(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Engineering students from Northeastern University waded into the ongoing controversy over heavy pedestrian traffic on the North End’s Hanover Street recently, proposing solutions that included replacing street parking with temporary sidewalk extensions each summer.
The students presented their project in April at a packed — and sometimes heated — public meeting co-hosted by the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council and the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association. Video of that meeting on the neighborhood blog NorthEndWaterfront.com shows that a few residents vigorously opposed the proposed changes.
But in a recent interview at his office on Northeastern’s campus, Professor Daniel Dulaski stressed that his students’ proposal was like a buffet, and residents could choose the elements that addressed their needs and the neighborhood’s issues.
The proposal served as the students’ capstone project, a culmination of their education in the civil and environmental engineering program. Since 2009, Dulaski has overseen students who elect to do projects in the program’s transportation focus.
“What I do is I go out to municipalities and try to find a real-world project,” Dulaski said. “Real as in that times are tight; municipalities don’t have money. What can we do for you that you’ve been thinking about — or haven’t been thinking about?”
The students work in teams that act like consulting firms for municipal authorities, with each member assigned a specific task, such as performing traffic analysis, drawing up plans, or writing a lengthy report. Each produces a plan set and a report that could cost as much as $75,000 - $100,000 from a professional consulting firm, Dulaski said.
This year, Dulaski’s other four teams worked on projects that would improve downtown traffic circulation for Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard; create a complete-streets plan for Blackstone, Mass., to make the town more inviting to cyclists on a new bike path from Worcester to Providence; combine four signalized intersections in East Milton Square and make the square’s little-used park more accessible; and provide space for pedestrians and bicyclists on Quincy Shore Drive to make the road safer.
In every project, Dulaski said, safety is the key component.
“My charge to them at the beginning of the semester is to think about your 6- or 7-year-old son, daughter, cousin, niece, or nephew riding a bike in all of these areas,” Dulaski said. “Could they do it today? Would you let your 6- or 7-year-old son, daughter, cousin, niece, or nephew ride their bike to go get a gallon of milk? On most of these streets — absolutely not.”
The students working on the North End project called their team Essential Engineering and included Rodrigo Alonso, Steve Curtin, Matthew Ford, Stephen Leeber, Oliver Nowalski, and Matthew Walsh.
They focused their work on the obstructed flow of pedestrians down Hanover Street due to the narrow sidewalks, the street furniture and tree pits that interrupt those sidewalks, and the heavy demand caused by the influx of tourists several months a year.
They examined controversial previous proposals for making Hanover a pedestrian mall or a one-way street but ultimately settled on a proposal to add seasonal, portable sidewalk extensions along the one-fifth of a mile area between the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and North Bennet Street.
The portable sidewalks would replace street parking on both sides of Hanover, eliminating dozens of parking spaces for several months of the year. Dulaski said the extra space gained — about 7 feet on each side of the street — could create room for kiosks and outdoor dining in addition to more pedestrian space.
If the seasonal sidewalks were successful through an initial trial period, they could be extended up the full length of Hanover Street. And because the sidewalk panels are modular and easy to install, Dulaski said, they could be tried in just a few spots at first to gauge public response.
Similar systems have been used in New York City and San Francisco.
The plan would also introduce commercial loading and unloading zones in an attempt to eliminate current issues with double-parked delivery vehicles. It would mark crosswalks more clearly to improve pedestrian safety. It also suggested replacing some streetlight poles with building-mounted lights to clear out sidewalk space
Dulaski said that while residents had reservations about some elements of the plan, they didn’t object to removing visitor parking from Hanover Street, which he described as “the amusement-park approach to parking.”
“Here’s the parking lot. Park here, and walk to your destination,” he said. “There are plenty of parking lots around the North End.” The proposal shows four parking garages within an estimated 3-minute walk of where Hanover Street meets the Greenway and about five more within 10 minutes.
Dulaski acknowledged there was some community pushback to the students’ suggestions but said the project’s value was in adding to the ongoing debate over Hanover Street.
“I think what was great about this project was that it put facts to some of the ideas that had been kicking around for a while, it brought at least one idea into the fold that hadn’t been considered, and then finally — and somebody got up at the meeting and said this — it started a dialogue,” Dulaski said.
“So at the very least the citizens now — whether you’re for it or against it — there’s something to talk about.”