A mixed reaction to BRA plans for Mount Vernon St.

Mt. Vernon Street meeting on Nov. 5.: Residents and stakeholders got hands on in reviewing BRA plans for a re-design of Columbia Point's main drag. Photo by Eliza Dewey Mt. Vernon Street meeting on Nov. 5.: Residents and stakeholders got hands on in reviewing BRA plans for a re-design of Columbia Point's main drag. Photo by Eliza Dewey A city initiative to revamp Mount Vernon Street at Columbia Point is moving ahead, although feelings about the proposal are mixed based on the input of stakeholders at a public meeting last Wednesday.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the city’s planning agency, held the session to discuss the final design of the project’s first phase. Referred to by developers as the “25% Plan,” the document describes the basic layout of a street, including the number and width of lanes, the width of the sidewalk, and the location of bus stops, crosswalks, street lighting and other outdoor amenities. The so-called “100% Plan” will include more detailed drawings that would eventually be available for construction bids.

The project also involves Boston’s Transportation and Public Works departments as well as McMahon Associates; Crosby, Schlessinger & Smallridge LLC; and Omloop Design as outside consultants.

The public’s involvement in the development of the first phase began in March, when the project team hosted its first feedback meeting. Another was held in May, and the third took place last week at the Corcoran Mullins Jennison Community Building on Mount Vernon Street.

A final session will be held in December or January, after which planners at the BRA hopes to finalize the 25% Plan. Looking ahead, the timeline for the 100% Plan has not been finalized. Whatever it is, it will take several more years for construction on the street to be completed.

The plan described last week includes the addition of new crosswalks, more street lighting, significant landscaping, and signage to inform pedestrians of their whereabouts. It will also make significant changes to the street’s layout that include such things as eliminating the back right-turn lane that takes drivers from Mount Vernon Street up to Day Boulevard; extending the curb at the tricky pedestrian crossing from the JFK/UMASS station to Morrissey Boulevard; and reducing Mount Vernon Street from four to two lanes of vehicular traffic starting near the Geiger Gibson Community Health Center and continuing down to the end of the street in order to allow for bicycle tracks.

Planners say these changes are meant to make the street safer and more accessible for pedestrians and to balance all modes of transportation. Today, “the car is king” on Mount Vernon Street, said BRA Senior Planner Tad Read, who pointed to the need to enliven “dead” spaces by “animating the space with activities” such as retail or social activity encouraged by possible additions like outdoor furniture or public art. He also spoke of giving the area more of a defined “identity,” perhaps through the addition of public art to the Morrissey Boulevard overpass that would serve as a kind of “gateway” to the neighborhood.

“We’re looking at the entire Columbia Point experience,” he said.
The plan received some positive feedback from attendees. “I’m glad of what you’re doing there,” said one in reference to plans to improve the convoluted intersection that pedestrians must cross when exiting the T station to head to Mount Vernon street. A young man who had attended all three public meetings said that he liked the idea of adding retail such as food trucks or coffee shops that would improve safety by making the area less empty and serve both students and those returning home hungry from work. Others praised the idea of making the area more of a “destination.”

Some, like former Harbor Point resident Jon Ramos, who now lives in South Boston, praised the idea of the bike tracks. He is a co-founder of Southie Bikes, a grassroots bicycle advocacy group. “As a youngster I was able to bike to my middle school,” he said later in an email. “I hope that the youth along Mount Vernon Street will have that opportunity as well.”

There was also sharp criticism about some aspects of the plan, the strongest centered on the plan to reduce the street from four to two lanes to make room for bicycle tracks. “We don’t have a volume of bikers here – why would you accommodate them so much?” one woman asked.
Angel, a 15-year-old Harbor Point resident, said he feared that the change in the street layout would cause congestion and “a lot of frustrated drivers [who] could hurt a student,” referring to the McCormack Middle School and Dever Elementary School that sit along the street.

Orlando Perilla, the head of the Harbor Point Task Force, which represents the concerns of residents, said later in a phone call that the issue surrounding the bike lanes represented “a lack of respect” for residents’ opinions in the planning process. “You are pushing down our throats this thing about a cycle track,” he said. “We don’t see that many cyclists coming through Mount Vernon Street.”

Officials at the meeting on Wednesday responded to such remarks by saying that the bike accommodations had to be built first in order to see bikers in the area.

Melina Schuler, speaking for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, emphasized the importance of engaging everyone in a collective decision-making process. “The mayor has full confidence in the work the BRA planners are doing to engage the community,” she said, “and they and have a transparent process around the Mount Vernon Street and Columbia Point redesigns. The mayor recognizes the need to balance many forms of transportation - from vehicle traffic to pedestrians to bikes. What’s best for this redesign effort will be determined through the community process.”

The redesign of Mount Vernon Street is just one of a several projects in the pipeline to remake the Columbia Point neighborhood.

According to Nicholas Martin of the BRA, other projects being planned for the area include an expansion of the Bayside DoubleTree Hotel, and the construction of two new apartment complexes: one at 25 Morrissey Boulevard and one at 150 Mount Vernon Street, to be named University Place Residences.