By Seth Daniel
If there’s one message coming out loud and clear from the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) members on the Exchange South End project on Albany Street, it’s that the project should not be rushed and transportation needs to be addressed with a larger lens.
The project entered the City’s Article 80 Large Project Review process in the summer, and most considered it to be a fait accompli due to the fact that anyone with a pulse had heard the extensive presentation by the developers, the Abbey Group, last spring. That was because the Abbey Group met with scores of neighborhood groups and institutions this year before ever filing with the City. Most everyone was familiar with the project, so most believed it would cruise through the official process.
That was the case until traffic and transportation brought up a roadblock.
Members of the IAG met a couple of times last month to look over transportation and most left with a feeling of incompleteness, they said.
In fact, more than a few said it highlighted the necessity for an overall traffic and transportation study for the entire corridor. The project at Exchange South End is massive, with more than one million square feet of developed commercial space proposed and up to 7,000 workers generating 10,000 new vehicle trips.
But as IAG member Steve Fox said, that’s just one of a number of new large trip generators in the Back Streets corridor and further up on Albany Street near the Ink Block.
“That’s part of what’s simmering in the pot in the South End, this really big concern about transportation,” Fox said. “A lot of us are thinking we need to have an independent consultant do a study of overall transportation. We don’t need to hear trip generation data or 40-plus pages of studies. We need conclusions reached and contingencies. At this point, I think people are concerned.”
Vadim Kuksin, an IAG member and chair of the Development Committee at Blackstone/Franklin Neighborhood Association, said members mostly like the project, but have concerns about transportation.
“In general I think the IAG likes the project but it’s a very large development that would be occupied by thousands of people,” he said. “So naturally it will result in increased traffic and congestion on a daily basis. The IAG is just concerned that all parties have a good grasp of what the impact will be of not only this project, but also other projects in the area and we fully vet options to help mitigate the increased traffic.”
One of the main issues in the matter is that the traffic consultant Howard Stein Hudson has done the analysis for all of the projects in the area on a piece-by-piece basis – including the large Harrison Albany project on East Canton Street.
Many, such as member Kristin Phelan said they would like to see an independent analysis done by someone else with a different point of view. For example, if Howard Stein Hudson is making a mistake, they are likely making the same mistake over and over again.
“I’m very impressed by the passion and dedication of the Flower Exchange IAG,” said Kristin Phelan, board president, Washington Gateway Main Street/CEO KP Strategies. “The thoughtful discussions and commentary throughout this process shows how much this group genuinely cares about the future of the South End neighborhood. The IAG recently suggested that a neighborhood-wide transportation study be led by an independent consultant. I think that is needed to ensure proposed development projects will meet future transit needs.”
A big tripping point in the Exchange project is the prediction that 20 percent of the traffic to the site is going to come on local roads, plus the fact that there is no guarantee that the proposed main entrance on the connector road/BioSquare Drive will actually be permitted.
That has long been sought by Boston Medical Center and Boston University Medical School, but the state and federal governments have never been apt to do it.
Exchange developer Abbey Group has said during neighborhood meetings last spring that they have great confidence they will be able to utilize that connection and have already been in talks. However, nothing has yet been decided, members of the IAG said.
“Transportation is definitely the number one issue on our minds,” said member Eric Huang. “I think road connections to the project from I-93/Frontage Road to BioSquare Drive and from Massachusetts Avenue Connector to BioSquare Drive are both essential to relieve existing and additional traffic congestion on Albany Street, Mass. Ave, and local South End roads. But those connection implicate both MassDOT and private property owners, so there are many competing interests that must be addressed.”
Huang said there also needs to be a better plan for public transit for Exchange South End before he can feel totally comfortable with the plan. With very poor T access in the Back Streets, he said he would like to see a comprehensive plan.
“I believe inconsistent bus schedules and bus bunching are a deterrent to reliable Silver Line use,” he said. “I believe the addition or rerouting of certain MBTA bus lines to better serve the project’s connections to the T rail lines should be considered. Also, to compensate for the poor connections to the T, I would like to see the project initially provide private shuttle connections to the Red Line (South Station) and Orange Line (Back Bay), while working with the MBTA to implement route changes/additions to take over these routes once proof of demand is shown.”