State transportation project: Carlton St. footbridge

On Wednesday evening, November 4, state transportation staff held a hearing on plans to renovate the Carlton St. footbridge, starting at 7 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. The state is now managing a project that Brookline began in 1998.

Tracks and bridges: The footbridge was built in the 1890s over rail tracks–then part of the Boston & Albany Rail Road–running beside the Muddy River in Brookline, near the Longwood neighborhoods. From there, the river flows into the Back Bay Fens, one of the “public grounds” designed by Frederick Law Olmsted for the Boston park department. In an 1883 report, Olmsted resisted calling the facilities “parks.” He wrote that instead they were landscaped “drainage works.”

Site of the Carlton St. footbridge, 1887

MuddyRiverFensFootbridgeSite
Source: National Park Service

The arrow in the figure points to the site of the Carlton St. footbridge–near the intersection of Carlton St., coming south from Beacon St., with Colchester St. On the 1887 map from the Boston park department, the rail tracks are crossed by bridges at Longwood Ave. and at Park Dr., as the latter is now known. A footpath appears to connect a “flag stop” along the rail tracks with one of the circulation paths.

The tracks were originally built for the Boston & Worcester Railroad and Charles River Branch Railroad between Boston and Newton. From the 1850s through the 1870s, the railroad–through extensions, mergers and name changes–carried millions of tons of gravel from Newton and Needham into Boston to fill the Back Bay salt marsh, creating dry land for neighborhoods that continue to use the Back Bay name today.

In the 1870s, as the Back Bay landfill project wound down, the Boston & Albany (B&A) Rail Road took over the tracks running through Brookline and Allston into Boston, transporting both passengers and freight. There was a B&A terminal on Station St. in Brookline. Over tracks near the intersection of Carlton and Colchester Sts. the town built a pedestrian bridge–giving access from Longwood neighborhoods to the B&A “flag stop.”

Carlton St. footbridge, c. 1896

CarltonStreetBridge1896Mono
Source: Public Library of Brookline

Alexis H. French. Brookline’s first town engineer, oversaw construction of the bridge, built in the summer of 1894. It is a utilitarian steel “pony truss” design, with riveted beams and cross members. The main span is about 75 ft, and the overall length including staircases at each end is about 110 ft. Originally there were steel circles mounted along the sides, the only ornamentation.

Records now known show no involvement by Olmsted or his firm in building the Carlton St. footbridge. According to Prof. Charles Beveridge of American University, unpublished archives from 1892 showed it as a late addition to Riverway plans. For over 80 years, the bridge provided an alternate entrance to the Riverway segment that Olmsted and his firm designed–giving it historical context and significance.

Changes and decline: In 1958, the B&A notified the state that it was going to discontinue passenger service on the rail line. Massachusetts acquired interests in the route and contracted with Perini Corp. of Framingham to install electrical wiring and redirect the Boston end underground, to connect with trolley services at Kenmore Square. Perini completed the work in about a year.

Electrically powered service started in 1959 on what became the MTA Highland line–now known as the D branch of the MBTA Green Line. That introduced a new hazard for the Carlton St. footbridge: proximity to 600 volt, high current wires. Its 1894 state permit had called for a 15 ft height. The span was barely above the trolley wires, and the structure was in decline.

Indifferent maintenance, including use of road salt in the winter, led to weakening of stair treads, cross members and braces. By the 1970s, corrosion had become severe, and the bridge was a safety hazard. In the fall of 1975, both ends were blocked with chain-link fencing. Brookline looked into removing the structure but delayed doing anything because of costs and dangers from working around an active transit line.

By the 1990s, deterioration of the fenced-off, rusting structure had become so advanced that ordinary repairs had become impractical. The wood decking and smaller metal elements were stripped away, so they would not fall onto the trolley tracks. Only the original main steel columns and beams were sturdy enough to stay in place near the tracks.

Controversy and revival: Some neighbors hoped that the footbridge would be reopened. For example, the late Henry Kohn, a former Precinct 1 town meeting member, had used it almost every day. Dr. Kohn walked between his home on Monmouth Ct. and his office at Shields Warren Laboratory in the medical area. Others neighbors were wary of vagabonds known to collect in secluded parts of the Riverway, and they opposed reopening the bridge.

For several years, neighborhood opposition gained the upper hand, ousting many of the conservation-oriented Precinct 1 town meeting members who had supported efforts to reopen the footbridge. Starting in 2006, trends changed, and over the next few years the opposition contingent gave way to a new generation in Precinct 1 that supported efforts to reopen the footbridge.

Cathleen Cavell, a Precinct 1 town meeting member and Hugh Mattison, a Precinct 5 town meeting member, began organizing to restore the footbridge in the late 1980s and formed Friends of the Carlton St. Footbridge in the late 1990s. They attracted support from the Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, a membership group founded in 1987 to advocate and educate around open space issues. However, interest remained low and progress slow.

A lingering storm in October, 1996 helped the fortunes of the footbridge. About 8 to 12 inches of rain fell over three days. The Muddy River quickly flooded, and floodwaters flowed down Green Line tracks into the Kenmore Square station. From there, the flood spread into the trolley tunnel toward downtown Boston, under Boylston St. Damages to property and to the transit system ran to around $100 million, in current value. The Green Line repairs took about two years, with frequent interruptions and breakdowns.

In the aftermath, Boston and Brookline began closer cooperation on planning flood control for the Riverway and Fenway. A four-party plan developed, seeking assistance from the state and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the Swift administration in 2002, Ellen Herzfelder, who was then the state secretary of environmental affairs, made restoring the Carlton St. footbridge a component of the Muddy River flood control project, pressuring Brookline to provide funds and coordinate efforts to renovate the footbridge.

After years of planning and disputes, the fall town meeting of 2009 finally provided project funds. Article 5 allocated $1.4 million for design and restoration, passed by a 194-24 roll-call vote. By that time, political changes in Precinct 1 had developed and settled. Every town meeting member from the precinct voted in favor of funds to restore the footbridge.

Project underway: At the November 4 hearing, Margaret Walsh and William Chi of the state highway department described the current $2.7 million project to renovate the Carlton St. footbridge. The largest amount of the cost is expected to be paid from federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds. If realized, Brookline and the state would each pay about $270,000 of the total. Brookline would be able to reclaim nearly $1 million from its 2009 appropriation, to use for other purposes.

Andre Martecchini of Kleinfelder SEA in Cambridge described the current design, for which Brookline paid the initial costs. It is intended to satisfy handicapped access requirements by attaching ramps at both ends of the span, just inside the staircases. Each ramp extends eastward toward Kenmore Sq. and loops back to the foot of its staircase. Original materials for the main steel beams are to be reused; most other parts will be new materials. Decking for the span is be Ipe hardwood, with an estimated 75-year service life.

Construction plans are to detach the staircases, lift the span and station it in a tent nearby. It will be renovated on-site, while ramps are built and staircases are rebuilt off-site. New foundations will raise the span about a foot and shift its location about a yard into the park, avoiding existing trees. When the structures are all ready, the span will be lifted back into place and the bridge reassembled, adding the new ramps and installing security screening along the span.

The current design is rated about 25 percent complete. It does not include any bridge or park lighting. The next part of the project is to produce working specifications and advertise for bids. The remaining project duration is estimated at around two years. Green Line service will be replaced with bus service for two weekends when the span is being lifted out and back, a significant part of project costs.

Comments and questions: Six town meeting members from Precinct 1 spoke in support of the project: Cathleen Cavell, James Franco, Neil Gordon, Sean Lynn-Jones, Robert Schram and Robert Sloane. None were opposed. Ms. Cavell, who started efforts that led to the project, said she had been “longing to see the bridge renovated and reopened.” Benjamin Franco, a former Precinct 1 resident and current member of the Board of Selectmen, said the project will “restore the Olmsted vision.”

Mr. Lynn-Jones, who chairs the Advisory Committee, asked about colors. Like the original, the renovated bridge will be mostly painted steel. Mr. Martecchini of Kleinfelder said the security screening will be black but “the rest will have some color,” not yet chosen. The original bridge was painted black, although what remains is heavily rusted.

Precinct 5 town meeting members Robert Daves, Betsy Shure Gross and Hugh Mattison and Precinct 6 town meeting member Thomas Vitolo spoke in favor of project plans. Mr. Mattison said they were the result of a “town-wide effort.” Arlene Mattison of Pond Ave, president of the Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, and Frances Shedd-Fisher of Walnut St., a former Precinct 5 town meeting member, echoed those sentiments.

Starting in 2006, Dr. Vitolo–a recent transplant from Precinct 1–became a figure in replacing a former Precinct 1 contingent that opposed reopening the bridge. He said he looked forward to bicycle crossings using the new ramps, expecting them to relieve congestion at the Longwood MBTA stop. New bicycle ramps on the Riverway, at the Route 9 intersection, will open at about the same time, he said, and should also help.

Others favoring the plans included Gilbert Hoy of Reservoir Rd., a former member of the Board of Selectmen who chaired Brookline’s project committee for the footbridge, Frances Gershwin of Glenoe Rd., who chairs the Oversight Committee for the Muddy River flood control project, Elton Elperin of Monmouth St., a member of the Preservation Commission, and John Dempsey of Brington Rd., a member of the Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Three former Precinct 1 town meeting members continued to oppose the project: Pamela Zelnick of Carlton St., a member of the Transportation Board, Frederick Lebow of Colchester St., chair of the Naming Committee, and Melvin Clouse of Monmouth St. Ms. Zelnick called the project “a total waste of taxpayer money.” Mr. Lebow recalled hearing “when that bridge was open, there was a higher crime rate.”

Anthony Raynes of Carlton St. echoed the opposition, saying the new “design is excellent” but claiming that the “bridge was closed because of crime.” With more bicycle traffic encouraged by a renovated bridge with ramps, Dr. Raynes said Carlton St. will become “total mayhem…the accident rate will be terrible.” Dr. Clouse said very few Brookline pedestrians would likely use the bridge, calling it a “bridge to nowhere.”

Opponents of renovating the Carlton St. footbridge, by now heavily outnumbered by supporters of the bridge, sounded unlikely to derail the project. Mr. Elperin of the Preservation Commission, an architect, said he “never expected the project would take this long or cost this much.” He commended the designers for “great care taken to make the ramps as light as possible” and observed that over time a steel bridge would be seen as “more valuable by being a rare feature of an Olmsted park.”

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, November 9, 2015

– Updated November 11, 2015, with letter from Prof. Charles Beveridge


Design public hearing for project 606316, proposal B-27-016, Highway Division, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, November 4, 2015

Transportation project funding, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, 2015

Priority evaluations, highway projects FY2016, Massachusetts Department of Transportaton, 2015

FY2013 Capital improvement program, Town of Brookline, MA, 2012, See $1,254,000 bond fund for 10 years for Carlton St. footbridge.

Minutes, Brookline Preservation Commission, April 12, 2011

Roll-call vote, Article 5, November 17, 2009, town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA

Warrant report for November 17, 2009, town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA

Hugh Mattison, The Muddy River restoration project, Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, 2009

William A. Newman and Wilfred F. Holton, Back Bay: The Story of America’s Greatest Nineteenth-Century Landfill Project, Northeastern University Press, 2006

David O. Mendelsohn, Muddy River project facilitation, in Robert L. France, ed., Facilitating Watershed Management, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, pp. 55-58

Bridge to nowhere, Carlton Street Footbridge, 2003

Letter to Gilbert Hoy, Board of Selectmen, from Charles E. Beveridge, American University, re Carlton St. footbridge plans, September 25, 2001 (obtained from Cathleen Cavell)

Report of the town engineer, in Annual Report of Town Officers, Town of Brookline, MA, 1906, p. 157

Bridge over Boston & Albany Railroad at Carlton Street in Brookline, May 4, 1894, in Annual Report, Massachusetts Board of Railway Commissioners, 1895, p. 193

Report of the landscape architect, 1883, and Map for the Back Bay Fens, 1887, in Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol. 8: The Early Boston Years, reprinted by National Association for Olmsted Parks, 2010

Conservation Commission: will Muddy River flooding be controlled?, Brookline Beacon, July 16, 2014

Craig Bolon, Hazards of rail transport, Brookline Beacon, May 1, 2014

One thought on “State transportation project: Carlton St. footbridge

  1. Cathleen Cavell Post author

    Congratulations on a detailed and accurate account of the DOT meeting as I experienced it. I only want to point out that as part of the extensive background information at the end of the article, you may want to consider including two letters and a short video interview about the CSF with Dr. Charles Beveridge, a leading scholar and author on the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, who is series editor of the Olmsted papers. I will forward those attachments to you next as sent to me by Hugh Mattison. Thank you, Cathleen Cavell

    – Editor’s note: The article was updated November 11, 2015, referencing and sourcing the September, 25, 2001, letter to Gilbert Hoy, then a member of the Board of Selectmen and chair of the footbridge project committee, from Prof. Beveridge of American University.

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