Developers who try dropping dense new housing developments into Boston’s neighborhoods frequently run head-on into steadfast opposition — to traffic, to parking, to large numbers of prospective newcomers, to any structure taller than a triple-decker. As a result, the stuff that really matters, the stuff that lies past the rote politics of housing development, doesn’t get a proper airing.
The important question often isn't whether a building goes up, but what development does for a neighborhood once the construction crews leave, and whether abutters can successfully harness housing as a tool for improving their own neighborhoods. Two of these kinds of far-reaching development projects are currently taking shape, at opposite ends of the Orange Line in Boston.
In both Sullivan Square and Forest Hills, huge piles of money are going toward shrinking crumbling, outdated mini-highways. Route 99 in Charlestown and the Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain were both built to carry drivers through Boston's neighborhoods at high speeds. The two current road projects are aimed at bringing those half-century-old roadways down to a neighborhood scale and are designed to build community along current commuter paths. The key to building community isn't just in the roadway designs, though, but in the buildings that wind up lining the reconstructed roads.
The Casey Overpass is one of the state's worst bridges, a crumbling, rickety thing from the 1950s. The state is leveling the overpass before gravity takes over, and highway officials will replace the soaring overpass with an at-grade boulevard. Leveling the overpass costs far less than rebuilding it, so the option that's easiest on the state budget is also the friendliest to the surrounding neighborhood.
The Casey is both a physical and a psychological barrier standing between Forest Hills and the rest of Jamaica Plain. Forest Hills Station is a major transit hub, but it's surrounded by vacant or underutilized real estate. Leveling the overpass will remove the physical wall that Forest Hills sits behind, but it won't do anything to actually knit Forest Hills together with the blocks to the north of the overpass. The road project isn't an end in itself; it's just setting the table for work to follow.
The Brennan Group and John M. Corcoran and Co. took the first step toward reaching across the Casey two weeks ago when they proposed building 298 apartments on three mostly vacant acres along Washington Street. The project is explicitly premised on pedestrian traffic flowing back and forth across streets the massive Casey currently keeps in shadows. The difference between giving Forest Hills an active center of gravity and letting it devolve into something like Wellington Circle in Medford lies in stacking active buildings in the mold of the Brennan-Corcoran proposal — places where folks can live and work and eat.
There's a precedent of sorts to the Casey up where the Orange Line leaves Boston, at Sullivan Square. An elevated overpass that once flew over the square came down a decade ago, amid concerns that it was structurally unsound. Boston transportation officials are now preparing to do away with the concrete labyrinth the overpass left behind — a snarled traffic circle and an overly-wide, depressed Route 99 that runs from the Everett line to Charles River locks. Boston is taming the roadway, eliminating underpasses and bringing the de-elevated road up to street level, narrowing its path significantly, and adding trees and pedestrian pathways.
At Sullivan Square, the road realignment will create new parkland and development parcels where ramps and a traffic circle currently run. Sullivan is currently more of an empty industrial crossroads than a proper city square, but city officials want to use the use the Route 99 work to throw open as many as nine acres around the square and the MBTA station to redevelopment. As with the Casey Overpass, new development around Sullivan Square wouldn't be attractive were transportation officials not removing a concrete barrier between an Orange Line station and the surrounding neighborhood. And as with the Casey, the road work isn't the end game, but a down payment on a transformative redevelopment effort.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.