This is an excerpt from Are we there yet?, a Globe Opinion newsletter about the future of transportation in the region. Sign up to get it in your inbox a day early.
There’s a lot of charm in Charlestown. Its red-brick homes, tree-lined streets, and views of Boston’s skyline can easily turn a mere visitor into a prospective resident.
But the warm character that comes along with being the oldest neighborhood in a city that prides itself on its history quickly disappears if you walk a few blocks west of Main Street. Instead of finding any quaint and homey streets, you’ll be greeted by a cold concrete wasteland made up of parking lots, highways, and railroads — a monument to the Eisenhower Interstate System instead of anything from the Revolutionary War.
That mess undoubtedly makes Charlestown a less attractive place, and not because it’s an eyesore — though that, of course, doesn’t help. It’s because along with the Charles and Mystic rivers, I-93, which runs through that underdeveloped tract of land, almost entirely isolates Charlestown from its surrounding neighborhoods.
Try traveling to Charlestown from its immediate neighbor, East Cambridge, and you’ll know what I mean. Very few access points exist from that direction: There’s the Gilmore Bridge on the southern side of Charlestown and Cambridge Street at the neighborhood’s northernmost point. But there’s virtually no way to cross the highway and railroad tracks anywhere in between — whether you’re a pedestrian, driver, or cyclist.
Thankfully, that probably won’t always be the case. For years, city planners have been thinking about ways to create more pathways to get to and from Charlestown. And investors have also been eyeing the underused parcels to create mixed-use developments that could add thousands of residential units.
While those ideas are nowhere near becoming reality, they are the kind of proposals that both the neighborhood and Boston as a whole desperately need. In a city with skyrocketing housing costs, there’s no reason such centrally located real estate — with access to the T, no less — should ever be so devastatingly empty.
The only problem with the existing proposals is they’re not ambitious enough. In an ideal world, urban planners would get a do-over — a chance to develop that tract from scratch. They could abolish the highway, tuck the train tracks underground, and fit an entirely new neighborhood between Charlestown and Cambridge. But unfortunately, city planners have to plan with finite and constraining budgets in mind, and so they make do with what they have.
Still, even if limited resources won’t allow that area to realize its maximum potential, there’s plenty of opportunity for development and improving connectivity. That’s why lawmakers should think beyond what’s financially feasible for that lot in the near term and start envisioning what it could look like far down the line too.
There’s a reason that area is the mess that it is: centuries of haphazard, shortsighted planning. Originally, bodies of water and marsh separated Charlestown from Cambridge. They were eventually sealed, but unlike Back Bay, which was built on filled marshes, the landfill that connected Charlestown to Cambridge was never turned into a well-planned neighborhood.
Over the years, it’s been home to various elevated transportation networks that have come and gone. And even with the recent breakthrough of the Green Line extension, leaders were again shortsighted, building yet more elevated tracks instead of tunneling them underground — an understandable decision given the exorbitantly high cost of construction but a missed opportunity nonetheless.
For now, though, there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of the vastly underused land between Charlestown and Cambridge. It might not turn into something like Back Bay, but it can still be better than the urban wasteland it is today. And who knows, maybe someday — not in this century — it will slowly but surely grow into a neighborhood of its own.
Editor’s note: This excerpt has been updated to correct the location of I-93 in relation to Charlestown. It is west of the neighborhood.
Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.