As an older shopping district looking to improve, Hyde Park's Cleary Square has a lot going for it: an active business community, growing arts and restaurant scenes, and very few empty storefronts.
But Boston city engineer Para Jayasinghe, who is as bullish as anyone about Cleary Square, views the traffic mess at the Hyde Park Avenue and River Street intersection this way: "Nothing else matters if we don't fix this."
Jayasinghe and his team of engineers at City Hall have been hard at work in recent months devising a scheme to ease the square's traffic woes - and beautify the area a bit in the process.
Their tentative plans call for a mix of small and large changes, ranging from retiming traffic lights to constructing a traffic circle with decorative art work in the middle of it on Hyde Park Avenue just south of the square.
Jayasinghe also wants to make Harvard Street two-way at River Street, which would open new access to Hyde Park's now hard-to-reach municipal parking lot. A proposed design for streets and sidewalks would create a northbound bus shelter on Hyde Park Avenue just south of the square.
Other proposed changes include new crosswalks, burying overhead utility wires, installing environmentally friendly compacting trash cans, and resurfacing River Street.
There is no timetable or price tag yet for the project, but city officials have been moving forward, holding a series of meetings in recent weeks with area businesses, civic groups, and residents. The city probably will have to pay the full cost of the work, since the construction is not eligible for state or federal aid and no big private donors have stepped forward, Jayasinghe said.
"We need to balance a lot of moving parts. If we want to move forward, we have to build something we can afford," Jayasinghe said.
While Hyde Park's business district is far from a depressed area, it has yet to achieve the cachet or prosperity of nearby shopping areas in Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, and West Roxbury.
"We would like to mirror the success of Roslindale Square and Centre Street in West Roxbury," said District 5 City Councilor Rob Consalvo, a Hyde Park resident.
Cleary Square's biggest problem is traffic, which becomes gridlocked at rush hour and when schools let out. The area also can be difficult and dangerous for pedestrians.
"The backup on Hyde Park Avenue is absolutely ridiculous," said Ron Covitz, owner of Ron's Ice Cream and 20th Century Bowling just north of the square. "For a person to stop at my store, it has to be easier for them to get there."
In addition to drawing local traffic, Cleary Square is used by crosstown traffic going to and from Dedham and Milton, as well as vehicles traveling in and out of Boston. Covitz is hopeful the city project will help.
"I'm certainly for any change they feel will help traffic flow in and out of Cleary Square," he said.
The proposed rotary would ease what are now difficult turns onto Hyde Park Avenue from Dana Avenue, Pine Street, and Oak Street, and it also would provide a safe turnaround for buses, which now do U-turns just south of the square to reverse direction.
Jayasinghe wants to involve the arts community in the project by inviting artists to design elements of it, including a statue or some other artwork for the middle of the traffic circle.
Janice Kenney, coordinator for the Hyde Park Arts Initiative, said of the project, "It's not just going to be beautiful, it's going to be functional."
Another small but important change would be reconstruction of a small slice of River Street, on the northwest corner of Cleary Square. The area is a no-parking zone now, but people park there anyway, which makes it impossible for buses to turn onto River Street without backing up.
Jayasinghe said that building rumble strips in the no-parking zone will be more of a deterrent to illegal parkers.
Robert Preer can be reached at email@example.com.