Problems set back Kenmore makeover

Bus shelter project still in skeletal stage

MBTA officials had planned to start construction as early as 2002 and were quoted projecting a 2004 completion. MBTA officials had planned to start construction as early as 2002 and were quoted projecting a 2004 completion. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Tania deLuzuriaga
Globe Staff / November 24, 2007

A long-awaited makeover of Kenmore Square, once slated for completion in 2004, has been plagued by delays and problems. With a price tag that has swelled from $23 million to $32 million, its projected completion has been pushed back until at least late 2008.

The public got its first glimpse of plans for the dramatic cantilevered glass bus shelter that would serve as the centerpiece of the project in 2001. But Jersey barriers and chain-link fences still surround the site. Nine steel beams stick out of the dirt like the carcass of a mythic animal.

"Are they ever going to finish?" asked Donna McDonald, of Brighton, who takes the No. 57 bus through Kenmore Square on her way to the hairdresser every six weeks. "It seems like it's been forever."

Design problems, unexpected complications with utility lines, and difficulties working around the crowds of people who swarmed the Kenmore T Station during baseball's postseason, have meant a much longer timeline for the project, officials with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said.

"As with any project we encountered delays," said Lydia Rivera, MBTA spokeswoman. "It's not out of the ordinary with a project of that magnitude."

Across the street from the station at the Hotel Commonwealth, principal and acting general manager Terrence Guiney has resigned himself to wait it out quietly.

"Time is relative," he said. "We did wait 86 years to win a World Series; hopefully this won't take another 90 years to complete."

In 1998, the MBTA and the city first started talking about a facelift for Kenmore Square, the crossroads of some of the city's busiest streets and a gateway to Boston University and Fenway Park. The old 1960s-era brick bus shelter in the center of the square would be torn down and replaced with an airy depot set in a park-like space meant to promote pedestrian and handicap access.

The Kenmore T stop would undergo renovation, with new elevators and escalators and improved handicap access. When the square is finished, it is to feature new trees, wide brick sidewalks, and old-fashioned street lights like those found in the Back Bay and on Beacon Hill. Planners hope that the changes, along with the opening of new businesses along Commonwealth Avenue in the past several years, will transform an area that most people simply pass through.

"The feel of old-style Boston seemed to stop at Charlesgate," said Beth Walsh of the Kenmore Community and Economic Development Corporation. "We thought it would be nice to pull that all the way through and make Kenmore a destination again."

MBTA officials had originally planned to begin construction as early as 2002 and were quoted in news stories projecting a 2004 completion. But design changes and delays in getting the required permits and lining up funding pushed back the start date. The project was bid in late 2004 and got underway in early 2005. At that time, officials said they would finish the project by early this year, but new delays pushed the completion date back at least another year.

Problems had started almost immediately. When contractors began work, they ran into scores of undocumented utility lines that had to be moved or worked around, which delayed work, said Charlie O'Reilly, the MBTA's assistant general manager for design and construction.

MBTA officials also didn't take into account the complications that come with having a winning baseball team; the work zones were flooded with people well into October. "They had the good fortune to get into the playoffs," O'Reilly said. "When the Red Sox are home, we're inhibited with what we can do."

When the steel beams of the bus shelter were erected last spring, many breathed a sigh of relief. "I was thinking, 'Oh, they're almost done,' but no," said Carlen Lopez, who catches the No. 60 bus at Kenmore Square to her job at Bloomingdale's each day.

Engineers, however, discovered that the metal fasteners used to attach the glass panels of the bus shelter to the beams weren't strong enough and might twist in heavy winds. The design had to be modified, delaying progress several months.

"We want to put up a structure that we have complete confidence in with regard to public safety," O'Reilly said, noting that the delay didn't push back the project's overall completion date.

Merchants and residents agree that the renovations are necessary if Kenmore is to become a destination, but few thought it would take so long.

When Margarita Druker opened her jewelry shop in the Hotel Commonwealth 2 1/2 years ago, she was told that construction on the site would be completed by 2006. Construction has droned on since then and Druker can tick off a list of stores that have gone out of business in that time.

"I don't understand it," she said. "Fifty-story condo buildings get built and furnished in a year and we can't get one bus station done?"

MBTA officials say they plan to move the temporary bus shelters on Beacon Street across the street to the depot by January, although construction on the glass structure will continue until at least March.

For now, most have resigned themselves to view the artist renderings on the MBTA website that will one day be reality.

"It's bringing such positive changes, no one's going to be critical," said Pam Beale, who owns Cornwall's Pub on Beacon Street. "We can see a light at the end of the tunnel; we just don't know how far away it is."

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