Planning by pieces isn’t working in Charlestown

We need a comprehensive master plan that includes public input

IN THE FIELD of urban planning, a master plan is a document and policy guide designed to help communities create a vision of what they want to look like in the future.  A master plan should be comprehensive and include existing development, planning initiatives, social and economic considerations regarding all facets of land use.

In the case of Charlestown, this is especially critical considering the small size of Charlestown and its already dense population.  The development of even one large scale project will have an outsized impact on our one-square-mile community and yet, here in Charlestown, there are currently a myriad of proposed and approved new projects which will add the equivalent of 24 Millennium Towers.

A master plan should be a comprehensive vision for the future, with long-range goals and objectives to determine strategies to address the needs of a growing community and should include, at the very least, information on transportation requirements, traffic, public safety, housing (both affordable and market-rate), available school seats, recreation, open space, community facilities, health and well-being, environmental impacts, tree canopies, and underlying infrastructure.

Our community has consistently pushed for a comprehensive master plan for all of Charlestown. In 2019, we collected 2,700 signatures officially requesting that a comprehensive master plan be put in place for all of Charlestown and presented the signatures to then-Mayor Marty Walsh.  The mayor assured us that a Charlestown master plan would be acceptable going forward.  It was less than 24 hours later that the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Agency (BPDA) asserted there would be no Charlestown master plan but that they would undertake another Rutherford corridor traffic study adding to the many other traffic studies which typically underestimate traffic impacts by wide margins and paradoxically contribute to Boston’s annual award for “The Worst Traffic in the Nation.”

Instead of a true comprehensive master plan, the BPDA’s approach to planning in Charlestown is called “PLAN: Charlestown.” It is actually “planning by pieces” in that many parts of Charlestown are not even included in PLAN: Charlestown. Not included are the entire Navy Yard; the Bunker Hill Housing Development, with plans to expand the existing 1,100 units to 2,699 units while reducing open space by one third; the Hood Plant Development expansion; and a further 106-plus acres of new development.

Without the benefit of a comprehensive master plan, an estimated additional 13,000 residents and thousands of new workers could be added to the current population base of roughly 20,000 over the next 10 years. Since there is no comprehensive master plan for all of Charlestown, the impact of all this proposed new development is considered in a vacuum, excluding the impacts on our entire neighborhood.  PLAN: Charlestown skips over the necessary requirements.  It is a BPDA-driven exercise where there is limited community input on big picture items allowing the BPDA to check the box that says the community was involved.

There are now 12 huge proposals totaling 27 million square feet of new construction with multiple massive buildings currently in design or planned for the near future.  The largest of these projects are the 1.7 million-square-foot Hood Park redevelopment, the 3.3 million-square-foot Bunker Hill Housing project on 27 acres, and the 1.836 million square feet at 425 Medford Street.  In the wings are two large parking lot parcels at Bunker Hill Community College.

Each will have significant impacts on our community, but they are  being viewed individually with no regard for the total impact.  The fact that we are basically a peninsula and surrounded by water on three sides with only four egresses is not addressed nor is it part of PLAN: Charlestown. Additionally, Charlestown has been designated as a critical flood zone.   The absence of a true, working comprehensive master plan is a recipe for disaster.

The current reality is that we have a North Washington Street Bridge with stalled construction due to faulty welding with no known date of completion and a congested and dangerous temporary bridge as the main thoroughfare from Charlestown to Boston.  Plans are in the works for a 700-foot tower at the end of the bridge on Causeway Street, a huge project adjacent to Charlestown, the impact of which is not factored into PLAN: Charlestown at all.

The Gilmore Bridge leading to Kendall Square, Cambridge, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and beyond is a major cut-through for neighboring Somerville, Everett, and Cambridge and commuters from the I-93 Corridor.  Further, we have the ramp leading from Rutherford Avenue, which clogs traffic down the length of Chelsea Street and through the Charlestown community.

Sullivan Square is a dangerous and congested traffic grid leading both into and out of Charlestown accommodating traffic from Everett and the casino, the growing Assembly Square Mall, and adjacent new business and housing developments.

Most of the large projects mentioned above will feed into these traffic bottlenecks and will do nothing but increase already high levels of traffic congestion throughout Charlestown.

It is especially disheartening to see the inaugural chief of planning, Arthur Jemison, comment in the Boston Business Journal on June 8 that he “recognizes that some neighborhood and district plans are advanced enough at this point that they are close to being zoned. He cited planning for Charlestown, downtown, and Dorchester Avenue as examples.”  Now would have been a perfect time to step back and reevaluate all the development proposals with a planner’s new set of eyes, especially relating to the many initiatives that Mayor Michelle Wu has proposed for Boston centered around a Green New Deal for our city.

The pressures of economic development must be balanced against preserving and strengthening our historic and residential neighborhood.  Our community is being disrespected by a process which is not a process. We are not being listened to or heard.

Our community needs a comprehensive master plan establishing a framework for future development in Charlestown and ensuring our voice is recognized before development occurs.  Our community cannot allow commercial interests alone to shape our neighborhood’s future.  Massive development cannot continue without a clear framework and vision for all of Charlestown.

In 2019, then-City Councilor Michelle Wu, in her report, “Fixing Boston’s Broken Development Process,” stated that Boston finds itself at a crossroads.  Facing an affordable housing crisis, and a climate that threatens our very existence, the people of Boston deserve a city planning department that empowers communities and addresses these challenges in a long-term vision for a more equitable future.”

We totally agree with the mayor.  Charlestown residents, please make your voices heard.  Reject PLAN: Charlestown and email Mayor Michelle Wu at mayor@boston.gov to advocate for a comprehensive master plan for Charlestown.

Ann Kelleher and Diane Valle are members of the Pier 5 Association in Charlestown.