Planning Department: a grand plan for Village Square on a diet

Grand plans of 2005 for a “boulevard” along the foot of Washington St. near Brookline Village faded. More recently, instead of Goody, Clancy–the high-prestige Boston architecture and planning firm–Brookline hired Vanasse Hangen Brustlin of Watertown–engineers and highway designers. Working at a very slow and mostly quiet pace, they planned a highway renovation for part of Route 9. The project has been coordinated by Public Works and Planning staff, particularly Joe Viola, the assistant director for community planning.

Last Wednesday, May 13, Mr. Viola organized a public presentation and hearing on a highway renovation plan, starting at 7 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Neil Wishinsky, recently chosen as chair of the Board of Selectmen, presided over the hearing. No committee of Brookline residents has a role in this project. A committee for the so-called “Gateway East” boulevard project has been inactive since 2006. A committee for a so-called “Walnut St. and Juniper St. Relocation” project has been inactive since 2010.

Background: The foot of Washington St., bending toward Mission Hill in Boston, became the commercial heart of Brookline during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Worcester Turnpike, opened to Natick in 1810, started westward at the bend of Washington St. That road is now Boylston St., part of Massachusetts Route 9, which continues along the foot of Washington St. across the Jamaicaway to Huntington Ave. in Boston.

The Punch Bowl Tavern was Brookline’s best known landmark during the 1700s. It was located across the foot of Washington St. from today’s site of the Village Square fire station, built of brick and limestone in early twentieth century. The area nearby was often called Punch Bowl Village. The 1830s street connecting to Beacon St. through what is now Kenmore Square was originally Punch Bowl Rd. Now it is Brookline Ave.

A railroad courses beside the Village Square area, begun in 1853 as the Charles River Branch Railroad, later the Brookline Branch of the Boston & Albany and now the Riverside (D) branch of the MBTA Green Line. During the 1920s, the bustle of Village Square attracted the Brookline Savings Bank’s handsome new headquarters to the bend of Washington St. Aside from the fire station, that is the only historic building left on the square.

Village Square was almost totally lost to redevelopment, starting in the late 1950s. Patterning its efforts on destruction of the West End in Boston by the Hynes administration, the former Brookline Redevelopment Authority took property by eminent domain for the so-called “Farm Project,” evicted all the former residents and businesses, ripped out the streets and tore down everything south of Route 9 but the fire station.

On the north side of Route 9, the so-called “Marsh Project” ran at a slower pace, but it was about as ruthless. Now there can be no genuine Village Square “boulevard,” because there is no longer a genuine Village Square–an extinct neighborhood–to lend it character. Although Village Square doesn’t yet house a suburban strip mall, like Chestnut Hill, the swath of destruction left a bleak highway junction, being filled in by large-scale new development.

Village Square, from the former site of Brookline Savings Bank

VillageSquareFromBrooklineBank
Source: Brookline Department of Planning and Community Development

Bicycle bonanza: The first public presentation Mr. Viola scheduled, last December 3, attracted around 50 bicycle promoters from Brookline and Boston. They were nearly all seeking protected bicycle lanes, sometimes called “cycle tracks.” If Brookline’s commercial areas were to be prioritized by amounts of bicycle traffic, Village Square would probably rank low. Today it has little business and only a modest population density nearby. For all but a few Brookline residents, it is neither a destination nor a waypoint.

Instead, what Village Square has is money, thanks to persistent efforts currying state support for highway renovation. It also holds some future promise from the expected 2 Brookline Place development, but bicycle promoters were likely drawn to the project by the scent of money. State money was squandered when renovating Beacon St. a few years ago, installing lots of new paving but little else of community value. Because of neglectful design, a majority of Beacon St. remains unsuitable for even painted bicycle lanes.

The cost of protected bicycle lanes in built-out urban areas runs to as much as $5 million a mile. When installed during roadway renovation, parts of the work will be common to the renovation, and the incremental cost can be less. At the May 13 presentation, a representative of the Massachusetts transportation agency estimated a 7 percent increase in costs for the Village Square project.

Plans: As described by Beth Eisler, an engineer from Toole Design Group in Boston, plans for protected bicycle lanes at Village Square are limited to the foot of Washington St. between the intersection with High St. on the south side and the intersection with Brookline Ave. on the north side. Anything more will await some future project and funding.

The main roadway change is to move the end of Walnut St. eastward, aligning the intersection of Walnut St. on the south side of Washington St. with the intersection of Pearl St. on the north side. Protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the foot of Washington St. extend just two blocks, about one-seventh of a mile.

Design for protected bicycle lanes at Village Square

VillageSquareCycleTracks
Source: Brookline Department of Planning and Community Development

The proposed designs place bicycle lanes at sidewalk level toward the curbs–the approach used on Vassar St. in Cambridge. At the bus stop near Pearl St., the bicycle lane is to curve away from the street, skirting an island for people entering and leaving a bus. Bicycle lanes are to have a color, texture or both that differs from walkways. No bicycle lane materials, signs or signals were described.

Desires: The May 13 presentation and hearing drew an audience of about 35. Most speakers supported plans but asked for changes in designs. Eric from Jamaica Plain described himself as riding through Village Square frequently. He doubted the proposed designs would draw riders to the area, because of hazardous intersections. Placing a painted bicycle lane in the middle of Washington St., descending from the overpass above the Green Line, would be “terrifying to many,” he said. “People will ride on the sidewalk.”

Mark from Roslindale, speaking for the Boston Cyclists Union, had similar observations. Stacy Thompson, representing the Livable Streets Alliance in Cambridge, had “concerns about a two-stage Washington St. crossing” for pedestrians. The long delays, she said, would provoke jaywalking. Crossing “seven lanes is really intimidating across lower Washington St.”

Scott Englander, a Transportation Board member who co-chairs the Complete Streets Study Committee, said the designs had been “hamstrung by the 2006 planning effort…an obsolete planning philosophy.” They have “weak links at several points,” he said, some of which he described. Much more obvious barriers were created by the 1950s philosophy, turning Village Square into part of a highway complex rather than part of a village network. That is how the foot of Washington St. became seven traffic lanes instead of four.

George Cole, a member of the Building Commission who has also been a spokesperson for Children’s Hospital, the owner and developer of 2 Brookline Place, said the hospital “supports bicycles” and asked about the schedule. Tracy Wu, the project manager at the state transportation agency, said the schedule currently calls for completing designs in September, 2016, and performing construction between the spring and fall of 2017.

According to Jane Gilman, a Precinct 3 town meeting member, “we are a multi-modal society,” turning to “sustainable practices.” She asked about bicycle lane signals, pervious pavement and trees. For each item, Ms. Eisler of Toole Design Group said nothing had yet been planned. Laura Costella of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin stated there will be “a significant landscape component to this project…replacing existing elements at least six to one.”

Several speakers sought to extend the designs for protected bicycle lanes to other parts of the streets. Tommy Vitolo, a Precinct 6 town meeting member, argued for extending them along Walnut St. to High St. That should not be very costly, he argued, saying, “It’s all new anyway.” Like other Brookline speakers, however, Dr. Vitolo seemed to have little knowledge of actual costs for protected bicycle lanes.

Mr. Viola said the next step for the plans would be to present them to the Transportation Board. Todd Kirrane, the transportation director, indicated that might occur at a June meeting. Given the many responses from Toole Design Group and Vanasse Hangen Brustlin that elements were “not planned yet” or “we’ll look into it,” it was not at all clear that plans were ready for prime time.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, May 16, 2015


Toole Design Group (Boston, MA), Gateway East bicycle facilities, Brookline Department of Planning and Community Development, May 13, 2015

Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, Costs for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements, U.S. Federal Highway Administration, 2015

Complete Streets: seeking better sidewalks and bicycle paths, Brookline Beacon, May 12, 2015

Zoning Board of Appeals: zoning permit for a registered marijuana dispensary, Brookline Beacon, April 25, 2015

Planning Board: Brookline Place redevelopment, Brookline Beacon, January 23, 2015

Craig Bolon, Gateway East: an idea whose time has gone, Brookline Beacon, October 17, 2014

Craig Bolon, Brookline bicycle crashes: patterns and factors, Brookline Beacon, August 16, 2014

Craig Bolon, Brookline legacies: Olmsted and coal ash, Brookline Beacon, June 6, 2014

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