Boston officials have discarded a plan to revamp Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury following last year’s community uproar over a proposal to remove scores of trees that line the roadway.
In a Thursday letter to the community, city officials said they remain committed to crafting a new plan to make the road safer, enhance its open space, and increase “resilience in an area prone to flooding.”
“We are confident that this process will realize a final design that reflects the aspirations and needs of the communities abutting the corridor,” read the letter, which was signed by Chris Cook, the city’s environment chief, Karilyn Crockett, the city’s equity chief, and Chris Osgood, the city’s streets chief.
The city’s decision came as welcome news to Tomiqua Williams, a community activist who said she wanted the area to be kept “as green as possible,” something that would help residents’ mental health.
“That’s awesome that they’re listening to the community,” Williams said.
Christle Rawlins-Jackson, a Roxbury artist, also thought the announcement was a good thing for the community. She said the city should do a better job of maintaining the corridor in its current state, changing the street lights when needed and trimming the trees. Otherwise, she thought the boulevard should be left more less as it is.
“I don’t think what they were attempting to do would make it better,” she said. “It’s a lot of effort for something where there didn’t seem to be a lot of benefit.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu said the decision reflected “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.”
“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,” said Wu, who is running for mayor.
Andrea Campbell, a city councilor who is also running for mayor, said in a statement that the decision was a “reminder that to build an equitable, resilient future for our City, residents and communities of color must be centered and empowered in all our planning processes, and that the strategies to improve the health and safety along Melnea Cass must be intersectional — addressing the severe public health crisis at Mass & Cass and the systemic environmental and economic inequities.”
Last summer, the prospective removal of 124 mature trees along the thoroughfare, which curls through the heart of the city, was met with sharp resistance from some advocates and residents. In September, officials appeared to back away from the idea after pushback from the state attorney general’s office and activists, who denounced the move as environmental racism. About 90 percent of Roxbury residents are people of color.
At the time, city officials signaled that they would pause the tree-cutting portion of the project while they listened to residents and reconsidered the project’s potential effects on the community.
Officials had previously said they needed to remove about a quarter of the mature trees lining the boulevard to create a “more pedestrian-friendly” boulevard, which would be safer to cross and easier to navigate by bicycle.
Officials said the new project will seek to strengthen the urban forest in the area and pledged to hold a public tree hearing if the plan results in the removal of a single healthy tree.
In 2011, city and state transportation officials began working on a redesign project “to address the growing concerns around pedestrian safety and high volumes of traffic.” The plan called for the removal of mature oaks, lindens, and maples, many of which 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.
Opponents had worried that without the shade from the trees along the boulevard, the area would become a “heat island,” urban areas that experience higher temperatures, and that less green space would reduce quality of life.
In their letter, city officials said they were mindful that “52 years ago this week, a collaboration of residents advocated to stop a highway project along this corridor and instead lay the foundation for today’s boulevard.
“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,” they wrote.
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.