Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Monday’s edition of Are We There Yet?, a new Globe Opinion newsletter devoted to the future of getting around in Greater Boston, whether by bus or train, bike or boat, car or plane. Sign up for future editions here.
In the late 1960s, state legislators and city officials briefly considered — and quickly rejected — a plan that could have reshaped Boston. Their work is worth revisiting today — for its sheer ambition, if not its specific details.
Their idea: turn the then-forlorn Harbor Islands into a real residential community of 50,000 people, connected by causeways to one another and the mainland and served by a high-tech network of “computer-controlled” buses.
With a whiff of utopian enthusiasm, the Beacon Hill committee conjectured that not only could a new island neighborhood on Thompson, Long, and Spectacle islands add to Boston’s declining tax base, address housing shortages, and reverse suburbanization, but the community could be a test-bed for “new urban technologies” — namely, new transit ideas.
The plan envisioned tolls on the connecting causeways, with rates based on size to discourage large cars, and a system of “[s]mall buses, scheduled to meet the varying transit loads during the day [...] available on call throughout each neighborhood, much as taxis operate today.” The buses would also connect to downtown, a trip the committee said would take a mere 15 minutes.
At a time when the harbor was heavily polluted with raw sewage and the islands were mostly known for housing trash, prisoners, and “various kinds of social unpleasantness,” as the Special Committee on the Boston Harbor Islands delicately put it, that was a radical vision.
According to the Globe’s archives, the idea was linked to a bid to host a huge Bicentennial Fair in Boston in 1976; the new developments would have been a model city to show off to the world. “Neighborhoods of different racial and social backgrounds could live side by side without the hostility apparent today, unified in part by a common sense of community enterprise,” promised a committee interim report in 1970.
So what happened? That year, Globe columnist Ian Menzies described how a notorious Boston political figure, anti-busing leader Louise Day Hicks, helped ax the plan, raising environmental concerns about despoiling the harbor while, more quietly, fears circulated that “all the harbor islands would be covered with housing for you know whom.”
”So Boston lost a chance to relieve her housing problems, develop her islands and harbor, add to her transportation facilities and resolve her harbor sewage problems,” Menzies wrote.
Fast forward 50 years, and the Harbor is far cleaner. Most of the islands have been reclaimed for recreation.
The big exception is Long Island: The city-owned island was abandoned in 2014 when the old bridge was found to be structurally unsafe. The city is moving ahead with plans to build a new bridge there, and reopen the shelter and addiction treatment facilities on the island.
There’s no doubt the city and state need addiction treatment facilities and homeless shelters. But just because they were located on Long Island in the past, does that automatically mean it’s the best use of the island now?
What’s curious about the construction plans is that despite the extraordinary cost — building a new bridge and rehabbing the buildings on the island would cost an estimated $800 million — there seems to be almost no public discussion about whether that’s really the best use for Long Island, let alone the kind of bold proposals the state and city entertained in the late 1960s.
Shouldn’t additional uses at least be on the table? It’s a big, 225-acre island; if the taxpayers are going to shell out upwards of $1 billion, why not consider housing there, too? The fact that more transformative possibilities barely even enter the discussion is emblematic of how crimped our ability to think big about the city’s future has become.
New bridges are great. But a new vision for the island would be even better.
Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at email@example.com.