When a hulking span of concrete and steel cut Boston in two, Boston buried the highway. But the Big Dig was a one-time deal. The city sitting just across the Mystic River, Chelsea, doesn’t have that option. The neighborhoods sitting in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge suffer the same kind of artificial separation that led Boston to bury the Central Artery and reconnect its downtown to its waterfront, but no one is parachuting into Chelsea with a bottomless bucket of money with which to bury the Tobin. The bulk of Chelsea’s housing lies on one side of the bridge; its best parks and development opportunities sit on the other side. If the city is going to realize its potential, it needs to penetrate the bridge, and rejoin the neighborhoods sitting on either side.
The Tobin Bridge dominates Chelsea’s landscape. The bridge, which connects Charlestown and Boston to the North Shore, soars over the tightly packed industrial city. The Tobin’s opening in 1950 marked the beginning of an aggressive wave of road-building in and around Boston. The Central Artery, the Southeast Expressway, the Turnpike, and the paving of Esplanade parkland to accommodate Storrow Drive all followed in short order.
These roadways form the backbone of the road system that continues to serve Boston. But they are also the manifestation of an economic development scheme that placed convenience for suburban commuters above the welfare of the residents living in the neighborhoods these commuters drove through.
Since the Tobin first bridged the Mystic six decades ago, city-building has shifted away from moving daytime workers in and out of the city, and toward pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods linked by mass transit. But the roadways mostly remain.
The ramps climbing up to the Tobin cut Chelsea in two. The rusty green structure has spun the city in different directions: East of the Tobin, the streets are tightly packed and heavily residential, while west of it, they’re super-sized and industrial. The two sides don’t relate to one another. The Tobin severs most of the city’s population from its biggest park and grocery store. It dominates Chelsea’s streetscape, and its psyche.
It’s increasingly important that the city tame the bridge that towers over it, because right now, Chelsea’s biggest growth opportunities are sitting west of the Tobin, walled off from most of Chelsea’s residents. That’s where the FBI will soon be breaking ground on a new headquarters building, where Marriott just opened a new hotel, and where empty lots and underutilized industrial properties are calling out for redevelopment. The creation of a permeable Tobin that allows the east side of the city to access parks, shopping, and new residences on the west side is an equity issue; Tobin improvements would also be market-makers, since any efforts that improve physical connections underneath the bridge broaden the customer base for redevelopment plays on the city’s west side.
The Big Dig demonstrated one way of dealing with rusty green roadways. But these sorts of structures don’t present cities with the binary choice between a $24 billion construction project and doing nothing at all. Chelsea is embracing incremental improvements under the bridge.
“We want to reuse the space under the bridge and reprogram it,” says Jason Hellendrung, a planner with Sasaki Associates who recently led a study of Chelsea’s relationship with the Tobin. The bridge works fine for sweeping drivers through Chelsea, but the Tobin’s imposing physical presence stifles travel underneath it. The few streets that do cross underneath it are dark. The roads are too wide, the sidewalks too narrow. Dead space abounds.
In the longer term, Hellendrung talks about turning the Tobin into an art piece, with colored lights and sculpture hanging from the bridge. However, Hellendrung says, the Tobin is built in a way that would allow Chelsea to improve the environment around it for relatively short money. Excessively wide roads can easily accept new bicycle lanes. Lighting and paint can brighten the passage underneath the bridge. Lifeless lots now used for parking can be reinvigorated with food trucks and farmers markets. Temporary parks could liven the perimeter around the bridge, and steer residents toward waterfront parkland that’s currently walled off by the bridge. These are all modest fixes, but taken together, they would fundamentally alter Chelsea residents’ relationship with the Tobin.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.