Going Off the Rails at Back Bay?

By Ken Kruckemeyer, Mel King and Ann Hershfang

The Boston Planning and Development Authority (BPDA) will hold a Public Hearing on Thursday, Nov. 16, to vote on the proposed Back Bay/South End Gateway project by Boston Properties LP. Their project proposes an office tower, two luxury housing towers and the insertion of retail stores into Back Bay Station.

This project will have a significant impact on Orange Line, commuter rail and Amtrak riders who use Back Bay Station, and on local residents.  We must make sure that this project will benefit the public rather than be a privatization boondoggle.

Four serious design flaws affecting the Station must be fixed.

  • Air Quality

In the current design, diesel fumes from the tracks and platforms are exhausted through two tall shafts on Clarendon Street. The project will remove these shafts and exhaust all fumes along the Southwest Corridor and, eleven blocks later, into Carter Field— through and into sensitive residential areas of the South End, St. Botolph and Roxbury.

Boston Properties can solve this health hazard with a shaft inside one of their towers, as was done within the InterContinental Hotel for the Central Artery Project. No approval of the project should be given until exhausting all pollutants into the upper atmosphere is assured.  This is an environmental justice issue.

  • Rapid Transit, Commuter Rail and Amtrak Ridership

Back Bay Station opened in 1987. With seven rapid transit and railroad tracks and bus connections, it currently serves more than 50,000 passengers a day, who are well served by a large central concourse, waiting areas and side aisles. The tracks can accommodate a three- to six-fold increase in riders, some of whom will occupy and work in the project’s towers.

Boston Properties’ plan proposes to fill the side aisles and the waiting areas of the station with retail shops. Retail can be a convenience, but as currently planned it will block patrons and jeopardize ridership growth.  The lost revenue to the MBTA could top $500,000 per day.

  • Bus Service

The #39 bus, one of the most active MBTA bus lines in the region, currently terminates on the Clarendon Street side of the station, providing an accessible, weather-protected access to all rail services.  The developer proposes to relocate the #39 stop to St. James Street, an uncovered walk of more than a block and crossing two major streets.

Providing a stop for the #39 bus at the project’s new station entry on Stuart Street would maintain convenient, accessible, all-weather service.

  • Sidewalks

The existing approach to the station on Dartmouth Street is partially covered, offering a protected pedestrian path and waiting area, flower and fruit stands, and newspaper vendors. The developer proposes to bring its façade out toward the street, narrow the sidewalk and eliminate the protection of the overhang.

The sidewalk will be further obstructed by the installation of 5-foot wide by 10-foot long planters and bike racks at the curb.  It will be impossible – especially for people with luggage or using wheelchairs – to enter and exit taxis, buses and cars at the curb in front of the station. And how can this possibly work in an emergency when a line of buses is needed to substitute for rail service?

Boston Properties must be required to maintain the existing sidewalk width and cover along Dartmouth Street, and the existing protective station arcade.  The curbs surrounding the project must be kept clear of obstructions for normal and emergency access.

In the 1970s, the three of us were among the hundreds of South End, Roxbury, Cambridge and suburban residents who prevented the construction of the Southwest Expressway. Instead of bringing 160,000 more cars to and through Boston every day, we created the Southwest Corridor with its park, bike paths, reconstructed rails, and its centerpiece Back Bay station.  We know how essential the growth of public transportation and this station are to the economy of the City, and to our environmental survival.

Each of the problems described can be solved, and the City’s approval should be conditioned on Boston Properties’ doing so.

Make yourself heard by calling or writing Mayor Martin Walsh and the BPDA, and come to the Hearing at City Hall on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 6:20 p.m.

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