The MassDOT (Massachusetts Department of Transportation) Highway Division held a virtual public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 26, to discuss the still-evolving design for the proposed replacement of a deteriorating southern section of the Bowker Overpass near Kenmore Square.
The scope of the estimated $90 million project, which would receive 80 percent of its funding from federal sources and the remaining 20 percent from the state, entails replacing the Bowker Overpass Bridge Superstructure over I-90, the MBTA’s Worcester line commuter-rail tracks, and Ipswich Street, while reconfiguring the ramps to and from Commonwealth Avenue; reconstructing the overpass and Boylston Street intersection; removing the existing, structurally deficient off-ramp on the east side of the structure to allow for the daylighting of a block-long segment along the Muddy River; and widening the bridge structure to the west to accommodate pathways along Charlesgate West, said Alwin Ramirez, one of MassDOT’s project manager for this project.
The project, whose design is now at the 25-percent phase, is expected to go out to bid next summer, said Ramirez, with a contractor selected that winter. Construction is then slated to get underway in the summer of 2025, before wrapping up three and a half years later in 2028, he said.
Since the existing bridge currently lacks sufficient infrastructure to support multi-modal movement and is also inaccessible (i.e. non-ADA compliant), a replacement bridge would be built to connect Commonwealth Avenue to Boylston Street south of the Massachusetts Turnpike via a new four-way intersection. The new bridge will be built first adjacent to the Bowker Overpass to allow for traffic to be incrementally diverted to the new structure as demolition of the old structure moves forward, according to members of the project team.
Plans for the new bridge include a multi-use path over the Massachusetts Turnpike, which would connect the Back Bay Fens to the Commonwealth Avenue Mall and also have a 16-foot landscaping strip that could accommodate plantings, said Dan Adams of the Somerville architectural firm, Landing Studio.
Rain gardens would also be installed below the overpass to divert the runoff of polluted stormwater from the structure into the Muddy River, Charlesgate Park, and the Back Bay Fens. The latest project design also includes plans for new crosswalks and lighting upgrades throughout the site.
Regarding anticipated impacts from the project, Scott Carpenter of Needham-based Gill Engineering said road closures are expected to take place during nighttime hours, although these details wouldn’t be finalized until the next phase of the project.
Overnight closures would also be necessary “for some of the larger activities,” said Carpenter, while “a bigger footprint [will be] needed for some temporary short-term work.”
Carpenter acknowledged that construction would have some noise impact, but he said that “the bulk of that work will happen during the day,” including the removal of support beams from the overpass.
Asked what impact the project is expected have on local streets, Carpenter said, “Some vehicles will be diverted to different streets and different corridors. As far as specifics, I can’t answer that.”
Carpenter added that the impact on local streets would be studied during the traffic analysis in the next phase of the project.
Rep. Jay Livingstone said he is “very excited” about the project, while praising MassDOT for what he called a “greatly improved design,” especially given the currently proposed replacement, rather than the renovation, of the existing superstructure.
Additionally, Rep. Livingstone predicted that this project, along with several other major projects planned nearby, including MassDOT’s plan to reconfigure the Storrow Drive eastbound bridge over the Bowker ramps and for the proposed redesign of Charlesgate Park, would result in a thorough transformation of the area.
“It’s great to see the first part of the Charlesgate revitalization being realized,” he said.
Anthony Baez, the Back Bay and Fenway liaison for District 8 City Councilor Sharon Durkan who also handles transportation matters for her office, said he was happy to see how the project has evolved to include the proposed superstructure replacement.
Margaret Pokorny, a member of the Charlesgate Alliance, as well as chair of the Friends of the Public Garden’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee, said she’s “absolutely thrilled” to see how the project will open up one block of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Charlesgate East and West to pedestrians.
Pokorny also pointed out that the removal of the off-amp structure over the Muddy River would open up new land, which she said she hopes could be made more “hospitable” with the addition of trees and bench, perhaps even being reimagined as a pocket park.
A self-described “tree person,” Pokorny also asked how enough new trees could be planted to completely offset the loss of mature trees from the project.
Dan Adams of the Landing Studio responded that the project team is aware of the mature trees located on site, and that they would be preserved whenever possible throughout the project.
Rich Giordano, director of policy and community planning for the Fenway CDC (Community Development Corporation), expressed concern with how the project would directly impact the planned redevelopment of the Our Lady’s Guild House Convent at 20 Charlesgate West and asked for a separate meeting to discuss this matter.
The Fenway CDC and another nonprofit, the Planning Office of Urban Affairs, recently closed on the Fenway rooming house, said Giordano, adding that renovation on the property won’t likely get underway for another couple of years, in which case the timing of this project would likely overlap with construction on Bowker Overpass project.
In a written comment, Marie Fukuda, co-chair of Fenway Civic Association’s Parks and Open Space Committee, expressed her “extreme disappointment” with the pedestrian and bike conflicts at the south side of Boylston Street bridge. The south side of the bridge has been designated for the use of pedestrians, while bicyclists would also be routed to the entry point of the Fenway Victory Gardens on the south side of the bridge.
This comes in direct conflict to a conversation that her group’s representatives had with the Charlesgate Alliance in March 2023, said Fukuda, when members of the Fenway Civic had expressly requested that the north side of the Boylston Street bridge be designated as the crossing for bicycles.
Fukuda told this reporter she believes this apparent flaw in the plan arises from the fact that MassDOT only has jurisdiction over its project area and no control over other parks and roadways owned by Boston Parks and Recreation Department and the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, respectively, while designing use into both. The city has already created bike lanes on the West Fens, with an eye towards connecting them to its overall bike network, while DCR has a master plan that calls for bike lanes on its own carriage roads and parkways.
“This is a small change for a big project, yet one that makes a big difference for Fenway’s parks and residents,” said Fukuda.
“Everyone has the same goals of connecting people and improving access for all, but it requires effort to make sure these pieces work well together.”
Built in 1964 and rehabilitated 20 years later in 1984, the Bowker Overpass – a four-lane, steel-beam viaduct with a suspended deck that connects Boylston Street to Storrow Drive and runs parallel to the Muddy River.