THE DECISION to level the Casey Overpass began and ended with figures on a spreadsheet. The elevated roadway, which soars over Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, is crumbling and nearing structural obsolescence. It’s far cheaper to level the overpass than it is to repair or replace it. It happens that the state’s plans for grounding the overpass line up with modern urbanist planning principles, which favor streets scaled to pedestrians over colossal 1950s-era infrastructure. The monstrous Casey Overpass falls squarely in the latter category, since the elevated roadway severs Jamaica Plain physically and economically.
This alignment of financial and neighborhood-building interests is coincidental, not intentional. That means the road project cannot be an end unto itself. It’s what happens after the span’s disappearance that really matters.
The Casey’s pending demolition offers the opportunity to mend severed neighborhood connections. However, replacing the overpass with a cheaper at-grade roadway won’t necessarily knit Forest Hills together. The Casey Overpass’s demise won’t be a city-building moment unless the state lives up to a decade-old commitment across the street, at the Arborway Yard.
Back in 2001, Boston and the MBTA struck an agreement that extracted steep concessions from each side. The city agreed to let the T park more than 100 buses on a prime lot on Washington Street, across from Forest Hills Station. Neighbors had bitterly fought the buses, which now cause a vibrant stretch of Jamaica Plain to fade into a massive, noisy parking lot. The T promised that its use of the Arborway surface bus yard would only be temporary: After a few years, the T would move its buses into a newly constructed garage that would sit as far as possible from the street, and from neighbors’ homes. Once the T moved off Washington Street, it would hand an eight-acre slice of the Arborway Yard to the city; the city would then bid the parcel out for private development.
The Arborway Yard compromise recognized that communities that depend on public transportation should bear some of the burden of maintaining it. The compromise also recognized that public infrastructure and lively public spaces aren’t mutually exclusive.
On paper, it should cost more to build and maintain a bus garage than it does to let a bus fleet sprawl out over several acres. That calculation doesn’t take into account the lost economic opportunities that come with keeping valuable urban real estate tied up with regressive uses, and sitting off the tax rolls. The Arborway Yard represents one of the largest economic development opportunities in Jamaica Plain: Up to 160 apartments and 165,000 square feet of commercial space are planned for the eight-acre site. Developing the site, and filling in a critical stretch of dead street with active buildings, would also reinforce the connection between Forest Hills and the neighborhood to the north.
After years of dragged feet and broken promises, the Arborway Yard remains an enticing development opportunity, and nothing more. The T originally thought it would be off its Washington Street bus yard by the end of 2003, at a cost of $50 million. The project’s price tag now stands at $200 million, and it remains on hold indefinitely, unfunded by the state.
Public agencies should honor their promises. Even with the Casey Overpass looming next door, the Arborway Yard redevelopment was important for the way it linked development to mass transit, and helped restore a neighborhood that had been bulldozed decades before. The prospect of a demolished Casey Overpass only heightens the Arborway Yard’s importance. The site could become Jamaica Plain’s new front door. Or it could remain a street-deadening parking lot.
Grounding the Casey Overpass removes a barrier to pedestrian connections across Forest Hills. But a surface road project that’s being built because it’s cheaper than the alternative won’t automatically create better conditions on the ground. Without filling surrounding vacant parcels with active buildings, the Casey plan does little more than recreate Wellington Circle, a traffic-choked no-man’s land. The overpass was built at a time when engineers plotted infrastructure without regard to its impact on adjacent communities. By grounding the Casey, the state can show it has learned from those mistakes - but only if it looks beyond the roadway itself.Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.