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    Paul McMorrow

    Putting a real rail yard plan on the table

    The Allston rail yard is one of Boston’s last remaining development frontiers.
    fletcher6 via wikimedia commons
    The Allston rail yard is one of Boston’s last remaining development frontiers.

    The Boston Society of Architects is meeting this week to map the future of one of Boston’s last remaining development frontiers, the shuttered Beacon Park rail yard in Allston. Technically, the BSA has zero say over what happens on the wide-open acreage that sits between Boston University, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and the Charles River. And that’s what makes the organization’s sudden leap onto a politically charged development site so exciting.

    For the past several years, most of the meaningful debates about Boston’s future have happened in closed channels. Big ideas have either originated inside City Hall, or been vetted by the city before they reach the public. The future has been happening to Bostonians. The BSA’s jump into Allston marks a break in this pattern.

    The BSA is a professional group for local architects and planners. But the architects have also acted as an urban policy shop, and as vocal agitators, at key moments in Boston’s history. Now they are trying to spark a wider conversation about where and how Boston will grow.

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    In Allston, the BSA is jumping into a complicated three-way dance. Harvard University owns the massive Beacon Park rail yard; the state runs the highway straightening project that will soon open the yard for redevelopment; and City Hall will have to sign off on whatever Harvard wants to do with the real estate.

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    If done right, the rail yard could become Boston’s next Seaport District — a forlorn industrial area that becomes an explosive growth engine for the city. But even though plenty of people recognize the site’s potential, no one has any plans for it. So the BSA is putting a concrete vision on the table.

    There’s no official place in Boston’s highly stylized development dance for a group like the BSA to deliver a redevelopment vision for a place like Beacon Park yard. The BSA is jumping in anyway. It’s launching a public two-day design marathon this week; on Thursday, the group will offer two competing visions for what a redeveloped railyard could become.

    Tim Love, the incoming BSA president, sees the group’s Beacon Park work as the start of something bigger. He wants architects to have a voice in key city-building issues. He also wants the group to engage Boston residents and property owners, to tackle tricky development issues, and to challenge the city to think differently about what its future looks like.

    This type of big picture vision-setting is, officially, City Hall’s domain. But good things have happened when the BSA has leaned on city redevelopment officials.

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    Its vision of a high spine of towers running along the edge of the Back Bay, from the Fens to the Financial District, has steered Boston development for the past 50 years. The concept of a narrow line of exclamation points along the city skyline is responsible for everything from the John Hancock Tower to the modern towers now queued up around Copley Place and the Christian Science Plaza.

    The BSA also provoked the creation of the Rose Kennedy Greenway when, in the late 1980s, it floated a concept of a post-Big Dig landscape covered almost entirely in new development. At the time, no one had any idea what would replace the elevated Central Artery. But the BSA’s plan horrified City Hall, and the city responded by claiming ownership over the landscape. But the BSA shocked the city into launching an overdue conversation about what a finished Big Dig should look like.

    Maybe the BSA will also set the vision for what the rail yard becomes. Or maybe it just forces the city, the state, and Harvard to start talking about what comes next at the site. Either way, the people who actually control the site are going to have to respond to a concrete plan, and that’s a good thing.

    Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.