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Shea Circle transportation plan is stirring controversy

Posted by Your Town  February 12, 2013 05:54 PM

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The Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) proposal to revamp Shea Circle near Franklin Park is generating controversy.

MassDOT’s plans call for changing Shea Circle from a rotary to a four-way intersection with a light. But because Shea Circle lies within the Morton Street Historic District, the Metropolitan Park System and the Emerald Necklace, the Massachusetts Historical Commission has asked MassDOT to reconsider its plans and look into alternatives that would retain the rotary.

The Historical Commission’s goal is to “minimize the negative impact . . . on the surrounding area and on Shea Circle,” said Brian McNiff, communications director of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, which oversees the Historical Commission.

But another historical organization, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, which aims to protect and maintain the chain of parks designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, believes that changing Shea Circle into a four-way intersection would help to restore the area to its original form.

MassDOT officials said the main aim of the redesign is to improve safety. In 2010 alone, 19 accidents occurred at Shea Circle -- the intersection of the Arborway, Morton Street and Forest Hills Street -- according to data from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

This is because Shea Circle is a rotary and therefore is a “free-for-all” for traffic, said Michael Verseckes, spokesman for the MassDOT. He said having such a heavy traffic area controlled by a light would make it safer for drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

“The bottom line for us is, we do want to simplify this area, we do want to make it safer, we do have it in the project budget to do so,” said Verseckes. “And notwithstanding the concerns surrounding the historic nature… we’re [protecting] the public’s safety.”

Julie Crockford, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, said the group favors the redesign, citing other projects that have disrupted the connected nature of the area. She mentioned concerns about the design of the nearby Casey Overpass, an elevated section of Route 203, adjacent to the Forest Hills MBTA station, that was built in the 1950s and connects with Shea Circle.

“When [the Casey Overpass] was built in the 50s, it completely demolished any feeling of connection between Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum, which had been connected basically by a boulevard,” said Crockford. “This project will recreate that arbor way feel… I think there’s so much to be gained from the project.”

As part of the Casey Arborway project, the overpass is slated to be replaced by an at-grade street network.

The Historical Commission, meanwhile, prefers to preserve the rotary. In a letter to MassDOT, the group encouraged consideration of alternative plans that would maintain the roundabout, including a smaller roundabout in the same footprint or an egg-shaped roundabout with a traffic light.

Verseckes said MassDOT is taking the commission’s concerns seriously.

“We’re not in this to be somebody’s adversary,” he said. “We want to deliver a better product.”

MassDOT’s tentative plan is to schedule a Design Advisory Group meeting in March, hold a public meeting to review the design plans in May, and then, once the design is complete, to advertise the project for bids in the fall. Verseckes estimates that construction could begin in February 2014 and finish in the fall of 2016.

He speculated that the reason behind the controversy is concern about change.

“It isn’t like they necessarily have an issue with us or an issue with the project,” said Verseckes. “It’s just that we’re wading into something that happens to be attached to an historical area . . . The issue probably is, simply put: change.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between the Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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