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Boston City Council discusses Melnea Cass trees: ‘This is an environmental justice issue’

Earlier this month, city officials appeared to back down from a controversial plan to cut down about a quarter of the mature trees lining Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury.
Earlier this month, city officials appeared to back down from a controversial plan to cut down about a quarter of the mature trees lining Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Boston city councilors on Wednesday added their voices to the cacophony of concern over redesign plans for Melnea Cass Boulevard that have included cutting down scores of trees that line the roadway in Roxbury. Councilors pushed for assurances that surrounding communities will be heard in future discussions about the fate of the thoroughfare.

Councilor Michelle Wu, a day after announcing her mayoral run, was hopeful that a City Council public hearing on that matter would help solidify community consensus regarding the future of the boulevard, which stretches from the Massachusetts Avenue Connector to the Ruggles MBTA station.

Following an uproar, the city signaled earlier this month that it would pause the planned tree-cutting portion of the project while it listened to neighborhood residents and reconsidered the project’s potential effects on the community.

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Those assurances were not good enough for Wu.

“There still have not been clear commitments made as to what a new plan would look like,” she said during Wednesday’s virtual meeting.

She said that for years the city’s planning process presented a false choice: Melnea Cass as a safe street with a bike path or a cool, open space with trees.

“We need to be a city that is able give residents everything that they need and that they deserve, particularly in environmental justice communities, particularly in Black and brown communities,” she said.

In 2011, the city, along with state transportation authorities, began working on the boulevard’s redesign project “to address the growing concerns around pedestrian safety and high volumes of traffic,” according to authorities.

However, the plan called for the removal of 124 mature trees, including oaks, lindens, and maples. Most of the trees along the boulevard were planted in 1981, after a failed project to build an “inner belt” highway there that would have connected Roxbury with Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.

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Earlier this month, city officials appeared to back down from a controversial plan to cut down about a quarter of the mature trees lining the boulevard in Roxbury, following pushback from the state attorney general’s office and activists who denounced the move as environmental racism.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement that the city “has been revisiting the proposal over the last several weeks with a concentrated focus on equity impacts to ensure that any future proposal maximizes benefits for the community and meets the equitable standards to which we hold ourselves.”

The spokeswoman said officials, including the city’s chief of equity, Karilyn Crockett, “are actively listening, soliciting community input, and engaging with other stakeholders to ensure that any redesign proposal for Melnea Cass Boulevard prioritizes the health and safety of residents and puts equity at its core. That work will continue before we move forward with any next steps.”

At a virtual meeting with local residents on Tuesday, Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of transportation, said the city “paused” the project to listen to concerns about the removal of the trees.

“We want to take a look at new designs to save more trees,” he said. “We want to make sure to reduce the impact on trees. We want to engage you.”

He said the city plans to come up with new design options to present to the public next month.

Council President Kim Janey, who sponsored an order calling for a hearing on the issue, said Wednesday that even though the city has paused the proposal, she wants assurances that those who would be most affected by changes to the boulevard are not going to be left out of any planning conversation.

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“This is an environmental justice issue,” she said.

Without the shade from the trees along the boulevard, the area would become a “heat island" in the city, according to Janey. She said that COVID-19 had laid bare public health disparities that exist along racial lines, including higher rates of asthma and other respiratory problems in Black and brown communities.

”We cannot take decisions in our city that will exacerbate those challenges, those problems," she said. “Removing the tree canopy on Melnea Cass Boulevard would do just that.”

Julia Mejia, another cosponsor of the hearing order, said communities in Roxbury and the South End “are already facing the impacts of decades of planning and zoning that have resulted in lower life expectancy, higher rates of asthma, and hotter than any other neighborhoods.” A lack of green space will hurt the quality of life in such neighborhoods.

“To us, this is a fundamental civil rights issue,” said Mejia. “It is an issue about who has a voice in the process and who does not.”

The matter was referred to the council’s planning, development, and transportation committee.

David Abel of Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.