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Straighten the Pike, and then cover it

Envision a deck built above a straightened Mass Pike for much-needed new housing.Jonathan Wiggs
Heather Hopp-Bruce

Boston’s paramount need for more affordable housing must be embedded in any plan for the city. As Mayor Michelle Wu and Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler campaign for federal funding to straighten and lower the Mass Pike in Allston, they should be thinking about how many new structures could be built on a deck above the highway.

Building more housing in the city promotes affordability, reduces carbon emissions by shortening commutes and reducing car use, and enables people to find better jobs closer to home. We should aim to increase the annual growth of the housing stock in Boston from about 4,000 units to over 6,000 units in order to take care of even a fraction of those who want to live in the city.

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In the 19th century, the city added land by filling in the Back Bay. In the 20th century, we built residential buildings in the brownfields of former industrial areas. In the 21st century, the most straightforward way to reclaim lost land is to use the air rights over expressways.

Over 800,000 square feet of usable space is currently being built over the turnpike’s Parcel 12 in the Back Bay. A million square feet of new space, much of it for labs and offices, has been approved in another project, Fenway Center, which combines housing, offices, and a Life Science Park close to the Boston University campus. But there could be so much more. Covering the pike can also knit together neighborhoods long separated by the highway and reduce vehicle noise.

One should never think about transportation on its own. By selling the right to build over highways, we can fund transportation and create the homes necessary to make the city more affordable.

David Cutler is professor of applied economics at Harvard. Edward Glaeser is professor of economics at Harvard. They are the authors of “Survival of the City.”

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