The lowdown on Sullivan Square
Charlestown rotary is battleground between Walsh and Wynn
IF YOU DON’T live in or around Charlestown, chances are you have no idea why so much of the Wynn Resorts casino debate centers around fixing traffic problems in Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue. Here’s a primer to help you understand what’s going on.
Where is Sullivan Square?
You can see it from I-93 as you drive north out of Boston. It’s near the Schraftt building off to the right in Charlestown. It consists of a rotary with a number of roads feeding into it. Inside the rotary is a scruffy looking patch of dirt with some forlorn trees and bushes. Rutherford Avenue, coming out of City Square in Charlestown, runs north, parallel to I-93, toward Sullivan Square before going underground and coming up on the other side of the square on Route 99 heading into Everett.
By all accounts, it’s a mess. With traffic feeding into the square from I-93, Somerville, Charlestown, and Everett, it has a tendency to clog up. Traffic sometimes backs up on to I-93. People have been talking about fixing it for years, but nothing has been done.
What’s the Wynn Resorts casino in Everett got to do with it?
The casino will add even more traffic to the square because many gamblers will probably approach from that direction. Wynn officials say many of their customers will come at nonpeak times, but there’s no question the casino will add to the traffic problem.
Isn’t Wynn Resorts supposed to mitigate its traffic impact?
Yes. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is requiring the Las Vegas developer to spend $10.9 million on projects addressing the immediate traffic impact of the casino and to set aside $25 million for long-term improvements. The company also has to pay a fee of $20,000 for every car coming to the casino via Sullivan Square that exceeds agreed-upon levels, with a maximum penalty of $2 million a year.
What does Boston Mayor Marty Walsh want done in Sullivan Square?
That’s a good question. Walsh’s position on Sullivan Square has been evolving for much of the last year and his final position may change even more depending on the outcome of a lawsuit he has filed against the Gaming Commission challenging its casino license award to Wynn. For months, the mayor has been saying the casino is incompatible with the city’s plan for the area, but lately he has started to suggest that plan itself may need some revisions. He and his staff for a while refused to meet with Wynn and state transportation officials on Sullivan Square, but now lines of communication have opened. Walsh even says he plans to meet with Steve Wynn himself.
The city plan calls for filling in the Rutherford Avenue underpass and eliminating the square itself. Rutherford Avenue would be converted from eight lanes to two lanes with grass replacing some of the lanes. The entire area would be laid out more like a residential area with a conventional traffic grid. Longtime Charlestown resident Ivey St. John says the multiple cross streets would allow drivers to head for Somerville or Charlestown without first having to go into the square. Walsh many weeks ago estimated the price tag of the city’s plan at $150 million, but then upped that amount to more than $175 million the night Wynn won a key state environmental certificate for its casino.
How has Walsh changed his tune?
The Sullivan Square plan was approved by the administration of Thomas Menino in 2013 and Walsh for weeks has embraced it as the city’s plan. But in an interview with the Boston Globe last week and in another interview this week with Politico he started referring to it as the “Menino plan” and noted it was originally conceived in the late 1990s before development began on a host of projects, including NorthPoint in Cambridge, Assembly Square in Somerville, and the casino in Everett. “There’s a lot of moving pieces here and there’s not a single solution,” he said. On Wednesday he indicated the city wouldn’t be going back to the drawing board on Sullivan Square, but would need to make modifications to the plan.
Is the Sullivan Square plan backed by the folks in Charlestown?
Many support it. St. John says there has been opposition, but residents at a meeting with city officials in December 2012 voted 2-1 in favor of what she calls the “surface option.” She says the whole area is undergoing so much development now that modifications will probably be necessary. “All options are on the table and we have to look at this in a creative manner,” she said.
What’s the big concern with the city’s plan?
The big fear is that traffic displaced by the creation of residential streets will migrate to other roads in Charlestown, including Main Street. “The town is completely split on the plan,” said US Rep. Michael Capuano, who notes that Rutherford Avenue was originally built to keep traffic off of residential streets and to provide a barrier with I-93. State Rep. Daniel Ryan, who represents Charlestown, said the proposed casino represents only a small portion of the development going on in the area. He said nearly all of that development, not just the casino, is incompatible with the city’s plan for the area.
Didn’t the Baker administration grant Wynn Resorts an environmental certificate for its hotel/casino project?
Yes. The certificate said Wynn had satisfactorily come up with a mitigation plan to address “the project’s impacts on existing transportation infrastructure.” But the certificate also called for the creation of a regional working group to find a long-term solution to the bottlenecks in Sullivan Square.
What do state transportation officials say?
Stephanie Pollack, the secretary of transportation, will probably lead the regional working group tasked with coming up with a solution to the traffic tie-ups in the Sullivan Square area. In an August 21 letter to Attorney General Maura Healey (a Charlestown resident), Pollack addressed the concern that the Wynn casino is incompatible with the city’s plan. Pollack said many people believe the city’s plan is a “done deal,” but she said the city has not produced a design for that plan yet. “While the city of Boston has a compelling vision for the future of Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square, it does not yet have a project with a design far enough along that MassDOT (or any other interested stakeholder) can evaluate in any detail,” she wrote.Has the governor weighed in?
He hasn’t spoken much about it, but he mentioned the situation this week at a joint interview with Walsh. Baker said the environmental certificate his administration awarded to Wynn lets the Las Vegas company go through a regulatory front door, but much work still remains to be done. He also indicated the proposed casino isn’t Sullivan Square’s only problem. “There are a lot of issues associated with Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square that go way beyond just that,” he said. “It’s a big complicated issue that’s going to require a lot of work.”