Boston 2024 should send a representative to a much-anticipated meeting in Allston Wednesday night. That’s when wary residents will hear the latest update on the state’s plans to transform their neighborhood by realigning and straightening the Massachusetts Turnpike, which now separates the chunk of Allston between the Pike and Soldiers Field Road from the rest of Boston. It’s a costly, high-stakes project: Done right, the Pike reconstruction has the potential to reconnect the neighborhood with the Charles River and the Boston University area. Done on the cheap, though, it could condemn Lower Allston to another 50 years of isolation from the rest of the city.
Those discussions started long before the Olympic organizing group unveiled its proposal to build temporary swimming and water polo venues in Allston — an idea that caught the community by surprise. But it’s not too late for Boston 2024 to join forces with Allston residents to make the most of the once-a-generation opportunity the Pike project has created.
The group’s failure to engage Allston activists thus far has epitomized its political clumsiness, even among potential natural allies. For many Allston residents, whose main worry has been that the state’s plans for the highway will largely replicate the existing road, the Olympic committee’s interest in the neighborhood seemed like a potential godsend — a way to prod the state and the major nearby institutions, Harvard and Boston University, to embrace more ambitious visions for the community after the Pike project. They want improved bus service, easier river access, and better bike and pedestrian connections across the Pike.
Those are all improvements that would bolster the Olympic venues, but the initial bid document lacked such details and was written without consultation with neighborhood groups. Revising the bid to include a detailed, ambitious plan in Lower Allston would help make the athletic events successful — and help provide a legacy that would make the Games worth supporting.
The initial trigger for the Pike project — and, so far, the only part that has solid funding — is the crumbling 1965 viaduct that carries the highway in a broad curve from the vicinity of Commonwealth Avenue to near the toll plaza. The 2,500-foot structure must be completely replaced, which will cost about $165 million. The road was originally built in an arc to avoid a railyard to the south of the Pike, but now that the CSX railroad has stopped using the yard and sold the land to Harvard, the rebuilt road can be straighter than the existing one.
But just replacing the viaduct with a slightly straighter one would be a wasted opportunity. In community meetings last year, residents made their wishes for a more transformative design clear. At the least, they want to build the new viaduct and highway interchange in a way that opens up more park space on the river. They also want bike and pedestrian connections across the Pike and, ideally, a transit link; getting from Lower Allston to BU, by any mode, is too cumbersome now. After complaints about the limited scope of the plan, a commuter rail station, dubbed West Station, was added to the proposal in the waning days of the Patrick administration. As proposed, buses would also serve the station — but only from the north, limiting its potential impact.
Late last year, as part of the environmental review process, state officials told MassDOT to broaden the options they were considering to a fuller range of possibilities, including north-south bus travel through West Station, and to study the feasibility of building a deck over the highway and tracks to allow air-rights development. At Wednesday’s meeting, Allston residents and advocates hope MassDOT will respond with a plan that delivers more of those economic development opportunities.
But the more ambitious the Allston plan gets, the more friction it will generate — and the more that the community will need the political and financial clout that the Olympics could lend. Boston University has emerged as one big obstacle. The university does not want any additional vehicular traffic — not even a bus, even though the bus that currently connects North Allston with the rest of civilization, the MBTA’s Route 66, is notoriously slow and circuitous. BU went so far as to offer to chip in $8.3 million for West Station last year — but only in exchange for a promise that it would create no new traffic south of the station, a condition that would be irresponsible for the Baker administration to accept. Even if the administration finds another way to pay for the station, all the other elements — parklands, new streets, connections to the bike paths along the Charles River — have no identified funding.
Allston residents need an ally, and as a recent Metropolitan Area Planning Council report outlined, Boston 2024 has every reason to back the more ambitious blueprints. The initial plan submitted to the United States Olympic Committee supposed the construction of West Station, but didn’t take a side in the disagreements over details, such as whether the station will be configured to allow north-south bus connections, and didn’t mention building a deck over the tracks and highway. But as the MAPC report points out, Boston 2024 should want spectators and athletes to be able to move around, and for the area to be attractive to pedestrians leaving the station.
Boston 2024 could also assist with the thorny question of financing. Funding for the roadwork will come from state and federal sources. But some of the extra bells and whistles should be paid for by Boston 2024 and nearby institutions — most notably Harvard, whose real estate will become much more valuable if the project improves the neighborhood.
Perhaps the new head of Boston 2024, Steve Pagliuca, a Harvard grad and donor, could prevail upon his alma mater to make a serious effort with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to plan uses for the land, and set up an equitable partnership for Harvard to contribute financially to a deck over the Pike and rail tracks. If he and Boston 2024 can galvanize support for a strong plan that transforms Allston, it’ll help make the Olympics a real investment in the city’s future.