The Big Dig made things look easy. Sure, it cost a fortune, took forever, and caused countless engineering headaches. But for reach, the project can’t be touched: The demolition of the hugely disruptive highway unlocked billions of dollars in economic development, from North Station to South Boston and Chinatown. The Southeast Expressway came down, and the rest snapped into place. Easy.
Things are not so simple in Boston’s outlying neighborhoods. The generation of engineers that ran the old Southeast Expressway between Boston’s downtown and its waterfront sent scores of similar roadways barreling through the city’s neighborhoods. These roads are smaller in scale than the downtown highway was, but they’re no less disruptive. They’re only now beginning to fall, a decade after the old elevated Expressway gave way to a manicured surface boulevard. And chopping the Expressway’s offspring down to size is just the first step. The fact that these mini-highways are dying, in and of itself, means almost nothing. It’s what comes after the roadways’ demise that really counts.
Jamaica Plain’s Casey Overpass, Charlestown’s Rutherford Avenue, and Roxbury’s Melnea Cass Boulevard will all be disassembled in the near future. State construction crews are preparing to replace the Casey, a rickety overpass from the 1950s that soars high over Forest Hills, with an at-grade boulevard. City planners are close to narrowing Rutherford, a wide speedway that runs the length of Charlestown between Sullivan Square and the edge of the Mystic; the lost traffic lanes will become greenery, paths for walking and biking, and on-street parking. Melnea Cass, the 1960s-vintage artery that covers the ground cleared for the unbuilt Inner Belt highway, will become a tree-lined street where cars share space with buses, bikers, and walkers.
All three projects draw on the Big Dig playbook: They repair the relationship between urban neighborhoods and the roads that run through them. Engineers built the Southeast Expressway, the Casey Overpass, Rutherford, and the Melnea Cass/Inner Belt corridor for the convenience of drivers passing through Boston neighborhoods, on their way to somewhere else. At the same time, these mini-highways darken the streets around them and discourage neighborhood-level economic development. The slimmed down, reformatted roadways should bring Bostonians closer to each other, and to the transit network that knits the city together.
As things stand now, the Casey severs the Emerald Necklace park system, and it cuts Jamaica Plain off from Forest Hills (the neighborhood, and the Orange Line stop). Rutherford causes Charlestown to dead-end in a tangle of fast-moving car lanes, with residents sitting on one side, and the subway stations they use on the other. Melnea Cass is an asphalt moat lined with vacant, publicly-owned parcels that keep Dudley Square at arm’s length from the South End.
The huge roadways are only part of the problem, though. They darken neighborhoods because they replace active civic space with high-speed traffic, but an at-grade Casey Overpass or a slower, narrower Rutherford won’t automatically become the kind of catalysts for sweeping change that the Big Dig became. Each still needs a plan to take advantage of new, neighborhood-friendly roadways.
Residents shouldn’t settle for simple road beautification projects. They should demand the kind of transformative redevelopment efforts the Big Dig showcased. Both Jamaica Plain and Charlestown have the elbow room to pull this trick off. There’s enough publicly owned real estate lying around Forest Hills, Sullivan Square, and Community College (the latter two are major nodes along the Rutherford corridor) to jumpstart the creation of the kind of tightly knit, pedestrian-focused neighborhoods the road reconstruction projects enable. What’s needed is the land, and the zoning, to give the opportunities running room.
The city and state are previewing this sort of leap along Melnea Cass. It’s happening quietly, but it has clear parallels in Forest Hills and Charlestown. The act of leveling thousands of Roxbury homes for the Inner Belt highway left both the city and state in possession of strips of vacant land along a roadway that now looks like a sort of mini-Inner Belt. So at the same time that Boston is putting the roadway on a diet, the city and state are actively encouraging the creation of new, dense development on the new road’s edges. The construction projects will reassert Roxbury as a destination, not just a place to speed through. And they’ll serve as a reminder that, even when highways disappear, the work is still only half finished.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.