Columbia Point plans, nearly complete, hit roadblock

Plans to create a neighborhood feel amid developments being planned for Columbia Point hit a potential roadblock last week when both the MBTA and the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) voiced opposition to a new side street envisioned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority's urban planners.

Greg Dicovitsky of Transit Realty Associates, the MBTA's semi-independent real estate wing, said last Thursday the T would not allow a future street to cross part of what is now the JFK/UMass Station's busway. The street, on draft plans for months now, is a crucial link, a "main street" into a massive development proposed by Synergy where Shaw's supermarket, Harborpoint Liquors and other buildings stand today.

The street would also help make possible the closure of two frontage roads flanking Morrissey Boulevard, which could then be converted into DCR-owned open space.

"The way they found to make [the MBTA site] work is by including state-owned land in the site," said Dicovitsky at the Feb. 12 Columbia Point Master Plan Task Force meeting. "We very recently learned that the inclusion of that land is not possible. We don't want to limit the creativity that can be brought to the table. But just to hold the developable area on the site, we would probably have to stay away from this whole road idea."

Dicovitsky's comments stem from a recent revelation within DCR that a proposal for a 25-story "Point Tower" to replace the current JFK/UMass Station would by necessity encroach on the current path of one of Morrissey Boulevard's frontage roads - eliminated by the plan. Expanding the site would make room for the new side street that would run next to the Red Line and Commuter Rail tracks nearby.

"There's an Article 97 issue there," said DCR Director of Planning Julia O'Brien. "State-owned land generally has a purpose attached to it. To have that purpose changed requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and replacement of the land… The roadway is owned by the Commonwealth as parkland."

The irony, of course, is that the DCR - charged in part with protecting the state's natural resources - is by a legal technicality now protecting a paved road from a plan that would ultimately create over 9 acres of leafy green open space by eliminating the frontage roads and "the chute" - a connector between Mt. Vernon Street and Day Boulevard. The road removal is also thought to be a way to separate local and regional traffic, thus easing congestion.

Members of the task force, many of them politically savvy and connected, didn't see an act of the Legislature as a unclearable hurdle.

"Why not take a look at what the remedies would be," asked task force chair Don Walsh. "If you need a two-thirds vote, get a two-thirds vote. I'm hearing that there's a roadblock that's not really a legitimate roadblock."

"You can't just say 'No, we can't do it.' There are ways to get it done," added task force member Paul Nutting.

But the DCR's objections take in more than just the JFK/UMass Station site, according to Boston Redevelopment Authority project manager John Read.

"They expressed to us some serious concerns about Morrissey Boulevard and the chute," he said at the meeting, adding: "Those plans are not necessarily off the table. I think we'll be looking at a variety of options. There's not a single proposal."

"Their proposal is a radical departure from DCR's own plan for Morrissey Boulevard which went through a public process years ago, and which did not involve removing the frontage roads," said DCR spokeswoman Wendy Fox. "The DCR is going to need a lot more data before DCR can even begin to think about it. It's just so different than anything that's been planned before."

Synergy CEO Dave Greaney was not given to melodrama over the new kink in the plan, even though it could fundamentally change the footprint of his company's proposed development - some 700 residential units, 180,000 square feet of retail space and 500,000 square feet of office space. Instead, he chose to take the long view.

"In my perspective it's the first roadblock and it won't be the last," said Greaney Tuesday. "We just need to work together to overcome it. It's too early in the process for anything to be off the table. I've reached out to the folks at DCR and over the coming weeks we're going to meet to try and understand what exactly this means."

In addition to the development in the works for the land they already own, Synergy is also in a position to be a top bidder to build on the MBTA property. The company would have a natural motivation to develop it as a gateway to their planned neighborhood shopping area from the T station and the other side of the Southeast Expressway.

At this confusing time, the task force's planning process is entering its final phase. At its next meeting on March 26, members will discuss and comment on a draft version of the final master plan, most likely choosing from multiple options created by the BRA's design consultants. After a series of meetings, including one more large community gathering, the task force will vote to approve the plan, if all goes well, on May 21.