In Crossroads Along the Avenue Lie Paths to Progress

(Second in a two-part series published in November 2003)

Nervous users of Ashmont Station crowded the basement of All Saints Church shortly before 6:30 p.m. on October 8. Two large and life-altering questions would be answered that night. The first was whether or not the redesign of Ashmont Station would preserve access from Radford Lane. The second, nationally televised and scheduled a few hours later, was whether or not the Red Sox could top the Yankees in Game One of the American League Championship Series.

The answer to both questions was yes, although the Sox' first-game victory later became a historical footnote; neighborhood pressure brought about a result of more resonance. The Sox famously folded in the series' deciding game; in Peabody Square, a stark majority of locals sniped down a trial balloon and flexed a little civic muscle that augurs well for an area of the city begging for an infusion of resources and vitality.

In discussions with community advisors and design firm Cambridge 7, MBTA officials had considered redrawing plans to seal the egress onto Radford Lane, the small side street jutting from Carruth St. to the entrance at the back of the station. T personnel had floated the idea, which was supported by some abutters, to the larger community &endash; and were greeted with swift and vocal opposition.

Emotional e-mails flew between civic activists. State Representative Martin Walsh said he received more phone calls about Radford Lane than any issue since he had taken office &endash; including his vote on the death penalty. A meeting was scheduled. All Saints was packed.

"It wasn't until the Radford Lane meeting that you got the gist of the neighborhood pulling together," said Barbara Boylan, the MBTA designer who offered as an alternative four different ways to preserve the entrance.

Symptomatic of what ails Peabody Square and what could belong to it in the future, the Radford Lane uproar hinted at a community in crossroads.

Point of reference

Grasping for a point of comparison, Peabody Square's interested parties commonly arrive at the same example: Somerville's Davis Square. Davis Square is "a destination," they say, whereas Peabody Square is a place to pass through. This summer, members of the Ashmont Station community advisory committee road-tripped north to Somerville, examining the rich offerings of Davis Square &endash; among them a barbecue dinner at the venerable RedBones.

Davis Square boasts what Peabody Square hopes for: a major transit station that draws foot traffic to local businesses, pumping capital into the area. According to Jack Connolly, a Somerville alderman and businessman whose office and home are "in the heart of Davis Square," the area's success stems largely from the Davis Square T Station, which opened in 1984.

"Essentially, that has been the magnet that has drawn people here," Connolly said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "Before that, this place was &endash; the retail was all boarded up, it was just all barrooms and barrooms, a few Chinese food places." Connolly said a 99 percent white population" preceded the square's current ethnic diversity. "Things were just old and gray and tired."

With the arrival of the station, Davis Square bloomed, pulling in retail investments to replaced boarded-up shops and faceless saloons. Connolly said the city has been careful to regulate the business boom, curtailing business expansion into the residential communities that house 50,000 people within walking distance of the Red Line.

"The success is keeping the central business district right in the middle of the square," Connolly said. "We've been very careful in not allowing business to encroach up into the neighborhood streets."

Along with rising business stock came rising property values, a trend that Connolly trumpeted, but has met with mixed reviews in Boston neighborhoods. Connolly admitted that young families looking to buy homes near Davis Square have a hard time, and said the area's density makes the construction of affordable housing difficult.

Getting Square

On December 3, Peabody Square's neighbors and merchants will huddle at the Foley Building on River Street for a "what's next?" planning session. The 30,000 square foot development parcel adjacent to Ashmont Station remains the area's biggest question mark. Trinity Financial, the firm handling the site, has said it will wait until the T's plans for the station are finalized &endash; likely sometime early next year &endash; before it proceeds with design and development. Ideas bandied about often include a combination of housing and, along the sidewalk, a retail package.

With the storefront restoration along Dorchester Ave. headed by Main Streets Director Dan Larner, locals hope the station and the parcel can rejuvenate the Square &endash; though defining just how proves challenging.

"To say more urban would be to deny its existence at this point, but something a little more friendly," said Len Osborne, a 47-year-old architect who has lived with his wife on Van Winkle Street since 1998. Osborne called for "a renaissance" of Peabody Square. Others see a natural progression from a blighted area toward a commercially affluent one.

With Peabody Square's problems largely identified, articulating just how to bring about that renaissance becomes the key challenge for local activists and government officials. The Square overlaps several different political districts and several different civic groups. Often, the effect has found Peabody Square in the gutter; still, many see its existence on the margins as an opportunity. Calling on government agencies and officials might be the next stage.

"If Mayor Menino's serious about Main Streets, this is it, this is what it's about," said one area activist.

Chris Stanley and Bill Richard, two local men eager to play a role in reshaping the Square, say business reinvestment will be essential.

"Not for nothing, but the Big Dig winds down, and these unions are going to be needing jobs," Stanley said. "There's going to be a lot of pressure on the politicians to keep construction going."

Della Costello, who owns a three-decker on Ashmont St., where she has lived for 30 years, said she only goes to the Square when she is in transit. Right down the street from her house, it doesn't offer her much of a destination. She said she would like the traffic island in the intersection to bear flowers and trees, instead of pavement. A sit-down restaurant across the street wouldn't be bad, either.

Others push for a coffeeshop or a bookstore in the area. During the recent City Council election, residents of the elderly housing Englewood Apartments held candidates' ears with requests for a crosswalk closer to their building. But both a grand vision and the bare minimums have proved elusive in Peabody Square.

"The space is here, it just needs to be worked on," Stanley said. "These are just basic standards that make city life worth living."

Villages: