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Rebuilding The Mass. Pike Will Have Decades Of Impact On Allston Real Estate

Boston

Many of Boston’s old bridges are coming down, but the state’s hesitation to remove one stretch of elevated highway has urban planners worried it could prevent the next development hot spot.

Rebuilding The Mass. Pike Will Have Decades Of Impact On Allston Real Estate
Straightening the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston will unlock a large stretch of land for development, but urban planners say replacing the elevated highway with an at-grade design will lead to better city building.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is expected to make a billion-dollar decision soon regarding the build-out of the Massachusetts Turnpike realignment through Boston’s Allston neighborhood. Similar to what the Big Dig did for the Seaport, the project could transform a neighborhood by bringing the aging highway viaduct down and replacing it with a ground-level redesign that could accommodate future growth, improve public space and connect Allston with the Charles River. 

But, with Big Dig cost overrun hangover still rampant in Boston, urban planners say the state runs the risk of impeding future growth if it plays it too safe with its final verdict.  

“Right now, it’s framed as a transportation project with a public access component. It’s still not framed as a project that asks how we’ll build a better city,” Handel Architects associate principal Seth Riseman said. “At the end of the day, are we doing something here that is just repeating past mistakes after we spent so much time tearing down the Central Artery?” 

The state has spent several years working with neighborhood groups on a plan for straightening the Mass. Pike, and MassDOT says it is 15% done with designing the project that is expected to begin in 2020. The state entity spends roughly $800K each year maintaining the viaduct that has been around since the 1960s, and replacing the aging infrastructure is the top priority of the realignment.

Shifting the highway closer to Boston University would have major real estate ramifications, unlocking mostly Harvard-owned land that many expect to be Greater Boston’s next Kendall Square.

“There’s a lot of opportunity relative to this highway project that goes beyond connecting points A and B,” said A Better City President and CEO Richard Dimino, who was previously Boston’s transportation commissioner. “Obviously, there’s a relationship to the build-out and what would be 200 acres of land in the Beacon Yards area. Both institutions and neighborhood groups have a keen interest in shaping the future of that area.”

Rebuilding The Mass. Pike Will Have Decades Of Impact On Allston Real Estate
Rendering of one of the at-grade design alternatives being considered for the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston

Proposals range from simply replacing the old viaduct with a new one to a combination of flipping roads and rails where the train tracks are elevated over a ground-level Mass. Pike. An option that runs the Pike as well as passenger and freight rail lines at street level is favored by neighborhood groups that say it would open the area up to further development and make the Charles River waterfront more accessible to Allston and Brighton.

Dimino, who was also chairman of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project Interagency Committee, isn’t calling the Mass. Pike realignment a carbon copy of the Big Dig, but he does see parallels in the two infrastructure projects and their ability to leave a lasting urban impact.

A Better City — whose board is made up of a who's who of Boston real estate giants — is advocating for an at-grade solution to the Mass. Pike realignment.

“My board has given me the time, resources and energy to be the at-grade solution maker,” Dimino said. “Obviously, it’s an interest of the business community through their support of our work to make this happen.”

The organization’s website lists Related Beal President Robert Beal, The Chiofaro Co. President and CEO Donald Chiofaro, The Davis Cos. CEO Jonathan Davis, The Drew Co. President and CEO John Drew and The Druker Co. President Ronald Druker, among others, as board members. 

Rebuilding The Mass. Pike Will Have Decades Of Impact On Allston Real Estate
Rendering of the replacement viaduct being considered for the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston

Urban planners have stressed the at-grade solution allows for direct access to the Charles River from Commonwealth Avenue and allows for decades of growth that could include decking over the adjusted roadway, similar to what developers continue to pursue in Back Bay. 

At a time when the state has a lengthy transportation to-do list, there is concern Massachusetts leaders are looking for the quickest and simplest way to rework the Pike.

The highway redesign has already come under fire by transit advocates after Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack indicated West Station, a planned intermodal transit hub for the city’s western neighborhoods, would not be built until 2040 due to the highway work and unknown ridership figures. While the outcry has pushed the state to consider an intermediate station to be built before then, the criticism is only one part of the hotly contested development. 

“The specific variations won’t make or break our development decisions,” City Real Estate Development Corp. Director of Acquisitions Clifford Kensington said. “However, I do feel that rebuilding the viaduct would lead to some reduced views and access to the river, which obviously isn’t ideal.”

City Real Estate is primarily focused on transit-oriented housing development, including in Allston. After seeing how the Seaport opened up following the Big Dig and how pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets have replaced the Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain, Kensington thinks the region needs to keep a forward-thinking mindset when it comes to how to move forward with the Mass. Pike. 

Dimino points to the ongoing community process and focus on the at-grade design alternatives as a step in the right direction in deciding on how to proceed. 

While there is still work to be done with environmental groups concerned with how close proposed roads would be to the Charles River, he said the next step is vetting each of the at-grade proposals to come up with the best solution. Some still include an element of stacking, including one that elevates a bike and pedestrian path that has drawn comparisons to the High Line in New York City. 

Rebuilding The Mass. Pike Will Have Decades Of Impact On Allston Real Estate
Rendering of a hybrid design that includes at-grade and stacking solutions being considered for the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston

MassDOT spokesman Patrick Marvin told Bisnow the state has still not selected a preferred design to the project. Recognizing the opportunity for “enhancements” to the surrounding area with the realignment, Pollock wrote in a MassDOT blog post last year the organization could not commit to those until a financing plan was committed. She added conversations with stakeholders in the area would play a part in the design. 

Harvard has already upped its financial contribution to $58M for West Station, $8M of which is earmarked for an “early action” station that could open by the mid-2020s. The university told Bisnow it has not expressed a design preference for the Pike realignment. 

Boston University is supportive of a design that would increase bike and pedestrian access to the Charles River, university spokesperson Rachel Lapal told Bisnow.

“The current design of I-90 has cut the community and campus off from the river for many decades, and this is an opportunity to look at how we improve those important connections,” she added.

While those interviewed for this story all expressed gratitude that MassDOT appears to be taking future growth and public access into consideration, they also stressed leaders need to look at how the Big Dig, despite its flaws, changed downtown Boston and the waterfront when making a decision on the Mass. Pike. 

“We’ve done such a poor job at quantifying, qualifying and giving the Big Dig props for what it ultimately did to transform this city,” Riseman said. “This project has similar potential.”