About that I-90 throat section along the Charles

Show some respect, avoid encroachment on the river

I SPENT A GOOD portion of my professional life, nearly 30 years, working hard to rescue the Charles River.  When I started the job directing Charles River Watershed Association in 1990, the Charles was still very much an open sewer, certainly unfit for swimming and even mostly unfit for boating, though crews still plied its waters.  Stories of coxswains getting tossed in after victories and winning impetigo as their prize were not rare.

Thirty-one years later, using science, computer modeling, prioritization, lawsuits, and a lot of collected effort, the Charles is a different river.  Problems remain, but for everyday use, to walk along, run around, crew, sail, watch fireworks over, or simply get away for a moment and find some solace, the river has become central to city life.  It is inviting once more.

I had thought with the restoration of a natural resource that now occasionally hosts Atlantic sturgeon and harbor seals, and whose ode to its sad condition, Dirty Water, has become an anthem for the city and the Red Sox, the Charles would never again become an object of disdain.  I was evidently wrong.

The first major project proposed along the Charles since its recovery, the at-grade Interstate 90 Mass Pike overhaul and redesign, cannot be accommodated in the “throat” between Boston University and the river.  The design requires a “taking” of a couple of river acres and parkland so that all the rail lines and the 12 lanes of Massachusetts Turnpike and highway can fit at-grade.  This outcome, proclaimed by most as the best design, would appear to be the solution of choice as opposed to, say, asking Boston University to move.  I have to point out that it does not bode well for the river whenever the second major project comes along.

I am assured by all that the Charles will be treated gently, that she will love the new riverbank, the new pedestrian dock, and the new parkland offering solace next to the hellscape of 12 highway lanes and four rail lines.  The noise, the dirt, the heat, the flashing fuming cars, the river fill, the utter disdain for the river and the nature she supports, well, not to worry.  Nice trees and better plantings will improve things.  Now instead imagine shutting down one lane on the Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge and then using it for pedestrian crossings between Boston and Charlestown.  Feeling comfortable?

If I seem tardy to this debate, I would point out that four years ago when I was early I argued for a nature who does not vote, searching for better angels among us who do who also recognize we are at a crossroads in the world.  Filling in the river and excusing ourselves for our selfishness by planting better grass is exactly the worldview that has put us in the box of climate disasters, running out of water, and the deaths of species.

So, at this late hour, I offer a different take and a new design.  Through the throat area, I propose we take the westbound lanes of Storrow Drive and curve them down and underneath the at-grade eastbound lanes, curving them back up and out 1,200 feet later on the other side.

By in effect reducing the 12 lanes of road to 10 while keeping everything else at-grade, we would nearly eliminate river fill.  The change would not materially impact the cost of the roadways, it could be easily engineered, and it would offer the Charles at least the barest minimum of respect.  Perhaps we call it the River Solution.

Meet the Author

Robert Zimmerman

Principal/Lecturer, Zimmerman Environmental LLC/Harvard University Graduate School of Design
The Department of Transportation is not in the environmental review process yet with the project, which certainly means there is time.  If I recall correctly, a number of us back in 1990/91, with the help of an environmentally inclined secretary of environmental affairs, made the Scheme Z crossing of the Charles River go away, to be replaced a couple of years later with the Zakim Bridge.  I would hope that very contentious confrontation would not be necessary for a change this modest.  It is, I believe, the least we can do.

Robert Zimmerman is the principal at Zimmerman Environmental LLC, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the former executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association from 1990 to 2018.