Business & Tech

Southie Edison plant project underscores region’s transit woes

Redgate and Hilco Redevelopment Partners estimate that their 2.1-million-square-foot mix of residential, retail, and office space would generate an additional 10,000 vehicle trips a day in that corner of South Boston.

Redgate Capital Partners and Hilco Global

Redgate and Hilco Redevelopment Partners estimate that their 2.1-million-square-foot mix of residential, retail, and office space would generate an additional 10,000 vehicle trips a day in that corner of South Boston.

The old Boston Edison power plant in South Boston is the latest example of the projects that are reshaping Greater Boston — big developments packed with housing just a short commute to downtown.

But with nearly 1,600 housing units, the 15-acre redevelopment also underscores a growing concern that the building boom will overwhelm city streets and mass transit.

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Redgate and Hilco Redevelopment Partners estimate that their 2.1-million-square-foot mix of residential, retail, and office space would generate an additional 10,000 vehicle trips a day in that corner of South Boston once it is completed, likely more than a decade from now.

The developers also anticipate many new residents will rely on public transit, as they plan to have only about 700 parking spaces allocated for housing — fewer than one space for every two units.

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Neighboring streets are already congested during rush hour, and the local buses on the No. 7 route can get so crowded during the morning commute that they often skip stops, including the one outside the former power plant on Summer Street.

The prospect of traffic paralysis prompted local officials who represent South Boston — including city councilor Michael Flaherty, state Representative Nick Collins, state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, and US Representative Stephen Lynch — to oppose the 776 Summer St. project in its present form.

They registered their concerns with state environmental regulators, who are reviewing the project, as is the Boston Planning & Development Agency. None of the agencies reviewing the project have weighed in on the traffic issues yet.

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“The buses are absolutely jam-packed every day,” said Donna Brown, executive director of the South Boston Neighborhood Development Corp. “Where do you put more transportation options? They have to come up with that answer.”

Acknowledging the challenges of a project that would eventually span eight city blocks, Redgate executives have hired a consultant to conduct a thorough transportation study for the area and propose the most effective improvements.

“This has to feel like a neighborhood place to survive,” Redgate principal Ralph Cox said.

Cox and partner Greg Bialecki also note that the Silver Line and other buses are nearby, and that they expect many residents to bike or walk to work.

Boston, MA - 7/20/2017 - Riders, including Jonathan D. Ginnis (cq), left, were passed up by several full buses, while waiting at a stop in front of the old Boston Edison power plant, on Summer Street near E. First Street. Redevelopment of the site is expected to bring more congestion. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: edison Reporter: Jon Chesto

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Riders, including Jonathan D. Ginnis, left, were passed up by several full buses, while waiting at a stop in front of the old Boston Edison power plant, on Summer Street near E. First Street.

The region is hungry for housing, but questions are mounting about the capacity of the transit system to handle so many more riders. Within Greater Boston, there are at least 8,400 housing units planned or under construction within a half-mile of a transit station, according to an analysis of multi-family projects provided by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Another 10,000-plus units were built just since 2014.

Boston, of course, represents the largest piece of that growth: Roughly 4,600 housing units are planned or under construction near a transit stop in Boston, and city officials want to encourage the new residents of these new apartments and condos to use something other than cars to get around. Other communities that rely heavily on the T, including Somerville and Quincy, also have numerous projects underway.

“Everybody takes it for granted that you can just add capacity to your existing infrastructure,” said George McCarthy, chief executive of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge. “But there is a point when your existing infrastructure gets saturated and then what do you do?’’

His point: Boston may well have reached that saturation point, yet “we still want to add all these dwelling units.”

City and state transit officials said they are trying to adjust to the influx of commuters from the residential boom. The MBTA recently started reviewing its entire network of bus routes, with a goal of improving service throughout the city, including in South Boston.

Although loaded, this bus stopped for those waiting in front of the old Boston Edison power plant.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Although loaded, this bus stopped for those waiting in front of the old Boston Edison power plant.

And in the near term for South Boston, the T has set aside $2 million for seven more buses along the 7 route and the No. 9 that runs along Broadway to the Back Bay. These should be in place this fall, relieving some overcrowding — although local politicians say these are meant to address existing capacity problems, not future ones.

The MBTA is also working with Massport to convert a bus layover facility on East First Street, essentially next door to the Edison site, to a bus station to allow passengers to board there.

Across the system, the addition of new Orange Line and Red Line cars, along with related improvements scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022, should increase the frequency and decrease crowding on those two subway lines.

To Paul Regan, the problem isn’t a lack of planning, but rather of money. The executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, Regan said it’s difficult for the T to set aside enough money for significant improvements when the agency lurches from one budget crisis to the next.

“The issue is the fact that the MBTA has an ongoing operating and capital budget problem,” Regan said.

Within Boston, city officials said they are working to address certain choke points around the city, such as Sullivan Square on the Charlestown/Somerville border, near the location of the new Wynn Resorts casino. And they are using a transportation study from 2015 as a springboard for improvements in the South Boston Waterfront.

Chris Osgood, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s chief of streets, also points to efforts along Harrison Avenue in the South End and Boylston Street in the Fenway to get developers to take a common approach in their street-level work, to make the busy stretches more friendly to pedestrians and bikers.

A new citywide master plan by the Walsh administration also sketches a big-picture approach to tying transit improvements to neighborhood development. For example, the report recommends enhanced connections and frequency along the Fairmount Line, in anticipation of more construction along that corridor.

In South Boston, the Redgate executives noted that the company’s transportation study will recommend improvements that will benefit the entire neighborhood. Some ideas already being discussed include a rapid transit bus route along a dedicated lane on either side of Summer Street, or shuttle buses that could carry residents to their offices and transit stations.

Still, spurring residential construction and transit improvements can make for a tricky balancing act for city planners.

“Is transit keeping pace with development? I think the answer is ‘No,’ ” said Matthew Kiefer, a development lawyer with Goulston & Storrs. “You can’t keep doing transit-oriented development without investing in transit to serve it. I think we’re getting to the point now where we are victims of our own success.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.
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