We must learn from Seaport District failures

The next tests come at Allston Landing, Suffolk Downs

THEY WERE GATHERED in the spectacular replica of the US Senate chamber at the Edward Kennedy Institute, a panel of local thought leaders discussing how Boston’s past might inform Boston’s future.  The discussion, organized under the auspices of Imagine Boston 2030, drew a large crowd because among its panel members were legends of the city’s planning and civic history: Mel King, the former legislator, mayoral candidate, and civic leader without whom there would be no Tent City housing in the South End; Tunney Lee, the former city and state planner without whom there would be no Copley Place development; and Fred Salvucci, the former secretary of transportation without whom there would be no relocated Orange Line and Southwest Corridor Park, no multi-modal Red Line station at Harvard Square, no Rose Kennedy Greenway, no Central Artery/Tunnel project, no modern Logan Airport, no . . . well you’ve got the point, without Fred many of the drivers of our current economy and many aspects of our current public realm wouldn’t exist. This was one impressive panel.

Salvucci offered the most entertaining insight of the evening, through his telling of what he calls the “St. Francis story.”  In the story, God calls on St. Francis in a dream to build a church, and while Francis doesn’t think he’s the best fit for the task, he nevertheless obediently goes about the business of erecting the brick and mortar edifice.  When it’s finished, and Francis is at rest, a violent storm passes through and destroys the newly built church.  Francis complains to God: “Why did you ask me to build a church only to tear it down?”  God’s response: “The Church that you have to build is in the minds and hearts of the people, not in bricks and mortar.”

What does that have to do with city planning?  It goes to the heart of the matter: planning is not about building a structure, or one-off projects; it’s about identifying and following civic values.  Peter O’Connor made the same, or a related, point recently in Commonwealth when he observed: “If we approached development in a thoughtful, consistent, fair, and transparent way, we’d be asking a different question:  Does this proposal meet the criteria for the redevelopment and growth of our city that we have adopted for this site?”

Antonio DiMambro, a local architect and planner who’s been offering up cutting edge ideas for decades, spoke about how shortsighted it is to think of planning for 2030.  His point: 2030 might as well be tomorrow.  We should be looking out 100 years, and then working backward to sort out how to invest and plan for that farther out future.  That makes sense, particularly when you realize that what is happening in real time is likely to have a more powerful impact on our future than the Imagine Boston initiative ever will.  What do I mean?  Let’s look at the three major development districts that are either active or about to be active in the very short term.

The South Boston Seaport District is the city’s current development boomtown, and perhaps its poster child for a planning and implementation failure.  The Seaport District fails every important metric: it is a resilience fail, with most of the construction designed with systems underground and vulnerable to the real threat of climate change and rising seas; it is a mobility fail, with a transit system at or over capacity at peak, a heavily congested roadway system, and a public realm that is largely substandard from a pedestrian and cycling perspective; it is a design fail, with canyons and buildings that for the most part reflect virtually nothing about the city’s history, geography, culture – nothing that says “you’re in Boston;” and it’s an equity fail, having quickly become a residential haven for the financially privileged.  There’s no question that the district has been successful attracting private sector investment. But as exciting as it may be to see the cranes in the sky and the palpable energy of the Seaport District, it simply fails to pass any of these metrics – or, I would argue, reflect our civic values. Therefore, it will likely be viewed decades from now as a failed opportunity to leverage the ample public sector assets that paved the way for the substantial private sector investment.

And now, in real time, we are met with two once-in a-generation planning challenges, and I wonder whether we will take any lessons from the Seaport District.  The development opportunities that present themselves at Allston Landing and at Suffolk Downs in East Boston will determine whether Boston is committed to sustainable mobility, inclusive residential housing, and vibrant 21st Century commercial uses that are primarily transit-oriented. These two large-scale development sites will define whether Boston can plan for a future befitting its history, its people, and their values.

The opportunity to develop Allston Landing and Suffolk Downs as vibrant, people-friendly, transit-oriented districts is being threatened at the outset by the kind of thinking that is likely to lead to the same failures that plague the Seaport District.  At Allston Landing, MassDOT’s approach has been to focus intensively on replacing the existing vehicular infrastructure, resisting smart pushback by advocates to replace the viaduct with a less expensive at-grade solution, and not requiring that any work be connected to a firm commitment to build West Station in the short term.

The reluctance of Harvard and Boston University to move beyond the self-serving and embrace a larger progressive, sustainable mobility plan for Allston Landing in the short term is a major barrier to success.  MassDOT hopes that both of those deep-pocket stakeholders will financially support West Station (following the New Balance model at Boston Landing), but to date there is no firm commitment from BU and no commitment from Harvard to fund construction in the first phases of development. West Station cannot and should not wait for BU and Harvard to decide when they are ready to act.  Imagine if the Silver Line in the Seaport District wasn’t built early, but waited until private sector interests were “ready.”  That would have been a mistake, just like it is a mistake for MassDOT not to insist on building West Station early in the development cycle.

Indeed, a new West Station connected to the Grand Junction Line – a rail line that has existed since the mid-19th Century —  will become an important way to improve mobility from metro west into the city, offering people who now drive on the Turnpike a viable alternative to get to the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, and ultimately to North Station.  The Grand Junction Line was originally designed to move goods from the working harbor in East Boston, and its right-of-way travels through Cambridge to reach Allston Land, and from there destinations to the west. A 2012 report by the Central Transportation Planning Staff noted that the Grand Junction right-of-way “provides the closest and most direct rail connection between Boston’s North and South stations, via Somerville, Cambridge, and Beacon Park Yard in Allston.”  That report laid out the benefits of this public transportation initiative:

  • A number of passengers (both in existing and future conditions) on the Framingham/Worcester Line would benefit by routing train service to North Station via Cambridge.
  • The new route would improve train capacity and provide for greater flexibility of train operations at South Station.
  • The route would provide an opportunity to serve a major employment center (Kendall Square in Cambridge) with more transit options.
  • The Grand Junction Line would allow for passengers to make “reverse” trips – trips in the off-peak direction (against the normal peak-period direction) – from North Station markets to the markets in Cambridge that are currently underserved by rapid transit.

Despite this, there are no firm commitments to an early construction of West Station and a Grand Junction connection, and therefore there is an imminent likelihood that Allston Landing will also become a mobility failure. West Station should be designed and built in the early stages of this development, and it should (among other things) become a major bus, rail, and transit oriented development hub, connecting travelers to Cambridge, and including a robust bus transit system that could be a model for the city and region. The very idea that we would undertake massive highway infrastructure work at Allston Landing (including the removal of the old toll plaza), and fail to use the opportunity to build West Station now (rather than wait for a later phase that may never happen, or happen too late) turns away from the opportunity to build a sustainable mobility future for metro Boston residents.  We should be thinking about Allston Landing as a critical component of a new regional rail system, not as a contemporary version of mid-20th Century auto-centric thinking.

At Suffolk Downs, the lead developer is reported saying that he envisions another Assembly Square-type development there. Such an uncreative, copycat concept for the site displays neither vision nor an understanding of what the community has been working toward for many years.  What’s worse, the idea that Assembly Square is being touted as a model for Suffolk Downs misses the point of making Suffolk Downs a best-in-class transit oriented development.  Assembly Square is certainly not a model for Suffolk Downs.  Assembly Square is a haven for cookie-cutter, generic “anywhere in America” big-box stores and office centers with an abundance of parking that say “drive in, shop, work, and drive away” – not a particularly sustainable or appealing message (unless you own stock in Home Depot). That “drive in and drive away” message was exactly the one sent by the old elevated Central Artery, and we know what a failure that turned out to be.

If you arrive at Assembly Square by Orange Line, it is not clear where you are – an office park, a residential community, a parking lot?  Like the Seaport District, there is no unique identity of place, little that is inviting or legible.  Lacking these core elements of successful, safe, livable districts, they function largely as isolated engines of economic activity, successful by the profit-making metrics of the private sector but not pleasant, integrated components of the larger communities they are (or ought to be) a part of.  The Suffolk Downs site, and the people of East Boston and Revere, deserve better than that.

Suffolk Downs is a largely undeveloped site the size of the North End.  Unlike Assembly Square, which is located in close proximity to an Interstate highway, Suffolk Downs lends itself more to becoming a true transit-oriented residential neighborhood. Bracketed by two MBTA stations, it could be a groundbreaking model for local development, establishing a residential community that looks, feels and behaves like one – with appropriately scaled buildings that shun excessive parking and welcome small businesses.

Meet the Author

I return to the larger point: we have planned, or are planning, what may be the last great swaths of undeveloped land in Greater Boston in ways that are not responding to our values.  A proliferation of cranes in the sky does not symbolize success, except for the private sector entities that will profit by whatever gets built. Real success, lasting and durable success, comes only when a new district is planned and developed in a manner that truly responds to the values of the people who make this region their home, people who care deeply about sustainable mobility and social equity and something other than cookie cutter design.  The Seaport District is largely a settled affair, but the opportunities that present themselves at Allston Landing and Suffolk Downs can still become models that strengthen our future.  The time to insist on that happening, loudly and clearly, is now.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group and a member of the board of TransitMatters.