Opinion

Opinion | Paul McMorrow

Ripe for building on Orange Line

FORTY YEARS ago, activists from both sides of the Charles came together to sink a pair of ruinous highways. They crossed neighborhood boundaries, bound together and argued that people, not roadways, build communities. And they won.

Their victory came before construction crews walled off their neighborhoods with lanes of speeding cars, but after bulldozers had demolished thousands of homes lying in the paths of the planned highways. Instead of running a highway from Hyde Park to Roxbury, state transportation officials built the Orange Line. The subway line, built along the path of the scuttled Southwest Expressway, helped remake Jamaica Plain. Still, the Orange Line remains lined with empty lots and dead spots, legacies of highway clearing from a half-century ago. So now the old coalitions are assembling again, with the goal of redeveloping neighborhoods along the length of the Orange Line corridor.

The Orange Line spans four municipalities and scores of neighborhoods. Jamaica Plain is a long way from Somerville and Malden, but the neighborhoods act as nodes along a common transit link. This is true in the sense that the line physically connects disparate populations. But the physical geography of lying along a transit line of the Orange Line’s vintage means communities up and down the line share a common economic development profile.

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Clearance for the Southwest Expressway, and then the subway line’s construction, often left stops along the line surrounded by vacant land or parking lots. When there were buildings standing along the line, they seldom related to the nearby transit hubs. This means the Orange Line hasn’t yet lived up to its economic development potential. But it also means there’s no greater concentration of development-ready sites in Greater Boston. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together in a way that makes sense, and takes advantage of the opportunity.

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Game-changing development sites line the Orange Line, from Forest Hills to Jackson Square, Ruggles, North Station, Sullivan Square, Assembly Square, and Malden Center. Inside Boston, these development lots are legacies of highway clearance and roadway construction, while north of the city, where communities were split by Interstate 93, the Orange Line’s presence enables a form of dense neighborhood-building that isn’t possible outside mass transit corridors.

The first pieces are already falling into place. The Bulfinch Triangle, a neighborhood that was cleared during construction of the elevated Central Artery, and then was reopened for development by the Big Dig, is at the forefront of Boston’s apartment boom, with over 500 units either under development or in the construction pipeline. Last week, state officials committed financing for 225 Centre Street, the first phase of the long-awaited reconstruction of Jackson Square; when completed, the 11-acre, $250 million project will reunite portions of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain that were flattened to make way for the Southwest Expressway. Work is currently underway on a new Orange Line station at Assembly Square in Somerville. The new station, in turn, will open a 50-acre post-industrial site for redevelopment; the project’s first two residential buildings should break ground in the spring.

With development starting to get rolling up and down the subway line, the next step is coordinating this development in a more systematic way, to ensure that execution meets the development opportunity. “We want to create a community of people interested in land use along the line,’’ says Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Draisen’s group is putting a federal sustainable development grant into a new Orange Line-wide planning effort.

The community groups that came together in the 1960s and 1970s to stop the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt Highway formed the base of the region’s community development corporation movement. Now, some of those same groups are coming together to link what’s already happening at Assembly Square and Jackson Square and the Bulfinch Triangle to development opportunities at Forest Hills, Sullivan Square, Ruggles, and Malden Center.

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On either end of the line, a shared history around transportation infrastructure has created economic opportunity: Because of the increasing importance of linking new development to mass transit, and the dwindling number of transit-adjacent development parcels, these are the places where Boston’s future will be built.