When Governor Deval Patrick announced the creation of a new commuter rail station in Allston during a rain-soaked speech last week, he gave a community of determined residents the train station they’ve been demanding for months and showcased the potential of people-powered development.
The station, tentatively called West Station, will be built in the Beacon Park rail yard, a vast swath of land sandwiched between the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Charles River, and Boston University. It sits close to Harvard Square, Kendall Square, and downtown Boston. But until recently, there was no way of capitalizing on the rail yard’s potential.
Patrick and his former second-in-command, Tim Murray, removed the largest obstacle to turning the rail yard into a compelling new neighborhood when they bought rail rights from CSX, the freight operator, and pushed the company to move its operations to Worcester. A state highway project to straighten out the elbow in the Mass. Pike promised to open the yard for development by connecting it to the surrounding neighborhood. But any substantial new development needed robust transit access.
Architects and transit activists have been kicking around the idea of building a new transit hub at Beacon Park yard for two decades. The site sits on the line connecting South Station to the western suburbs, and it’s next to a second line that could connect Allston to Cambridge and North Station.
The rail yard’s imminent transformation has turned West Station into a necessity. That’s why, when the state transportation officials pushing the $260 million turnpike reconstruction backed away from building West Station in tandem with the straightened turnpike earlier this year, Allston residents rose up.
Neighborhood residents feared that if the state wrapped up work on the pike without building West Station, inertia would doom the site. So they mobilized. Local activists used a neighborhood panel the state set up to review the design of the new highway interchange to pressure the state to build West Station. They enlisted the support of local legislators, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
The neighborhood brought sustained political pressure on the state to turn the Turnpike construction project into a vehicle for improving their neighborhood, and allowing them to transform Beacon Park yard. And last week, Patrick bought into their vision. Standing on a train parked in the empty rail yard, he promised to build West Station alongside the new section of Turnpike. The station should open when the new road does, around 2020. And when it does, it will enable a kind of intensive neighborhood-building at Beacon Park yard that couldn’t happen otherwise.
In and around Boston, there’s a tendency to pay attention to activist neighborhoods only when they’re mobilizing in opposition to new construction. But, from the anti-highway movement of the 1960s to the local agitators who turned a strip mall into today’s Assembly Square, great things have happened when local residents have put their shoulders into neighborhood-building proposals that simply weren’t good enough.
The imbroglio over West Station and the future of Beacon Park yard shows that there are plenty of Bostonians who want to be ambitious about where their neighborhoods are heading. It shows it’s actually not too difficult to engage residents and build consensus for a common-sense, pro-growth agenda. And next time, hopefully, it won’t take a neighborhood uprising to get that conversation going.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.