Metro

Boston 2024 sees Columbia Road as Olmsted jewel

An 1897 plan saw Columbia Road as a boulevard as grand and graceful as the Back Bay Fens and the Arborway.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
An 1897 plan saw Columbia Road as a boulevard as grand as the Back Bay Fens and the Arborway.

It is hard to imagine that the asphalt artery that is Columbia Road in Dorchester was once envisioned as the final jewel in the Emerald Necklace, the ribbon of parks that includes the Arnold Arboretum and the Public Garden.

But in 1897, the necklace’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, laid out plans to line the road with two rows of trees and turn it into Dorchesterway, a boulevard as grand and as graceful as the Back Bay Fens and the Arborway, two of his other cherished creations.

More than a century later, Boston 2024 is vowing to resurrect Olmsted’s plans, and elevate humble, sun-baked Columbia Road into the pantheon of parks, as part of the group’s push to bring the Summer Olympics to Boston.

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The proposal to transform the road into a verdant “pleasureway,” as Olmsted called it, represents Boston 2024’s latest attempt to recast itself as a force for positive change in neglected parts of the city, and not a pet project of real estate developers and downtown business executives.

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The plan to complete Olmsted’s vision is also designed to placate parks advocates, who have been cool to the Olympic group’s plans to host equestrian competitions and the modern pentathlon in Franklin Park, another jewel in the Emerald Necklace.

In the revised bid it released last month, Boston 2024 pledged $12 million of its own money to remake the road by removing the median strip, installing bike lanes separated from traffic, and planting two rows of trees on either side.

“We came to believe that this is really the kind of legacy that’s achievable and that’s tangible and has real benefits,” said David Manfredi, Boston 2024’s chief planner. “It’s green space, it makes for cleaner air, and the greener the city, the healthier the city.”

The proposal has intrigued Olmsted devotees, although some questioned whether $12 million would fully fund the dramatic makeover needed to make Columbia Road stand alongside Emerald Necklace gems such as Jamaica Pond and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

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“You could repave it, but if you wanted to create a real greenway, you might have to double that,” said Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, whose Olmsted-inspired designs for the road have served as a model for Boston 2024. “I think it’s a great idea, but it might take others to come along to make it a greenway.”

Julie Crockford, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, a nonprofit group that helps maintain Olmsted’s parks, said she was wary of endorsing the plan before residents have reviewed it.

One of the persistent sources of opposition to Boston 2024 has been the way the bid group has developed plans for Olympic venues behind closed doors, and then unveiled them without consulting residents, landlords, business owners, and activists.

“We at the conservancy are incredibly supportive of such explorations, but we would never move to have changes without public input,” Crockford said. “It’s simply not how we operate.”

She said she would also like to know how plans drawn up in the era of horse-drawn carriages might affect today’s endless flotilla of cars, trucks, and buses that fight their way 2.3 miles from Blue Hill Avenue to the JFK/UMass Station, negotiating several tangled intersections.

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“It’s easy, as a vision, to channel Frederick Law Olmsted,” she said, “but the devil is in the details.”

Olmsted’s original plans envisioned Dorchesterway as a link between land-locked Roxbury and the ocean in South Boston, where the road would connect to the coastal route he called the Strandway, now known as Day Boulevard.

The architect’s plans, however, were never realized, in part because of the challenge of building over rail lines and structures that were encroaching on Columbia Road, Krieger said. In the late 1980s, city officials revived Olmsted’s vision, but could not muster enough money to make the road worthy of the 19th-century visionary whose iconic creations include Central Park in New York.

“I did get some trees, and I did get some planters, so I felt like I had some success, but far from what still needs to happen on that street,” said Richard A. Dimino, who was Boston’s transportation commissioner from 1985 to 1993.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
“If we had trees and shade here, that would be beautiful,” said Joseph Puccio, a Columbia Road resident.

Now that Boston 2024 has seized on the plan, some hope the road will finally get its due.

“If we had trees and shade here, that would be beautiful,” said Joseph Puccio, a 31-year-old engineer who was waiting nearly 30 minutes for a bus outside his apartment building on Columbia Road. “It’s just concrete, bricks, and cars.”

Supporters said that, unlike the glittering real estate developments at Widett Circle and the University of Massachusetts Boston that are the centerpieces of the Olympic bid, the remaking of Columbia Road would primarily benefit a poorer and predominantly African-American and Latino section of the city.

“We need change, we need positive change, we need infrastructure, we need everything,” said Cecil Wangnoon, who sells jerk chicken, sweet plantains, and other Caribbean staples at Preparations Market on Columbia Road. “Anything to make the neighborhood better.”

But not everyone on Columbia Road was ready to embrace Boston 2024’s plan.

Ben Smith, 59, a landscaper who was sweeping grass clippings in front of a dentist’s office, said he liked the idea of planting trees and installing bike lanes, but wished the city would fund the project without the Olympics.

He said he believes the Games will only benefit wealthy business executives and he called the Columbia Road proposal an attempt to mollify critics in Dorchester.

“Beautifying the place is good, but with the Olympics? No,” he said. “They just want to sell somebody another lie.”

“We need change, we need positive change, we need infrastructure, we need everything,” said Cecil Wangnoon of Preparations Market on Columbia Road.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
“We need change, we need positive change, we need infrastructure, we need everything,” said Cecil Wangnoon of Preparations Market on Columbia Road.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.