For Suzanne Lee, the six-lane highway that runs through Chinatown is deeply personal.
Lee, a longtime community leader, was 6 years old when she came to join her father and aunts in Boston, near Franklin Park, in 1961. It wasn’t until years later she learned they moved there after being forced out of their home in Chinatown, along with hundreds of other families, to make way for the Boston extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
“That’s the beginning of the displacement of the Chinese community,” Lee said.
Now city officials are looking to reconnect the long-split neighborhood — by building a park atop that six-lane highway and the five rail lines alongside it.
Boston has landed a $1.8 million federal grant to examine creating a park at what’s known as Parcel 21, a stretch of air above the highway and rail lines between Shawmut Avenue and Washington Street, near Josiah Quincy School, the C-Mart Supermarket, and the recently converted former warehouse at 100 Shawmut Ave. The study will also examine future design guidelines for three additional air-rights parcels stretching from Harrison Avenue to Arlington Street, about one-third of a mile end to end.
It’s an immensely ambitious plan, one that would probably come with great expense, though cost estimates are difficult without a design or understanding of what’s possible at the site. A federally funded feasibility study is the first step in what would probably be a long and arduous process. But it’s one that has the potential to be truly transformative for Chinatown, an urban heat island beset by noise and air pollution, scarred by urban renewal decisions made in the name of economic development in the late 1950s.
“There’s been a longstanding physical division right through the middle of Chinatown,” said Vineet Gupta, director of planning at the Boston Transportation Department. “This project changes that, from what’s essentially a demolition of the community to reconnecting it there. We think that’s long overdue, and we think that this grant will provide an opportunity to mend that deep scarring in the community.”
After nearly four decades of trying and failing to build over the Pike, air-rights projects in Boston have seen a renaissance in recent years, with a hotel and the future CarGurus headquarters under construction atop the Pike along Mass. Ave., and a $1 billion lab tower known as Fenway Center underway above the highway near Fenway Park.
Beyond needing to keep highway and railroad lines active and safe during construction, air-rights projects require myriad approvals from multiple agencies, each with its own engineering parameters, timelines, and priorities. And the economics can be daunting. Fenway Center’s deck alone costs $200 million, before a single story of the massive building above gets built. But, experts say, the structural engineering required to build green open space atop a highway is less complicated — and less expensive — than an air-rights deck that can hold up a skyscraper.
Adding green space has long been a goal of Chinatown community organizations. Children from Josiah Quincy School play on two concrete rooftop playgrounds, said Lee, the school’s former principal and board president of the Chinatown Community Land Trust. She recalls taking field trips to Boston Common and how that connection with green space would lift children’s spirits.
“It just has a different feel — they’re happier,” she said. “Having something green like that, in the midst of all this concrete, would really boost everybody’s mental health.”
Examining the possibilities for the air-rights parcels between Arlington Street and Harrison Avenue could show a path toward greater climate and social resilience for Chinatown, said Zoe Davis, a project manager in the city’s environment department.
“Whether it’s affordable housing or green space or a combination of those things, it’s ensuring that 10 years, 50 years down the line, we have a foundation to ensure that there are benefits for Chinatown residents,” Davis said.
It starts with the planning grant, one of 39 awarded by the US Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities pilot program. The $1.8 million should come in within six months or so, Gupta said, at which point the city can hire a project manager — hopefully someone local to the community — for the duration of the two-year grant. In the meantime, the city will look at short-term improvements, such as intersection upgrades and sidewalk widening, that can happen by 2025.
Gupta and Davis know the city will probably face a healthy dose of skepticism and will work to build trust by “being transparent and accountable in terms of what’s really possible, and what can be realized,” Gupta said.
“We want to make sure that community groups feel that their voices will be heard, and that their input will be integrated into the final solutions,” he said.
It’s imperative to put Chinese working-class, immigrant voices front and center when deciding what the space should be and how an air-rights park could create a place for respite, peace, and community building, Lee said.
“We’ve been talking about this for quite a few years, and finally to have some real possibility — it would be very powerful,” she said. “It gives me hope that somebody’s listening.”