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A tale of two alleys: Private vs. public in the South End

Posted by Cara Bayles  November 3, 2010 11:00 AM

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(By Cara Bayles,

On the left, a private alley between Rutland and West Newton is beset by potholes, some of which have been filled with bricks. On the right, a public way between Rutland and Concord Square was recently repaved, has new granite curbing, and new lamp fixtures.

A few years ago, the city invested in a large reconstruction project on the public alley between Rutland Square and Concord Square in the South End.

"It is now absolutely gorgeous, first-rate," said Stephen Fox, president of the Rutland Square Neighborhood Association. "They put in new curbing, new lighting, new pavement. They replaced cobblestones that were deteriorating."

Yet, the residents living near a private way on the other side of Rutland Square have to raise money to make even basic improvements to the alley. It's beset by potholes and deep gullies, said Fox, and "is very clearly becoming a danger for cars that use it. I mean, people are going to break an axle."

The disparity is a microcosm of a widespread problem in the South End, where many residents who abut or park on private alleys want the city to take responsibility for repairing and maintaining them.

City departments will not serve private alleys, which are by law the responsibility of the abutting residents who collectively own them. Residents say they face myriad hurdles in turning private alleys over to the city, including exorbitant costs and space requirements that don't apply to public alleys that are grandfathered into the city's rolls.

As a result, South End residents are in the unique situation of struggling with private ownership.

In Pilot Block, the neighborhood association has bought a garden tiller to even out gravel in private ways. Over in the Eight Streets neighborhood, the struggles with the communal space have led neighbors to arm themselves with lawyers to decide something as mundane as whether or not to lock a gate.

Michael Lloyd, of the Concord Square Neighborhood Association, says residents pay for basic repairs in private alleys.

"There are no benefits, in my estimation," Lloyd said, of private alleys. "We'd have the city take over ours in a heartbeat, if not for the cost."

alleys 002.jpg

(By Cara Bayles,

A pothole in the private alley between Rutland Square and W. Newton Street has been filled with bricks.

The discrepancy is historical. When the neighborhood was built up in the 1850s, property lines went to the middle of the alleyways. Some residents agreed to change their deeds and turn alleys over to the city before the turn of the century, trading private ownership for public maintenance.

The neighbors of private and public alleys pay no difference in their taxes, yet the abutters of private ways get no assistance from the city in maintenance or snow removal, and say that it's now virtually impossible to make their alleys public.

Fox says that when Rutland Square attempted to turn over their private alley to the city three years ago, they learned that they'd have to pay 75 percent of the cost of bringing it up to code, which amounted to paving, granite curbs and a new drainage system. The initial cost of repaving was estimated at least $600,000.

According to Boston's Public Improvement Commission, neighbors must get the approval of the majority of an alley's abutters to get an assessment for bringing the alley up to city code. Then, the city will convene a public meeting, where abutters must approve the project. The commission also says that the city pays 50 percent of the reconstruction costs to bring an alley up to code.

Neighbors often forget that those costs are prohibitive for the city, too, according to Department of Public Works Commissioner Joanne Massaro.

"Even at 50 percent, it's still a big expense for the city to take care of -- the sidewalks, the roadway, the drainage issues,'' Massaro said. "To address all of those would be an expensive proposition for the city as well as the abutters."

Recently, Fox says Rutland Square learned that the Americans with Disabilities Act now requires any public way to have a sidewalk to accommodate wheelchairs, and that the city's improvement commission had also changed the width requirements to meet the needs of the Boston Fire Department.

Boston Fire Marshall Frank Kodzis says the department released a new guidance document recommending that alleys be from 18 feet to 20 feet wide to accommodate new fire vehicles. But that can't be required until the City Council passes a measure to incorporate the regulations into the Boston Fire Code.

Meeting those new space requirements would bring the total up from the original estimate of $600,000 for repaving and new granite curbs to a multi-million dollar project, involving cutting down trees and ripping up and reinstalling all of the alley's light poles and utility lines, Fox says.

Aside from the financial burden, meeting the ADA and fire code space requirements would also encroach on parking spots to create the sidewalk.

"The neighborhood would have to go to each individual property owner and negotiate a four-foot easement into their property,'' Fox said. "I mean, how many lawyers would we have to hire? … We would be invited to the Mass. Bar Association Christmas party. The feasibility of actual making it happen is ridiculous.

"In our view, there's absolutely no way that anyone in any part of the city can possibly turn a private way over to the city, because of the way they're interpreting these regulations."

Commissioner Massaro pointed out that she doesn't have much choice in bringing the alleys up to code.

"This is not something that we're just on the fly deciding," she said of the disability requirements. "Massachusetts general law dictates this."

Aside from the regulations, Massaro said that public works simply can't afford to add to its maintenance burden right now, let alone foot half of the bill for raising dilapidated private ways up to city standards.

"Why would the city in these fiscal times take over more streets and sidewalks to maintain?'' she asked. "Right now, we have a lot of streets across the neighborhood, and we're responsible for keeping them in good, clean, working order. In these fiscal times, to increase that burden when my budget is not increasing wouldn't be a prudent move."

Remaining private is the more affordable option for the Rutland Square neighborhood association, so the group is mounting a campaign to raise $50,000 to hire a private contractor to repair the alley. Fox says neighbors are outraged that they can't gate the alleys because they are public thoroughfares, yet they don't qualify for city maintenance.

"We, as the abutters of the alleyway, have all of the obligations of maintaining and allowing access to the alleyway, without any of the rights associated with private ownership," he said.

In the nearby Pilot Block neighborhood, residents have taken repairs into their own hands.

Chip Huhta, the vice president of that area's neighborhood association, says he and other volunteers spend approximately 100 hours per year filling potholes with stones or asphalt, as well as tilling, raking, and smoothing the surfaces. Stones, asphalt and tiller maintenance cost the neighborhood around $1,000 a year.

In Concord Square, residents have determined that it's more affordable to pay for damage control on the gravel of the private alleys, which form uneven ruts that make them difficult to navigate.

"We've tried throwing a few thousand dollars at it a couple times, and six months later, it's back to the same state," Lloyd said. "It's a drainage issue and there's no easy solution for it. Water has to go somewhere."

Lloyd added that the logistics of reaching a consensus on turning the alley over to the city would be too difficult, since the maintenance would only benefit residents who park there.

In the Eight Streets neighborhood, the question of consensus has arisen in a different form. There, private alleys are too small to drive through, but the occasional incidents of strangers using the alley for drug use and break-ins has made gating an issue.

"It's not a recurring problem, but whenever something like that comes up, people's first response tends to be, let's put gates up. And that of course brings up questions about access and ownership rights," says Eight Streets president John McLachlan.

A gate that acted as a visual deterrent on the Waltham Street alley was recently locked by one resident, who would not share the keys with other abutters. McLachlan says lawyers are now involved.

"If it were public, it would not be gated, and it would be a city issue," McLachlan said with a sigh. But because they're private, the city's approach is hands-off, which leads to conflict.

"One person may say, 'I want to gate it for my safety,' and another person says, 'Well, no, I take my bike in and out, I don't want it gated,'" says McLachlan. "There's no right answer, and when people don’t cooperate you get shouting matches about who owns what and who has the right to do what."

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