In the nineteenth century, Boston “cut down the hills to fills the coves”, growing its land area considerably from the tiny colonial penninsula to the modern city of today through the use pilings and landfill. In such manner the Back Bay, West End, South End, Bay Village, East Boston and parts of South Boston and Dorchester grew from marshy islands or muddy banks visible at high tide into dry land (at least for now).
The urban renewal of the middle of the 20th century was no less transformative of the landscape. Huge swathes of Boston were torn down and carved out for expressways. Some of them, like the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and Allston, the Northern Expressway, the Central Artery and parts of the Southeast Expressway, were elevated and other, like the Pike for much of its route in Boston and Newton and the Southwest Expressway, were placed in trenches. The Southwest Expressway was canceled, along with the Inner Belt, but the trench remained and was filled with the Southwest Corridor Park, the Orange Line and other commuter rail tracks.
Other lines, such as the Fitchburg in Somerville and Cambridge, the Lowell Line in Somerville, portions of the Needham, Providence and Franklin commter rail lines and parts of the Red and Blue Lines are also in trenches. Yet there is very little interest in the air rights, despite tight Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority budgets, a real estate market that doesn’t seem to have a ceiling and already high construction costs.
Cambridge City Councilors have looked at air rights sales near Alewife in order to support a new commuter rail station, Lesley University was planning on buying air rights near Porter before ther recession and the MBTA looked at selling them again in 2011.
There should be a systematic effort to sell or lease them. There would be a few key benefits: generating revenue for the MBTA; providing hundreds, if not thousands of new units of housing, offices and retail spaces; mitigating noise from the trains; protecting MBTA equipment from the elements and improving pedestrian, bicycle and vehicluar connections across neighborhoods.
The main obstacle would be the cost of decking over the trenches. To mitigate this disadvantage, proposed projects ought to have parking minimums waived and an expedited review process. The MBTA should also try to work with as many developers as possible, auctioning off a piece there and a stretch there, instead of hoping for a big proposal that could fall through with a slight stock market hiccough.
The Orange Line between Ruggles and Massachusetts Avenue could be an excellent spot foer air rights development.