Boston can’t decide what it wants to do with Long Island, but nature isn’t waiting. Weeds sprout around the roads. Puddles stagnate in the abandoned buildings. The city-owned island in Boston Harbor, which until one cataclysmic afternoon three years ago housed human service agencies, “is just rotting into the sea,” said one nonprofit leader who has visited since the closure.
The city shut the island in 2014, after engineers determined the sole bridge was unsafe. The hazardous span was soon removed. Services on the island eventually found new homes. Access is now by boat only. But the city, and especially Mayor Walsh, have put off any permanent decision on the 225-acre island’s future.
Whoever wins the mayoral race, though, the city needs to chart a future for Long Island. With its empty structures and expansive views of the city and the harbor, there’s too much opportunity there for it to remain a ghost town. And, as at-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George put it, keeping the island in “bubble-wrap” costs the city money on an ongoing basis.
The city owns almost the entire island, giving it a freer hand on land-use decisions. Mayor Walsh’s 2030 plan for the city touted the island’s recreational possibilities: “Long Island could potentially host a public reservation of great scale, which is only possible with significant and contiguous areas of land and water.” At the same time, even without a bridge, “there may be opportunities for rehabilitation and recovery facilities to be established.”
The future mix of uses will determine what kind of transportation access the island needs — a new bridge or a ferry. And a real plan for the island is what the city needs to start discussing in earnest.
Walsh probably set back those discussions with his initial, unrealistic promise to turn back the clock. The city has gone through an extended period of denial. In reality, there’s no going back to 2014. It would cost taxpayers more than $100 million to build a bridge, yet they wouldn’t be able to use it. At minimum, if there’s ever a new bridge, the city has to create facilities for public use and allow access to the island, and foster enough private development to make the bridge sustainable.
Another option would be to resume using the island for social services, but switch to uses that don’t require a bridge. Some of the old uses, including the treatment beds for addiction, required 24/7 road access for ambulances. But the city could scout around for other human services needs that could be served by ferry. It’s possible: Camp Harbor View has operated on the island without a bridge since 2015.
The city could also explore limited private development on the island, which could help pay for ferry service and recreational development. That doesn’t mean seaview condos: Thompson Island hosts events and conferences, and that could be a template for Long Island.
The island’s abrupt closure was a traumatic event for many Bostonians who relied on the services provided there. The city has been reluctant to move on, even as programs once housed on the island found new homes. But just letting the facilities sit vacant, while paying to maintain buildings with no purpose, doesn’t help anyone. Long Island has served Boston well in the past, and now it provides an opportunity for the city to plan creatively for future generations.