Neighborhood sets its vision to a color map

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2008

For years, they've had only words. When describing the kind of neighborhood they hope to become, residents of Allston and Brighton have resorted to testimony, letters, phone calls, and articles.

Now, they have a picture.

At five recent meetings of a neighborhood group, residents have agreed in principle on a framework, depicted in a color map, that shows what they mean when they say they want street connections between long-separated neighbors, or what "more open space" and "less density" looks like.

According to retired urban planner Sy Mintz, who drew up the map for no fee, the neighbors can now approach Harvard University - which owns almost all the land in question - and craft a compromise that meets the needs of both the neighborhood and the school.

The community's plan is partly a response to the redevelopment proposed for Brighton Mills, a shopping center on a former industrial site on Western Avenue. Residents of the Charlesview Apartments, which Mintz designed in the 1970s, are to be moved to that site from their crumbling concrete structure at the corner of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street. Harvard swapped the land at Brighton Mills for the corner lot that is central to its new campus in Allston.

But neighbors objected to the density of the proposed site - more than 400 units on six acres are to replace 213 at North Harvard Street - and a lack of publicly accessible open space. Under the neighborhood framework, Harvard would have to add 13 acres to the Charlesview development.

Asked about the proposal last week, Harvard's community representative, Kevin McCluskey, declined to comment.

But the university has repeatedly asserted that it has no role in the process of building a new Charlesview beyond providing land and some funds as part of an agreement between the university and the Charlesview's nonprofit board.

Plans for the new Charlesview and the community proposal are now before the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has to give its approval before construction begins.

Without commenting directly on the framework, BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker said the agency "welcomes anything that increases the level of public awareness and constructive participation in development planning. We're very aware of the issues they are discussing; we've heard the community."

The community's framework connects east-west streets across the current shopping center, includes a 3-acre park, relocates the Shaw's supermarket, adds wide sidewalks to major streets such as Everett, and connects the neighborhood to the Charles River parks by depressing Soldiers Field Road, as Harvard is already proposing for part of the road between its two campuses.

"This is a position," Mintz said. "It allows for the community to go to Harvard and say, 'Let's cooperate in a way that's beneficial to Harvard and the neighborhood; let's build something wonderful for the Charlesview residents and for the others who move in.' It could be Harvard-affiliated housing. Why segregate? They could be part of a community with babysitters and others as neighbors."

Mintz said he came up with the drawings after reading all the letters, documents, and testimony on community plans for Allston and Harvard-related projects, including the relocated Charlesview. He also read the BRA's community planning documents from 2005 and used the ideas common to all these sources to draw up a map that represents a way of realizing all the neighborhood's goals.

"This is not things that have never been shown before," he said. "It's a consensus plan. It's practical."

Most of the parking would be on-street or underground. Most of the housing in the neighborhood would be two- or three-story duplexes, rather than the blocks of apartments proposed for parts of the Charlesview relocation. A few buildings along Western Avenue would be taller, but include ground-floor retail. Housing is at 35 units per acre, compared with 55 per acre in the Charlesview plan, and no structure would be taller than six stories.

At the most recent meeting of the neighborhood group on June 10, the framework received a generally positive response.

"It's a wonderful idea to depress Soldiers Field Road," said Mike Price, of Westford Street . "It will let the community walk directly to the park on the river."

But other particulars - which shops would occupy the retail spaces, how Charlesview tenants would be distributed and how they want to be relocated, whether there will be a stop on the commuter rail line or a pedestrian bridge over the Turnpike - are not fixed yet.

"These questions need to be worked out; I can't tell you we have the answers," Mintz told several questioners. "That's the next step after we meet with Harvard with a plan."

"You've done a marvelous job of sketching out what the neighborhood has talked about," said Brent Whelan, a neighborhood activist.

Neighborhood organizer Tim McHale said he and others were taking the framework to staff at the BRA and elected officials to get their reactions and support in the next few weeks.

The BRA is continuing to review the Charlesview project and read the community planning responses, Shumaker said. The agency is expected to make its response in the next couple of months.

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