What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.
An 'urban village' for the Fenway
By Thomas J. Ahern and Carl Koechlin, 6/29/2002
OT SINCE the mid-19th century -- when Back Bay marshes were transformed into one of America's great urban neighborhoods -- has Boston been poised for as dramatic a makeover as it is today. The most familiar of the new frontiers are the waterfront in South Boston and the Central Artery. Plans call for a mix of residential and commercial activity to create a lively neighborhood along the waterfront.
Less than half a mile away, land that has moldered in the shadow of the Central Artery for 50 years will come alive with new uses and open space when the Artery comes down.
Another Cinderella story -- less well known but no less significant -- is taking shape along Boylston Street near Fenway Park. Bounded by the residential West Fens, the Longwood Medical Area, Kenmore Square and the ballpark, this stretch of Boylston looks more like a suburban ''strip'' than a boulevard through the heart of Boston.
In recent years, however, trends have converged that could transform this corridor of gas stations, parking lots, and fast food huts into a vital urban main street.
Ten years ago, neighborhood residents, led by the Fenway CDC, launched a grass-roots planning process that produced a blueprint for an ''urban village'' along Boylston. The Urban Village Plan was a ''smart growth'' plan before that term was commonly used. It called for development of six- to nine-story buildings with stores at street level and mixed-income housing above.
The goal was to create a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood center serving the West Fens, and travelers headed for the ballpark, the Lansdowne Street entertainment district, and the medical area. Fenway Park, on its existing footprint, was part of that vision.
In 1999, neighborhood groups and residents revived and updated the plan in response to the Red Sox proposal for a new ballpark. Most residents and the Fenway CDC believed that a new stadium was at odds with the vision of the Urban Village and would overwhelm the neighborhood. The demise of the stadium plan and the desire of the team's new owners to renovate Fenway Park offer new hope that the Urban Village can be realized. In addition, new zoning recommendations for the area, developed by a mayoral task force and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, largely support the uses, scale, and amenities set out in the Urban Village Plan. The zoning recommendations would also require that housing developers make at least 10 percent of their apartments affordable. Developers who exceed the affordability target would win height and density bonuses for their projects.
Spurred by the new zoning recommendations and citywide demand for housing, property owners and developers are bringing forward proposals that look very much like the Urban Village vision.
In the coming months, construction will begin on a mixed-use project with ground-floor retail and 550 apartments near the intersection of Boylston Street and Brookline Avenue. On a lot across Boylston Street, where a Burger King now sits, a developer is drawing up plans for mixed-income housing with ground-floor retail.
Two blocks east on Ipswich Street, the Boston Arts Academy, a pilot high school, has begun working with the community on plans for a facility that would house a performance space, a gym and a community center.
Rounding out the vision, parents and neighborhood business leaders are advocating for an elementary and middle school, which the Fenway currently lacks.
The convergence of interests among residents, the city, business owners, developers, and the Red Sox sets the stage for repairing a gaping hole in Boston's urban fabric with a thriving neighborhood center. City and state investment in increased public transit capacity and streetscape improvements will accelerate this revitalization. The commitment of public funds for affordable housing will be needed to assure that the emerging Urban Village is economically, racially and ethnically diverse.
Eighteen months ago, the state approved $100 million in funds to support new infrastructure related to a new stadium. Certainly, a similar investment is warranted to support the transformation of this vital portion of the city that includes a renovated Fenway Park. These investments will pay dividends in terms of future tax revenues and a vastly improved cityscape.
Reconnecting the city across the path of the Central Artery and the birth pains of a neighborhood on the waterfront have transfixed developers and politicians for much of the last decade. Along Boylston Street in the Fenway, the less glamorous work of turning a auto-centric strip into a city street will one day rank as an equally significant chapter in Boston's planning and development history.
Thomas J. Ahern is president and Carl Koechlin is executive director of the Fenway Community Development Corp.