City Announces Cancellation of Current, Controversial Melnea Cass Design

The City announced on Thursday (Jan. 21) they are cancelling the current design for the Melnea Cass reconstruction project – a project that had been funded and ready for construction but met stern opposition last summer from residents in South End and Roxbury who rallied around saving the trees.

The surprising announcement came in a letter signed by Chief of Environment Chris Cook, Chief of Equity Karlyn Crockett and Chief of Streets Chris Osgood, noting that over the last several months they had engaged in many conversations about the plans. Based on those conversations, they have decided to start over.

“Based on the concerns about the impact of those plans on our shared environmental, social and transportation goals, the City of Boston is announcing the cancellation of the current design for the Boulevard’s reconstruction,” read the letter. “This is not the end but, instead, a new beginning for this project.”

The letter also indicated the City is committed to reconstructing the corridor and improving safety for all who use the road – as well as advancing goals for resilience, flooding and enhanced open space.

On Monday, several residents of the South End and Lower Roxbury gathered to mark an anniversary, the day that the state began to reverse course on the highway project that would have torn through the South End and Jamaica Plain – among others. It was also a time to celebrate the saving of the trees on Melnea Cass Blvd. and the re-set of the entire project. Celebrating on Monday were Councilor Michelle Wu, Al Martin, Ken Kruckemeyer and Barbara Knecht.

Above all, they said they would take a different tack with the trees.

“We know that we will only deliver a new plan we are all proud of through a process we are all engaged in. In the months ahead, we look forward to designing that process with you,” read the letter. “We are confident that this process will realize a final design that reflects the aspirations and needs of the communities abutting the corridor. And, while a primary goal of this project will be to strengthen the urban forest in this area, we are also committed to a public tree hearing as part of the project, if that plan results in the removal of even a single healthy tree.”

Ken Kruckemeyer, who worked many years ago to get the trees and corridor in place, said it was a great victory for the City and its residents. He said it came as a surprise to organizers of ‘Save Melneas Trees’ and no one had expected such a reverse course of action.

“I think it is really a moment of great celebration,” he said. “It’s a time when it appears to me the City and neighborhood have the potential of working very effectively together around this specific topic.”

Councilor Michelle Wu said it showed that the community should have both safe transportation infrastructure and public health.

“The decision reflects the urgency of racial equity and climate justice, coming after nearly a decade of consistent activism from Roxbury residents fighting to protect the health of their community,” she said. “I’m hopeful and determined that the new plans will reject false choices between safe transportation infrastructure and public health – our communities can and should have both.”

For Kruckemeyer and other organizers, such as Yvonne Lalyre of Lower Roxbury, the switch will now be from protest mode to pushing for what appears to be a collaborative process.

Kruckemeyer said he believes it could be revolutionary for the way the City does business with the neighborhoods on everything – including development. Crafting a plan with the neighborhood, then presenting it, would work much better and it’s what he believes will happen at Melnea on this second try.

“It’s a moment of considerable hope and it couldn’t have happened if things hadn’t gone so wrong. The fact is, the City acknowledges it needs to be done differently.”

The corridor had been in the planning process with the City and state for several years, going back to around 2017. Major pieces of that plan focused on the bicycle paths, the raised crosswalks and new signalization. There had been early clamoring about the removal of hundreds of trees on the corridor to make way for more bicycle and sidewalk accommodations. However, the City and state had made concessions at that time to plant nearly two times more trees than were taken down. That fact remained for some time.

Nevertheless, when a contract award hearing took place at the MassDOT Board meeting in March, the project was well over budget and people began to get wise to the tree removal plan.

That united a group that literally joined hands from the South End side of the Boulevard to the Roxbury side of the Boulevard and they began to advocate against the plan – which was seemingly well beyond the point of change or amendment. The calls, however, got stronger and stronger to ‘Save Melnea’s Trees’ and that culminated in a huge even last fall where advocates hugged the trees, did a dance and marched through the corridor.

That, apparently, got the City’s attention and led to the cancellation announced Thursday. The letter called to note the fact that 52 years ago this week, residents worked together to stop the highway from marching along Cass Boulevard and destroying the City’s fabric (Crockett actually wrote a book on the subject).

“We are also mindful that the namesake for this Boulevard organized our city to fight against racism, to empower people to vote, and to expand opportunity for those most in need,” read the letter. “We appreciate all that you have done to honor that legacy, and we look forward to taking the next steps with you.”

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