A Mix of Progress and Uncertainty Follow Ashmont Station Project

With legislative, institutional, and community backing, the plans for a renovated Ashmont Station inch forward toward timetables and goals that are decreasingly vague.

Not that things are running as smoothly as all involved hope that the buses and trains and trolleys and cars and commuters someday will.

At a community meeting last Wednesday, roughly 30 area residents listened to a progress report from Chris Stanley, chair of the Ashmont community advisory committee (CAC). Residents raised, and Stanley and others answered, questions about supportive legislation, potential obstacles for the project, and the fate of an adjacent land parcel.

While construction plans for the other three Dorchester Red Line stations - Savin Hill, Fields Corner, and Shawmut - are all expected to be put out to bid next week, with work slated to begin this summer, Ashmont was "un-parceled" from the larger group earlier this year so as to expedite their renovation, while allowing time to figure and add the amenities for which Ashmont residents had been lobbying.

According to Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) General Manager Michael Mulhern, design plans for Ashmont will be set by March, with construction starting next spring.

"There's no question I've given the MBTA staff a tall order, but it's my job to push the project," said Mulhern during a telephone interview with the Reporter on Tuesday. "I want to start the project and I want to get it done."

"The good news is that we're going to get a new station," Stanley told the assembled in All Saints Church, "the bad news is that it's not going to happen without the other three stations."

To that end, Senator Jack Hart proposed Senate Bill 1867, which not only aims to appropriate $60 million for the Fairmount commuter line, but also allocates almost $20 million more to the $20 million already promised to Ashmont. At a State House Transportation Committee the day before, Stanley, co-chair Rosanne Foley, and others had testified in support of the amendment.

According to State House sources, and Stanley at last week's meeting, the amendment, a bond bill that secures capital for down-the-road use, has good prospects. Mulhern supports it, as do Mayor Tom Menino, the Dorchester Legislative delegation, and City Councillors Maureen Feeney and Charles Yancey. Key player Speaker Tom Finneran's district contains part of the Fairmount line, so the Mattapan Democrat's backing is a safe bet.

A ratified bond bill, though, doesn't a T station make, said Cedar Grove resident Ellie Spring. Cautioning against the various delays and pitfalls that stand between a bond bill's passing and the application of the promised funds, Spring recounted the frustrations she encountered during the Pope John Paul II Park planning and construction process. She credited Dorchester state Representative Martin Walsh for his role in lassoing the funds for that project and suggested that the Ashmont committee begin taking steps to minimize the delays she said are common with such projects.

Mulhern said he was confident the Ashmont bond bill wouldn't suffer the same lag time as the park's bill. "I understand and fully appreciate those concerns," Mulhern said. "However, we've developed a strategy for the work that needs to get done in Dorchester so that it works on a very fast track."

Another hurdle for the Ashmont planners to overcome was broached by a woman named Marilyn, who noted that the stations must adhere to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal bill that mandated handicapped access regulations for public spaces. She said Governor Mitt Romney had been "proactive" in requiring state and municipal employees to attend "smart growth training," which instructs workers in how to meet the requisite standards.

Once the Ashmont plans are solidified, its companion project can gain momentum as well. Bordering Ashmont Station property to the south along Dorchester Avenue is a development parcel that the T last year agreed to lease to Trinity Financial, a Boston-based company that specializes in urban projects. Trinity Vice President Vince Droser attended last week's meeting and fielded questions from Ashmont residents suspicious of the development company's intentions. Some of their misgivings may have been spurred by a flier posted anonymously two weeks ago that warned residents of hidden motives.

Droser dismissed those claims and said confusion about Trinity's plans probably arose from the haste with which the company had submitted its original proposal, which he said had to be drawn up in under 24 hours because the T had failed to notify Trinity about a deadline.

"We pulled some stuff off the shelf, and threw it into [a request for proposals]," Droser said.

The result was an off-the-cuff suggestion that had some members of the community nervous about the land parcel, which Droser estimated at 50,000 square feet. Droser took pains to convince those at the Ashmont meeting that how the space was used would be up to them.

John Olszowy was one meeting attendee concerned with the triangular plot of land.

"I'm curious about it," Olszowy said after the meeting. "Because there was so much discussion about the Ashmont Station and that seems to be half of the puzzle, and I'm curious about the other half."

The station plans have dominated the discussion, Droser said, because they need to be firmed up before Trinity proceeds with the development, whose specifications are vague and open for discussion.

"We're not going to pay them a dime if we don't know what kind of station we're going to get," Droser said. Trinity will pay the T $30 per square foot for the parcel and both Droser and Mulhern said all of that money will be funneled into the station's renovation.

Droser, himself a Dorchester resident, prodded the Ashmont neighbors to rally around the Hart amendment and play an active role in the final stages of the station design before turning their attention to the adjacent land. Droser said that if the T's station work begins when scheduled - Mulhern pegs it at next spring - then Trinity can begin construction during the late fall or winter of 2005.

"I would caution you: Be excited about the development parcel, but focus your energies on getting this legislation passed," Droser said.

"If you leave the T by themselves," said Droser while encouraging his audience to "stay on top of" the T design team during the design process, "they'll design a station for the T, they won't design a station for the community.

"The T would rather that this group didn't exist."

Mulhern disagreed, saying, "I'm interested in building a station that lends itself to a livable community."

As for the timetable, which Droser suggested was prone to "slip," Mulhern said he was confident the T would meet its current deadlines. "That's our whole strategy, putting these projects on an irreversible path."

Stanley and others encouraged community members to inspect other stations for ideas about specific features and amenities, and asked that advocates pressure the Legislature to ratify the bond bill.According to T spokeswoman Lydia Rivera, members of the T design team will meet with Ashmont residents and others in an open meeting at 6:30 p.m. on June 24 in All Saints Church.