Pop quiz: When is a storm drain more than just a storm drain?
a. When the pipe is wide enough to drive a car through.
b. When it could help unlock an important part of the city for development.
c. When it needs a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to be built.
d. All of the above.
The answer, of course, is d. Because when is anything about developing in Boston simple? The mundane act of moving rainwater from one point to another now poses an intriguing challenge for the brains at Harvard as the university seeks to build out its empty land in Allston across Western Avenue from the business school.
The Boston Water and Sewer Commission held a public meeting last week to discuss this proposal, nicknamed the “North Allston Storm Drain Extension Project.” The goal would be to build a 7-foot-wide pipe that could empty into the Charles River near the Sanofi Genzyme plant. The pipe would provide relief for flooding that occurs in much of the Lower Allston neighborhood and accommodate the first phase of Harvard’s ambitious development plans for its vast real estate holdings south of Western Avenue. Boston Water and Sewer says it wants to start work on the pipe next June. But that might be an ambitious goal. After all, the agency has to get through the Legislature first.
Here’s why. The agency needs an easement from the state Department of Conservation & Recreation, which controls parkland along the Charles, to extend the proposed pipe to the river. For that reason, the project needs what’s known as “Article 97” approval, a legislative process governing transactions involving conservation properties. Because a two-thirds vote is required, the bill will have to be passed in a formal session, when roll call votes can be taken. Time runs out next year for roll call votes at the end of July.
Representative Michael Moran, whose district includes much of Allston, says it could be extremely difficult to get the legislation passed by July 31, given the issue’s complexity. Moran is waiting until after Boston Water and Sewer holds another meeting in January to solicit the public’s input before he begins to draft the bill.
Some Article 97 bills are straightforward land conveyances. Not this one. Moran wants to hear from his constituents about the kind of mitigation language he should include in the bill, before he even files it. He has his own ideas: Ideally, he says, at least a portion of any money raised should be used to beautify and preserve the riverfront area.
Complicating matters: the Charles River Watershed Association has its own concerns. Pallavi Kalia Mande, the group’s director of watershed resilience, worries that even a big pipe could still be prone to failure. She would like to see a more holistic approach, perhaps by adding more greenspace to an area that has almost none now. Then there’s the impact on the river: Boston Water and Sewer says it has directed Harvard to include a sediment removal device in the pipeline system but Mande says a pipe this large is still bound to have an impact on the river’s ecology.
The pipeline discussions come as Harvard gets close to picking a developer for the first, 14-acre section of its Enterprise Research Campus project, along Western Avenue. Harvard recently narrowed the bidders to three development teams and aims to pick a winner by the end of the year. The new pipe would serve that site and other Harvard land between Western Avenue and Cambridge Street, but not the massive Beacon Park Yard area that Harvard also plans to eventually develop, southeast of Cambridge Street.
Officials with Boston Water and Sewer and Harvard declined to say how much this pipe would cost or how much would be funded by Harvard. All Harvard officials would say about that issue is that they’re “fully committed” to the project. Expect the price tag to be in the millions, at least.
But the benefits to Harvard and Allston could be substantial: More than 170 acres could be served by the new pipe, including hundreds of homes. Rainwater in much of the existing neighborhood flows through a three-foot pipe that winds its way under the business school. It’s simply not big enough for the people who live there now, let alone for what Harvard has planned.
Moran recognizes the need for the pipe, but also views this is an unusual opportunity for the neighborhood to have a say in this area’s future. He’s not about to waste it.