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Paul McMorrow

A chance to reclaim the Esplanade

THE BEAUTIFUL thing about concrete is that it eventually crumbles. Pound it with ice, salt, and relentless traffic for a few decades, and it falls to pieces. This is a tremendous hassle for the engineers whose job it is to keep roadways and bridges in single pieces. But for those whose lives are shaped by concrete infrastructure, the material’s finite lifespan is its greatest quality.

Hulking roadways are decaying across the Boston area. The Longfellow Bridge, Storrow Drive, and Somerville’s McGrath-O’Brien Highway will all require major reconstruction efforts within the next several years. The end of these structures’ usable lives presents an opportunity - to correct past mistakes, reduce our overreliance on automobiles, and make our cities more lively places. It’s the opportunity to swap engineering from the 1950s with modern, human-scale design.

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Last week, the Esplanade Association unveiled a blueprint for revitalizing the park alongside the Charles River. The private advocacy group’s plan deals at length with ways to mitigate or overcome the presence of Storrow Drive, the high-speed parkway that separates the Esplanade from Boston. That, in turn, speaks to the degree to which the roadway has degraded the park.

Storrow Drive and the elevated Bowker Overpass, which connects Storrow to the Fenway and Longwood, are monuments to an era when planners equated a city’s welfare with the efficiency of its traffic patterns. They obliterated the urban fabric in the name of easing travelers’ trips through the city. These road construction projects did nothing to bolster the affected neighborhoods, but they did degrade the very things that make cities lively in the first place.

Storrow Drive was built as a two-lane low-speed park road. It doesn’t just run alongside the Esplanade; it’s inside the park. Storrow was expanded to its current six-lane incarnation in the 1950s, with the expansion coming at the expense of the park that created it. At Charles Circle, traffic barrels under the Longfellow Bridge on what was once parkland, squeezing bikers and pedestrians onto a narrow ribbon of asphalt; the mammoth Bowker Overpass severs Kenmore Square from the Back Bay, and turns the connection between the Esplanade and the Fens into a dark, filthy patch of dirt. In both places, automotive infrastructure swept aside green space and active pedestrian zones, and the city is worse off for it.

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The Esplanade Association suggests using three upcoming construction projects as leverage for expanding the park. Within the next 10 years, the Bowker Overpass and the Storrow tunnels at Arlington Street will have to be replaced. Planning is already well underway for the reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge. Instead of just refurbishing existing outdated infrastructure, the construction projects could become catalysts for reorienting the city toward people.

The Esplanade Association is lobbying to bring Storrow Drive back down to the level of a parkway. Storrow is ill-suited to act as a commuting artery; recognizing this fact, and channeling traffic onto the Mass. Turnpike, would clear the way to narrow Storrow, demolish the hated Bowker, and reclaim parkland for bikers and pedestrians.

MassDOT transportation planners are having a similar conversation in Somerville, where city officials are pushing hard for the demolition of a crumbling elevated section of the McGrath-O’Brien Highway. This stretch of the McGrath is particularly ruinous, since it isolates from the rest of the city neighborhoods that the Green Line rail extension will open for redevelopment. It’s encouraging that state transportation officials have been open to arguments about achieving economic development and pedestrian-scale connections by grounding an elevated roadway.

Esplanade advocates should be heartened that the state is beginning to design infrastructure projects in which roadways don’t belong to cars alone. Blueprints for a reconstructed Longfellow Bridge, released last week, feature narrowed car lanes, new bike lanes, and significantly expanded sidewalks; the bridge westbound to Cambridge drops a car lane entirely.

The redesigned Longfellow shows the potential for rebuilding infrastructure on a human scale. The bridge’s impending reconstruction provides the opening to fix the park that Storrow Drive ruined half a century ago. Federal highway regulations prohibit using public parks for highway projects, unless there’s no feasible alternative. Federal funding for the Longfellow project puts this prohibition in play, since the bridge sits on the Esplanade. And, as the Esplanade Association’s blueprint for rerouting and narrowing Storrow Drive shows, it’s possible to do the roadwork that has to happen anyway, and leave the project area in better shape for the next half century.

Paul McMorrow is an associated editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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