover, these organizations are dominated by old time residents and they represent their views, which are often detrimental to the interests of the residents.
The majority of residents are young, either in college or recently graduated, and tend to stay at one address for just a year. They like nightlife and drinking and partying, they don’t like high rents and late trains or buses. It’s a student slum, as one of my friends has said. This rankles long time residents, who have to deal with immature neighbors, to say nothing of the poor quality of the housing, most of which is slum housing owned by Alpha Management or another, similar company. The rent keeps rising, more young people keep coming and for everyone who is sick of the situation and want to sell out, there’s a buyer: Harvard, which now owns a big chunk of Lower Allston and has been standing pat with it for years.
So the old timers keep on blocking development. They limit the heights and number of units, demand more and more parking and attempt to do everything in their power to keep everything from changing any more than it already has. They don’t try to get the new people involved, they don’t try to find ways to keep rents from rising and they certainly don’t give a damn about the decrepit housing.
There’s life here, but not enough of it and it’s being blocked at every turn. Building a cookie cutter development won’t do anything if those issues aren’t taken care of.