Residents get look at initial Mt. Vernon redesign proposal

Jordan Frias, Special to the Reporter
Apr. 3, 2014

Residents and stakeholders from Dorchester’s Columbia Point peninsula attended a meeting last Thursday evening to help lay out a city plan to redesign Mt. Vernon Street. The meeting was hosted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), which is funding the $400,000 planning process now underway.

The redesign initiative comes as the Columbia Point section withstands a building boom that will likely continue through the current decade.UMass Boston is completing an integrated sciences complex and starting work on another academic building, with another one in the pipeline. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United State Senate is also under construction on the peninsula next to the existing JFK Library. On the residential side, Corcoran Jennison is preparing to build a new complex‑ “University Place”‑ in front of its Bayside office complex. Synergy, owned by developer David Greaney, has been approved to build new residences on a long-abandoned parcel next to the JFK/UMass MBTA station.

At Thursday’s meeting, the BRA project was described as an effort to make the 0.6-mile long thoroughfare a “complete street.”

“This is the first in a series of opportunities for you to be involved in the designs of Mt. Vernon St.,” said Corey Zehngebot, senior urban designer and architect at the BRA. Zehngebot and BRA senior planner John Read facilitated the meeting, which was held at the Corcoran Jennison Community Building at 270 Mt. Vernon St.

“The city has taken an interest in complete streets … and what I mean by complete streets is that it reflects all aspects of life,” said Gary McNaughton, vice president and transportation engineer with McMahon Associates, a firm retained by the BRA to help with the planning.

Representatives at the meeting said that the street, which serves as a key entry point for UMass Boston, currently has a high concentration of drivers, with 7:15 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. noted as peak times for traffic congestion. Studies show that the street currently carries between 300 to 600 cars an hour and is built to hold 1,700 cars an hour.

City officials would like to reduce the number of drivers on Mt. Vernon St. by making the street more accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists, and MBTA riders.

Representatives said this can be done by activating the street and area through simple and inexpensive methods like outdoor art, more open public spaces, more lighting and improved crosswalks, among other things.

Deneen Crosby, director of landscape architecture at Crosby, Schlessinger, Smallridge, LLC, explained how these initiatives along with others could make the area “a more vital mixed use neighborhood.” She cited identification signage for pedestrians and vehicles as a possibility, along with a more attractive and well-lit underpass near the JFK/UMass T stop.

“It’s dark and barren, particularly in the evening … [These changes] can highlight the really incredible history of Columbia Point and the amazing changes that are happening here,” she said.

Crosby also discussed the idea of temporary urbanism, which allows open areas and parking lots to be transformed by local artists. She explained how a parking lot in Davis Square was transformed into a plaza for three days with the addition of tables and an inexpensive stage that the community utilized.

“[Temporary urbanism] is a phenomenon that is going on around the country. Here in [Columbia] Point, we’re excited to test it out with you,” BRA’s Zehngebot said.

Other topics tackled at the meeting were the success of the Hubway bike sharing program that launched last year, the need to create separation between pedestrians, bikes, and cars on the sidewalks, and the need to improve school bus activity and parent drop-offs and pickups in front of the Dever and McCormack schools.

McNaughton of McMahon Associates explained how the BRA and city officials are planning to have the street completely transformed within the next 10 to 25 years. Thursday’s meeting was focused on a 1 year plan that will only complete 25 percent of the redevelopment design project.

The meeting ended with reports from breakout groups which found that the community hopes to work on rebranding itself as a gateway into the city and needs to direct its visitors to unutilized areas like the Harborwalk path along the perimeter of the peninsula.

Valerie Harms, a tutor at the Dever Elementary School, said she also enjoyed the meeting, but would like to see the street near the JKF/UMass overpass redesigned to make crossing safer for pedestrians. She also wants bike lanes to be redesigned so they are less dangerous.