Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Casey Arborway Annotated: The Eastern End

On November 19, 2013 MassDOT revealed their final design proposals for the Casey Arborway to the Design Advisory Group (DAG) of citizens and advocates who have been working to communicate the community's desires and concerns. The eastern end shown below has not yet cleared it's final regulatory hurdle, the Massachusetts Historical Commission's finding of "adverse effect" for the change from Shea Circle to the proposed Shea Square intersection shown. Shea Circle, a large diameter multi-lane rotary at the southwestern entrance to Franklin Park, was created in the 1930s long after Olmsted's original plans for the Emerald Necklace. MassDOT proposes to "demonstrate that the adverse effect is unavoidable to achieve the purpose and intent of the project".

Many supporters of the plan feel that creating the Square here results in more usable greenspace by connecting underutilized land in the rotary island to the surrounding parks and recreation areas rather than leaving it stranded and inaccessible. Other added benefits of the Square proposal include a new "front yard" for Franklin Park Villa to the south, and most importantly: safer crossings for pedestrians and cyclists throughout the intersection with significant traffic calming where a notoriously dangerous rotary now exists.

As in the other Annotated Casey blog entries here, these annotations are my own - and the pdf version linked is far easier to read.

The Casey Arborway Annotated: The Western End

The Casey Arborway Annotated: The South/Washington St. Corridor

Casey Arborway Annotated: The Western End

On November 19, 2013 MassDOT revealed their final design for the estimated $59 million Casey Arborway Project. An early blog post annotated The South-Washington North-South Corridor. The Annotated Casey: Eastern End is available here.

This link points to a large pdf file with annotations by me describing many of the features of the western end of the new Casey Arborway:

The western end of the project has been one of the last to be designed. Highlights of the plan here include:
  • New sidewalk and off-street bike path along the northern side of the Arborway west of South St.
  • A pedestrian-activated crosswalk providing access to the Forest Hills Gate of the Arboretum from the north.
  • There will be no westbound left turns onto Washington Street. This change of direction will be accomplished by the western "Bow-Tie" U-turn at the Forest Hills Gate of the Arboretum. A turning apron accommodates wide-turning vehicles. Westbound traffic only stops for turns and pedestrians.
  • New trees soften the large existing retaining wall along the Arborway Hillside.
  • A new, lower retaining wall separates Arborway Rd's grade differential from the Arborway proper at Hampstead Rd.
  • Off-street bike paths and sidewalks along eastbound Arborway.
  • New boulevard trees (Red Oaks) throughout
  • New Northern plaza with MBTA Head House, programmable space, bike paths, permeable surfaces for drainage.
  • Revamped southern MBTA plaza
  • Mid-block pedestrian crossing eliminated
A smaller, less legible version of the pdf image is here:

Casey Arborway Annotated: The South/Washington Corridor

On Novemeber 19th, MassDOT revealed their final design for the $59 million Casey Arborway project. Latest information is that they will advertise to contractors on January 25, select the lowest responsible bidder and issue a Notice to Proceed around May 30, 2014. Substantial demolition will have taken place by the end of 2014 - likely working from the ends towards the middle - and the project is expected to be completed by September 30, 2016.

The following link points to an in-depth, annotated look at the designs for the South St/Washington St corridor on the western side of the project, with annotations added by me. Apologies if I've mis-characterized anything heard at the meetings. Other portions of the design will be annotated in subsequent blog posts.

This annotated image can be clicked to enlarge, which might make it legible, but the link above is better:

Design highlights of the South St./Washington St. corridor include (north to south):
  • "Don't Block the Box" striping on South St at Arborway Rd.
  • Arborway Rd relocated northward approximately two car-lengths at South St to create more southbound queue space at the South/Arborway intersection and to allow easier entrance/exit to Arborway Rd.
  • Bike and pedestrian crosswalks are visually distinctive. 
  • Crossing lights have count-down timers and audible signals, medians have safety islands with crossing buttons. 
  • Corners of intersections have special hexagonal pavers that signal to pedestrians and bikers that they are in a "mixed use zone" - contrasting visual cues indicate where bike lanes continue.
  • Ramps at all crossings.
  • New sidewalk and on-street bike path along westbound Arborway west of South St, with pedestrian-activated crossing light at Arboretum's Forest Hills Gate.
  • Two-way off-street bike path and separate sidewalk sheltered by trees on eastbound Arborway side.
  • New northern plaza between South and Washington includes a new MBTA Head House providing direct access to T platform below without crossing Arborway. Large enough for "programmable use" such as Farmer's Markets, Art Fairs, music festivals, etc. Includes bike racks and benches, permeable surfaces for drainage, many new trees.
  • Southern plaza re-designed, revamped, re-landscaped, providing space for vendor kiosks.
  • Taxi stands moved to Arborway along southern plaza.
  • New "bicycle rotary" slows bikes coming from Southwest Corridor Park.
  • Current mid-block pedestrian crossing eliminated.
  • Off-street bike paths continue south on Washington beyond Asticou Rd., becoming off-street cycle track further south.
  • Off-street bike paths and sidewalks along eastbound Arborway.
  • "Don't Block the Box" striping at Washington/South light by VFW.
  • "Table" crosswalk hump at Asticou to discourage non-local traffic.
  • New roofed Upper Busway, south of existing one. The 39 bus moves here. Buses separated from Washington St and Asticou neighborhood by bermed, landcsaped island. Exit island directs exiting buses and their headlights away from neighbors, lights shielded by walls. Busway extends over lower parking lot, supported by pylons.
  • School buses and parent pick-up consolidated in lower parking lot.
For additional annotations describing the rest of the project see:
The Annotated Casey: Western End

The Annotated Casey: Eastern End

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mayoral Candidate Clarity for Casey Arborway?

An Editorial

The JP Gazette this week published an interview with John R. Connolly and Martin J. Walsh, the two finalist candidates for Mayor of Boston, touching on local matters including the important Casey Arborway project.

Gazette article here

Mr. Connolly states his preferences bluntly and straightforwardly: “I like the at-grade solution overall. I think we have to make the at-grade work.” He said that he does “not think the state is serious about a bridge option” and said he wants to make sure that the community’s voice is put first. #ArborwayMatters applauds his stance.

It appears that Mr. Walsh has altered his position on the Casey Arborway project since late August. Prior to the mayoral primary vote several weeks ago, Walsh jumped to the forefront of this issue in a widely distributed flyer, stating:

"I am asking MassDOT to commit to a transparent and inclusive community process to get this done right - before it goes to bid this fall. I am calling on them to fairly evaluate the option of replacing the Casey Overpass with a beautiful modern bridge that reflects the (sic) Olmstead tradition that protected this area for so long, a bridge that will unite and connect communities."

As #ArborwayMatters has amply demonstrated here and here, the Casey process has been inclusive,  open, and all voices - including those unhappy with the outcome - have had many opportunities to be heard throughout the nearly three years of community and professional planning that has gone into the almost-final plans. Twenty-two Advisory Group meetings and seven large public hearings have taken place. Many alternatives have been fairly examined.

Walsh's call to start over in that process with a pre-ordained outcome - his "beautiful modern bridge" - was either woefully uninformed, a bid to curry favor, or deeply dismissive of the process to date. Neither possibility is comforting. His stance gave credence to the divisive grumblings of those members of the community that desire a reversal of the at-grade decision made by MassDOT more than eighteen months ago. And it was profoundly disrespectful to the hundreds of community members and professionals engaged in improving the outcome through this complex planning process.

But in this week's Gazette, Walsh now proclaims himself to be a "process type of person" who has been assured by the state that the Commonwealth and the community have been engaged in “a very strong and long process” all along.

#ArborwayMatters is glad, should he be elected, that Mr. Walsh has seen the light so that the rest of us can see the sky where the Overpass now stands.

He says now that “it doesn’t matter what I favor.”

Would that this were true. We do wonder about his willingness to cavalierly call into question the legitimacy of all the hard work the community has done so far. After months of study and careful consideration the community has spoken. The professionals have weighed-in. The arguments have been made ad nauseum. The chosen outcome is the opposite of the one Mr. Walsh called for - and that does in fact matter a great deal as Bostonians consider who will lead them.

Anyone who aspires to be Mayor of Boston should have a greater respect for the workings of neighborhoods, the process whereby the citizens of Boston come together to craft solutions that move the City - and the neighborhoods - forward no matter what the issue.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Casey Arborway - A Briefing in Support of the At-Grade Solution

To download a pdf of this briefing:


  • The Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain is beyond repair and must be demolished for public safety
  • Offers an historic opportunity to reconnect broken portions of the Emerald Necklace and improve livability through contemporary urban and traffic planning
  • For nearly three years citizens, neighbors and other advocates have participated in an open process with MassDOT professionals to design a replacement. Twenty-two Advisory Group meetings were held and seven larger Public Hearings took place to update the community.
  • MassDOT selected an At-Grade Solution, a simplified network of surface roads in March 2012 and the majority of the community hailed the choice
  • Peer-reviewed traffic projections indicate no significant drop in level of service for any affected routes, and some improvement for many. Air quality analysis shows no change.
  • Significant opportunity to improve multi-modal access for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians to the area parks and businesses
  • Enhanced access to MBTA services: a new head house and upper bus way.
  • New and enhanced plazas north and south of Casey Arborway could accommodate festivals and farmer’s markets
  • Improved civic space at the West Roxbury District Court
  • A tree-lined boulevard and coordinated lights replace a crumbling bridge
  • Construction and maintenance cost savings are estimated to be at least $20 million if the bridge is not replaced
  • Planning and design is nearly final
  • Opportunities for Elected Official leadership in constituent services, construction mitigation, adjacent-area improvements, economic development
  • Demolition scheduled to begin in spring 2014, construction to last until fall 2016


The Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass was built in the early1950s on a portion of the Arborway parkway of the Emerald Necklace in the Forest Hills section of Jamaica Plain. Due to flaws in its original design and the deterioration of its structural integrity over the last 60 years, it is now beyond repair and must be demolished. For safety, vehicle traffic has been reduced to one lane in each direction for more than two years (from the original six lanes) while a replacement solution is designed. The community outreach and design process undertaken by MassDOT and its partners the City of Boston, DCR and MBTA has been ongoing for nearly three years to date. Engaging hundreds of professionals and local citizens in dozens of public meetings, the plans have been improved and have incorporated community input to the extent possible at every juncture. Demolition of the Overpass is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2014. The project will be completed in Fall 2016.

The Jamaica Plain, Forest Hills, Roslindale and West Roxbury neighborhoods in the shadow of the overpass are characterized by an abundance of greenspace and recreational opportunity, by an inviting mix of residential properties and vibrant commercial enterprises, by active community engagement in schools and other civic life and by access to convenient public transportation. Boston’s world-renowned Emerald Necklace parkways, Southwest Corridor Park, Franklin Park, and the Arnold Arboretum are immediately adjacent to the project, as is the Forest Hills MBTA station.

Forest Hills has been an important transit hub for nearly 200 years. When the Overpass was built, its huge ramps, supports and abutments spanned three different rail lines. A heavy rail embankment crossed the bridle paths and carriageways of the Arborway atop a handsome, five-arched bridge from the 1890s until it was torn down in 1986. The street-level Arborway trolley line made its way under this viaduct from South Street to the Arborway Yard from the 19th century until the mid-1980s.  The elevated Orange line ran above Washington Street on steel beams and huge concrete posts from the 1910s until 1986, culminating in a large station that served the El above, trolleys, buses and cabs below.

The Casey Overpass leapt over all this, as well as Washington Street, Hyde Park Avenue and South Street – major north-south thoroughfares for the surrounding neighborhoods.
The span of the Overpass, with its huge piers below, was built on the land that once carried eastbound Arborway traffic from Boston. It bypassed rail and trolley congestion below, and was built for vehicles going to and from Mattapan, Dorchester, Quincy and Milton. All local traffic seeking the businesses and residences of southern Jamaica Plain, Forest Hills, Roslindale, the Walk Hill and Bourne neighborhoods or the West Roxbury District Court was required to exit the Arborway and wind through and around these piers and ramps via convoluted and inefficient paths that disrupted the flow of traffic on the ground further, requiring transit of as many as four traffic lights for what should be simple and routine pathways.

More than twenty-five years ago the Orange line and the heavy rail lines were brought together and sunk below grade in the Southwest Corridor Trench. A new MBTA station was built and the old station and granite viaduct of the New Haven line were demolished. The Arborway trolley ceased operations at the same time. This mid-1980s transformation of Forest Hills eliminated the surface congestion of the three rails lines that the Overpass was built to span. The Overpass ramps and supports continue to impede street-level traffic, as they have since the 1950s.


National and international urban planning initiatives have for decades called for a more equitable access for all transit modes, and Boston’s planning has been no exception. As Mayor Menino has stated, “The car is no longer king in Boston.” All across the country cities, including Boston, have been saying “No” to building or replacing urban overpasses that divide neighborhoods and increase the tax-funded maintenance burden far into the future.
Boston’s own Complete Streets approach puts pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users on equal footing with motor-vehicle drivers. The initiative aims to improve the quality of life for Bostonians by creating streets that are both attractive public spaces and sustainable transportation networks. It embraces innovation to address climate change and promote healthy living. The objective is to ensure that Boston's streets are:
  • Multimodal: Incorporates pedestrians, people with disabilities, bicyclists, transit users, and motor vehicle drivers. Roadway design includes level of service benchmarks for all modes to ensure that streets are shared by all users and not dominated by cars.
  • Green: Incorporates street trees, rain gardens, green margins, and paving materials with permeable surfaces so that plants and soils collect rainwater to reduce flooding and pollution. Green design elements promote an environmentally sensitive, sustainable use of the public right-of-way.
  • Smart: Incorporates intelligent signals, smart meters, electric vehicle sharing, car and bicycle sharing, way-finding and social networks for greater system efficiencies and user convenience.
MassDOT’s GreenDOT initiative, begun in 2010, has goals aligned with Boston’s Complete Streets and with contemporary planning tenets. It has a mode shift goal of tripling the share of travel in Massachusetts by bicycling, transit and walking by 2030.


The Casey Arborway Project has enlisted hundreds of local citizens and engaged thousands more over nearly three years in an open, collaborative process that has considered all of these aspects in an effort to find the best possible solution for this complex 21st Century transportation and urban planning opportunity. The professionals, advocacy groups and ordinary citizens all agree that the Casey Arborway replacement provides
  • A once in a generation opportunity to improve the efficiency of travel and access to the area for all modes (car, pedestrian, bike, public transportation)
  • A once in a lifetime opportunity to enhance livability through improved civic spaces, enlarged greenspaces, and a restoration of the Emerald Necklace in Forest Hills – a recreational connection that has been broken for a century.
  • The chosen At-Grade solution has the active support of parks, livability, and cycling advocacy groups who have offered their expertise throughout the planning process: Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Walk Boston, Boston Cyclists Union, LivableStreets, Arborway Coalition.
  • These groups are engaged with tens of thousands of Bostonians who care deeply about all these issues – parks, open space, pedestrian and cycling access, public transportation - and they applaud the Casey planning work that has been done so far. Their active input and that of local citizens and neighbors of the project has been invaluable in improving the outcome and in encouraging MassDOT to embrace this historic opportunity. 


            The Casey Overpass was a poor design from the start, with hammerhead piers that have decayed severely and drainage schemes that have further contributed to deterioration. Critical repairs were conducted in 1980 and 1991. MassDOT maintenance inspections determined in early 2010 that the Overpass load rating must be reduced to 14 tons. It was found that reducing traffic to one lane in each direction and moving traffic away from the outer lanes and towards the center for safer operation was the best option for achieving necessary load reduction. In December 2011, it was determined that the Overpass was in “critical to fair” condition, and nearing the end of its serviceable life. The planning process for its replacement was begun.
            A Working Advisory Group (WAG) comprised of citizens, neighbors and advocacy groups representing neighborhoods, parks, cycling, and livability was formed to augment and advise the professional planning processes. This open and public committee met more than twelve times, and five larger Public Hearings were held in the community before MassDOT announced a final decision on a replacement approach. Scores of different alternatives were evaluated, including those suggested by members of the WAG and the general public.

Baseline traffic data was acquired during this process for the Overpass itself and 17 intersections in the area in early June 2010, while the Overpass still had two open lanes in each direction.  The average weekday daily volume for the Overpass was found to be 24,000 cars (both directions, all day). New Washington Street below was found to have an additional east-west volume of 12,000 cars per day.
It was known that an overpass could serve traffic loads in the area, but any other alternative needed thorough study. The traffic data was projected out to the year 2035 using accepted projection methodology. Travel routes, transit times and circulation patterns throughout this complex area were measured and evaluated in a point-to-point matrix, projected into the future and then applied to both an improved at-grade street arrangement and a two-lane replacement overpass. The data collected and methodology used was peer-reviewed by outside transportation experts.
Both plans showed improvement over the current overpass and street configuration. But through this data testing process it was determined that drivers would experience no significant degradation or favorability in service with either plan. The levels of service for some routes showed marginal slowing (30-45 seconds), while the majority of routes were either time and distance neutral, or marginally improved.
Because of the comparable travel times and distances, Air Quality analysis showed no predicted degradation in air quality.

The cost projections provided by consultants, however, showed a very significant difference between the two alternatives under consideration: an estimated $74 million cost for a new overpass (plus substantial future maintenance obligations for the 75-year life of the structure), or $54 million cost for an at-grade configuration.

MassDOT announced its decision to select and develop a so-called “At-Grade Solution” to be known as the Casey Arborway in March 2012. The existing ramps, abutments and supports of the Overpass will be replaced by a simplified series of intersections on the ground using coordinated lights, a plan that offers significant opportunities to return the area to human scale and enhance livability for residents and visitors alike.
MassDOT immediately formed a new Design Advisory Group (DAG) to consult on the planning, to voice community concerns and to refine project priorities. The DAG met ten times over 18 months, and focused on a variety of important topics at each meeting. Additional public hearings were held to update the larger community at the 25% and 75% design stages, to hear concerns and to report on progress.


  • The creation of a tree-lined boulevard where the unsightly shadow of a crumbling overpass now stands.
  • Simplified turns and north-south routes throughout Forest Hills with coordinated lights directing the flow of traffic.
  • A new MBTA head house on the north side of the Casey Arborway, which will provide direct access to the Orange line platform without crossing what is now New Washington Street.
  • A new northern Plaza at the end of Southwest Corridor Park, which provides significant civic space suitable for gatherings, festivals, farmer’s markets and community events.
  • An enhanced entrance plaza adjacent to the MBTA station on the south side of Casey Arborway will provide improved waiting and gathering space as well as room for retail kiosks.
  • The #39 bus terminus will be relocated to an expanded upper bus bay along Washington Street.
  • Significantly improved civic spaces in the District Court House area.
  • Dedicated bicycle and pedestrian paths and crossings throughout the area
  • A strengthened and more accessible connection from Franklin Park to the Casey Arborway, Arnold Arboretum and the rest of the Emerald Necklace parks, as well as to Southwest Corridor Park.
  • Enhanced way-finding for visitors and residents navigating the area on foot, by bicycle, by public transportation and by private vehicle.
  • Increased access to the world-class recreational opportunities and the vibrant businesses of Forest Hills and Jamaica Plain.

The Casey project planning has also included significant regulatory review.  Environmental Justice and Air Quality reviews were conducted and Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act certification was achieved.
MassDOT and the Massachusetts Historical Commission are currently considering a finding of ‘adverse effect’ in the preferred plan at Shea Circle. Shea Circle has one of the state’s highest rates of single-vehicle car accidents, and MassDOT has proposed to create a signalized intersection known as “Shea Square”. This proposal provides significant traffic calming as well as a configuration that is more serviceable for pedestrians and cyclists while expanded the acreage of useable greenspace. The DAG and the majority of the local community has valued public safety and enhanced access to Franklin Park over the existing large traffic rotary, which has no traffic lights and little traffic calming effect. But Shea Circle, a feature not part of Olmsted’s original design and not built until the 1930s, is in fact part of the Morton Street Historic District, on the National Registry of Historic Places and subject to MHC review. The outcome of this consideration has yet to be determined as of this writing.


MassDOT’s final design is nearly complete. Construction phasing and detouring plans have been outlined. Landscaping schemes are being refined. Major features – the plazas, bus ways, bicycle and pedestrian paths and major intersections – have been designed. Provisional construction blue prints have been prepared. MassDOT is making final refinements through an internal review process, will host a final DAG meeting and then intends to advertise the project and solicit bids in October or November 2013. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2014 and be completed in the fall of 2016. Any significant changes to the plan at this point could substanially increase the cost of the project and could result in increased safety risks.



Demolition and construction/mitigation management 

            During any construction project as large as this one - immediately adjacent to residential neighborhoods, retail and commercial enterprises and a thriving transit hub - there will likely be issues requiring strong leadership:
  • Education, information and preparation concerning Construction Phasing
  • Sound and dust mitigation, hours of construction, planned detouring and closures
  • Policing: Traffic management, parking and speed enforcement, signage
  • MBTA and school bus service levels and contingencies
  • Constituent services/Hot-lines
  • Disruption and traffic delays would occur no matter what the replacement design

Planning for adjacent features

Consideration should be given to improving adjacent city-owned properties to leverage final outcome:
  • “Don’t Block the Box” signage and striping on South Street at Arborway Road
  • Sidewalk improvement along Forest Hills Avenue adjacent to the Arborway Yard
  • DCR should construct the long-planned pathway through the Arborway Hillside, from South Street to the Arboretum as outlined in the 2008 Gateway to the Arborway plan.

Housing and economic development

The future Casey Arborway and Forest Hills’ proximity to mass transit is making the surrounding area a magnet for new housing and commercial development.  While this will provide much-needed new housing and job opportunities, it also presents challenges for elected officials. 
  • Private development will need to be coordinated with the state’s construction schedule for the Casey Arborway and residents will look to the City to provide both enforcement and a vision for the neighborhood as it evolves.
  • In 2008, after a lengthy community process, the BRA released the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative, which provided development guidelines for MBTA and private property.  Two of those parcels have already been developed as commercial/office space and a third is slated for new housing and retail.   Additional proposals are currently under review to convert former industrial sites along nearby Washington Street to housing, retail, and commercial space. 
  • Parcel U (along Hyde Park Avenue) is slated for retail and housing. Developers of the former Hughes Oil site are seeking zoning approvals with an emphasis on desirability of multi-modal transit access dependent on improved traffic patterns, diversity, mixed-use, community spaces, as well as improved greenspace and recreational access.
  • Neighborhood residents have requested additional planning to guide new development adjacent to the north side of the Casey Arborway, which was not included in the FHII.
  • The existing MBTA Arborway Yard facility has been envisioned as home to a new MBTA bus yard. The state has agreed to provide 8 acres of land to the City of Boston for housing, commercial use, and open space. Elected officials will need to be a strong advocates for state funding to bring the project to fruition, as well as work with the neighborhood to plan for its redevelopment.

The Casey Arborway Project offers an unprecedented opportunity to bring positive change to several of Boston’s premier neighborhoods. By reconnecting long-broken links within the Emerald Necklace parks and by providing enhanced access for pedestrians and cyclists that fulfill the promise of Southwest Corridor Park, the Casey Arborway and Forest Hills will become a citywide recreational magnet, an attractive locale for retail and housing development, as well as a much-improved version of the transportation hub it has been for more than a century.


For a complete record of all public meetings, including meeting minutes, attendees, public comment and professional presentations:

Many relevant documents, reports, data and long-range planning resources related to the project are collected here:

Participants and partners in the WAG and DAG process are here:

For a pictorial history of the Arborway and Overpass at Forest Hills:

A complete history of Forest Hills is available here:

Boston’s Complete Streets initiative:

MassDOT’s GreenDOT:

The Forest Hills Improvement Initiative is guiding development in the area

The Congress for the New Urbanism’s Highways to Boulevards project documents revitalized urban centers where overpasses and highways have come down:

Prepared by
Clayton Harper/ArborwayMatters
44 Hampstead Rd
Jamaica Plain, MA


October, 2013

To download a pdf of this briefing:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A History of the Casey Overpass

This history was written in May 2013 and originally posted at my other blog, 500 Monkeys with Paintbrushes, where some 1500 people saw it. As my interest in the Casey Arborway has grown, it seems appropriate to re-post it here. - Clay Harper, October 2013

Arborway looking west. Elevated orange line in foreground. Granite Rail viaduct in background, Casey Overpass above. c.1970s  photo: Library of Congress/HAER
Arborway looking west. South Street and Hampstead neighborhood in distance. c. 1920

The Casey Overpass, which has spanned the Forest Hills section of Jamaica Plain since the early 1950s is soon to be torn down and replaced by the Casey Arborway, a tree-lined boulevard that represents a tremendous opportunity to rationalize traffic patterns in the area and re-knit substantially broken connections within Frederick Law Olmsted’s beautiful string of narrow but vital parks and parkways known as the Emerald Necklace. For several months I've been researching the history and evolution of this location - what Olmsted's plans for it were, how it became like it is today, and what it might become in the future with careful and thoughtful planning. The following is a personal and opinionated view of what I've learned. Any errors of fact or interpretation in the way I've paraphrased source material are my own.

Ward 11 map, 1924
Forest Hills has been a significant transit hub for two hundred years - a crossroads where pedestrians, railroads, horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, cars, cabs, buses, elevated trains and subways have all converged to provide industrial, recreational and commuter connections for the residents of Boston, Jamaica Plain and the region. Over many decades these links have evolved somewhat haphazardly, coming and going through time, leaving lasting scars in the landscape. As each transit mode has been replaced by later technologies, the legacies of their presence have accumulated and contributed to the confused connections that exist on the ground today. Along the way a vibrant neighborhood has grown up in the area and differing needs and priorities have taken hold within the community.

My home abuts this section of the parkway known as the Arborway, and I have a keen interest in plans for the future here. I've followed avidly through a heated public process with an open mind but with confidence in the professionals involved and faith in my neighbors who have been participating in the process as advocates of one stripe or another.

Forest Hills looking north in 1925. Left-right dark stripe is the Arborway.

To my eye, and as a neighbor who has chosen to live in Jamaica Plain for its great diversity and abundant greenspace, the plan to eliminate the bridge is a huge opportunity for my community. The city of Boston will have a more rational street layout and a reconnection between Jamaica Pond, the world-class Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park. We'll have a tree-lined boulevard instead of a massive and unnecessary fly-over for transitory drivers. We'll have more blue sky and open space, an inviting network of bike paths and pedestrian ways where bridge abutments and ramps now stand. Commuters heading for the Orange Line at Forest Hills Station from northern Jamaica Plain will have a new Head House for the subway station that eliminates the need for many to cross the east-west flow of traffic. And the main station will have a newly redesigned plaza where buses currently idle that may serve as valuable community space. Forest Hills and Jamaica Plain have the potential to become a showcase gateway for southern Boston, a more functional transit hub and a recreational magnet for the residents of the city and beyond.

I'm hopeful that the evolving plans will continue to be informed by the rich history of the area. Though I believe it is unrealistic to wish for a return to an idyllic 19th century vision of parkland in the midst of this very real 21st century transportation dilemma, I believe that the local heritage can and should inform the decision making. Where a large, ugly overpass now stands, a beautifully landscaped parkway once existed - and, in adapted form, it will exist again:

Arborway looking west in Winter c. 1900. South Street intersection.
Arborway, Arborway Rd, Hampstead Rd. and South Street looking North. c. 1910
Casey Overpass looking East c. 2013. Now reduced to two lanes for safety.

In the late 19th century, several factors were in motion at once that had a profound and lasting impact on this area. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was at work designing the Arnold Arboretum and the string of Boston Parks that came to be known as the Emerald Necklace. And concern about the street-level safety of railroad crossings within Boston led to the elevation via berm of the Boston and Providence Rail lines. Many rail bridges were built to accommodate cross traffic through southern Boston, but only one - the Forest Hills Viaduct over the new Arborway parkway - was designed by architects. In 1898, a series of granite archways designed by the firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge rose over the parkways at Forest Hills Station and stood here until 1983:

Boston and Providence RR Viaduct and The Arborway, 1907
Forest Hills viaduct crossing Arborway
This viaduct spanned two carriageways, two bridle paths and a pedestrian path that once carried travelers along the Arborway from Jamaica Pond, past the Arnold Arboretum, through Forest Hills and on to Morton Street and Franklin Park.

Olmsted had originally intended for the separate sections of the Emerald Necklace parkways to be lined with differing species of trees that would signal the character of each portion. For the Fenway he planted Norway Maples while the Riverway received American Lindens and the Jamaicaway got  the Northern Red Oaks that still line the parkway today. But for the Arborway, Olmsted wanted Cucumber Magnolias and Tulip Trees – flowering varieties that were to serve as an invitation to and an echo of the bordering Arnold Arboretum. Those plans were not fully carried out, and instead the parks superintendent switched to Red Oaks for the entire run to Franklin Park. While the oaks were still small and the canopy open, flowering rose shrubs were planted in between the trees along the Arborway:

Shrub roses along Arborway. Viaduct in distance. Arborway Hillside to left.

Beginning in 1909, just east of that heavy rail viaduct, Washington Street was capped by the elevated Orange Line which ran for miles towards Boston. Forest Hills was the end of the line and home to a large station that dominated much of the site. Sidings and a switching yard flowed out to the south:
Forest Hills Elevated Station. Note trolley barn underneath.

Elevated Orange Line with B and P rail viaduct in background, 1970s  photo: Marty Bernard,

The street level where Forest Hills Square once stood was also host to a trolley yard and turnaround for the carriages that ran down Centre and South Streets in Jamaica Plain. This must have created a confused traffic situation on the ground that I imagine to have been a bit like present day Cleveland Circle in Brookline, with cars and trolleys fighting for right of way, their bells dinging and horns blaring:
Forest Hills Square

South St and Arborway, Jamaica Plain 1929  photo: Jamaica Plain Historical Society

But the Jamaica Plain version was also shadowed by two elevated train lines and the consequent obstacles of the underlying bridge abutments as well. As can be seen in this aerial shot from 1929, the two rail lines were a significant interruption to the parkway landscape shown in the upper left. And with the large bridgework, station and trolley traffic taking up much of the footprint the area was deemed to be a significant bottleneck for car traffic by the time of the mid-century post-War boom in population.
Generally northward view. Boston and Providence rail on left, Elevated Orange line station on right

Yet remnants of the Arborway landscaping survived throughout the first half of the 20th century between the rail lines. Like Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House, some of the parkway character held on while the industry of the city evolved around it:
The Arborway's trees and shrubs between the two rail lines, 1910.

By the 1950s, travel by auto was becoming so dominant that calls for a bridge to span these two elevated train lines and the trolley turnaround grew louder. And so was born the Forest Hills (later Casey) Overpass. In the style of highway engineering of the time, it was to be a long, wide arch dominating the daylight and skyline, carrying the East-West through traffic over the area, with it's feet stepping around and between the North-south roadways, the two rail lines and the trolley turnaround:

1951. Casey Overpass deck under construction above the elevated train line at Washington Street.  photo: Anthony Sammarco/Jamaica Plain Historical Socity

Casey Overpass looking to the east. Shattuck Hospital in distance. Toole Square in foreground.  photo: Jamaica Plain Historical Society

The street-level disconnection between this southern portion of Jamaica Plain and it’s northerly sections was exacerbated even further. To build the overpass, the Arborway parkway underneath was destroyed. Half the former East-West street level thoroughfare was taken up by bridge abutments and ramps. A significant portion of the Arborway Hillside and a large home on Arborway Road were also destroyed for a westerly on-ramp from South Street, resulting in the construction of a barren stone retaining wall topped by a chain-link fence near Hampstead Road. 

Westerly on-ramp at South Street and Arborway Road showing the retaining wall built in the 1950s

Arborway Hillside retaining wall looking to east.

The tangle of ground-level intersections in the gloomy shadow of the bridge became even more difficult to navigate for cars, buses, pedestrians and cyclists below. The neighborhood was left with ill-conceived turning options for cars, dangerous crosswalks for pedestrians and even awkward and confusing street names while some of the east-west traffic from elsewhere flew overhead.

Easterly ramp at South Street/Washington
Under the westernmost abutments

During the 1970s a huge public outcry halted state plans to build a cross-town freeway through southern Boston, but not before some buildings fell to eminent domain takings. In the 1980s the Southwest Corridor project utilized some of this land, combining the elevated heavy rail lines and the elevated orange line and then sinking both in a trench running five miles from the Back Bay to Roslindale. Miles of parkland and bike paths eventually lined the new corridor where homes, industrial buildings and rail yards once stood. The elevated lines and stations and the old stone viaduct were torn down, replaced by the current Forest Hills Station.

The New Forest Hills Station alongside the old, late 1980s.
Shortly thereafter, the traffic-snarling on-street trolley traffic was eliminated on Centre and South Streets through downtown Jamaica Plain, and eventually the trolley turnaround at Forest Hills Station was converted to a busway for the 39 bus.

So… today we have a massive Overpass built to span three transit routes which no longer exist at street level. With it's huge footprint and ramps, it is an impediment to street level traffic through the neighborhood as well as to and from neighborhoods to the south like West Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park and Dedham. And the Overpass is irreparably crumbling. For safety, the bridge traffic has been reduced to one lane in each direction, and anyone traveling more than 20 miles an hour on it risks life and axle. Much of the span has been covered with netting to keep parts and pavement from falling to the streets and sidewalks below.

As of this writing (May 2013), it has been more than a year since a lengthy public process resulted in the selection of what's been called the "at-grade solution": The Casey Arborway. After intense and ongoing community debate, peer-reviewed traffic studies and engineering plans have determined that a bridge is unnecessary and that it's removal creates an opportunity for improved traffic flow  and quality of life. This has resulted in a decision to replace the crumbling edifice with something much more like Olmsted's parkway than many residents can imagine.

This draft open space plan from April 2013 shows the current state of design, which is subject to further refinement:

Yet the memory of the contentious 1970s cross-town highway period remains a significant clarion call for some long-standing members of the community, and the legacy of stopping the elevated highway in the 70s has been used as justification for trying to roll back the decision to eliminate the bridge now. Ironically, some of those who were opposed to elevated highways forty years ago are some of the very same voices calling for building a new elevated bridge here now. Despite the peer-reviewed studies and computer models showing that travel times will be comparable with a newly designed at-grade boulevard  - and that, not insignificantly, the tax dollar savings for the citizens of the Commonwealth would be huge - some in the community have had a difficult time accepting either the data or the decision.

After all I've read and heard on this topic, I'm firmly in favor of the chosen course - the at-grade solution - and I'm in favor of coming together as a community to help craft the best possible solution from the opportunity presented.

Communities all across the country (including Boston) have found that eliminating massive highway-style viaducts can create vibrant open space and rational thruways without hampering the flow of traffic. I firmly believe this will be the outcome here.

But there is still work to be done. Landscaping plans are not final. Many details remain to be worked out in a vigorous public process. My neighborhood in particular (in the upper left corner of the draft Open Space plan above) is one of the least green sections proposed. Partly that is a result of the on-ramp retaining wall legacy of the 1950s, but partly it's because this is a "work in progress", one rapidly being amended thanks to strong community input. There are specific and very local issues I'd like to see refined - which I'm sure is true for many abutting neighbors throughout the project. Perched on the edge of a mid-century retaining wall myself, I'm hoping for improved views and traffic flow, for a softened greenscape and the maximum reasonable effort to enhance the community outcome while a 21st Century transportation solution is crafted on our front door. 

I've been involved in educating my neighborhood about the facts and details as they've become known, and in helping to spread the word about what once was and what might be. I've hosted outreach meetings for the neighborhood with the parties responsible for the outcome, and our voices have now been heard. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but the authorities have been responsive to our rational and reasonable voices so far. We're looking to refine the outcome while there is still time, and though we'd certainly like to survive the construction process over the next few years relatively unscathed, most of us are looking past that short-term inconvenience to the long-term legacy being created now. I'm hopeful that it will be a legacy worthy of the one we've inherited.

As Frederick Law Olmsted himself said in his last report on Franklin Park, quoting John Ruskin:
"Let it not be for the present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for..."

I'd be terribly remiss if I didn't acknowledge the vast amount I've learned and paraphrased from the work of Richard Heath whose "History of Forest Hills" is available on the website of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society here:

Cynthia Zaitzevsky's "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System" is a terrific book, one I've pored over repeatedly and it offers a wealth of information on the creation of the Emerald Necklace.

For information about other communities re-casting their highways and viaducts see in particular the Congress for New Urbanism's Highways to Boulevards project:

MassDOT's website dedicated to the Casey project has been a wealth of information for the community. Filled with documents, data, plans, meeting transcripts and other resources it is the place to go if you'd like to see "how they make the sausage" in a massive and evolving inter-agency public works process. I thank them for their dedication, responsiveness and ingenuity:

Other contributors to the J.P. historical society have also unknowingly been helpful to me as I pursued this interest, as has the staff of the Arnold Arboretum, the JP Branch of the Boston Public Library, that of the Arborway Coalition, a host of online rail buffs who seemed to know their stuff, various archivists throughout the city as well as representatives of MassDOT and their consultants. The community members and advocacy groups that have been a part of this project's planning all along have also certainly helped to shape both my thinking and the project itself.

Many of the images here originated in the collections of others, and though some are public domain in nature, all were used without their permission or with sub-standard citation. For that I can only confess to being a reader with a large appetite and not a professional scholar. To any that I've harmed or misrepresented, I beg forgiveness.

Clay Harper
Hampstead Road
Jamaica Plain
May 2013

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Under the Overpass - A Visual History


Have you ever wondered what the Arborway in Forest Hills looked like before the Casey Overpass was built? Or what the Overpass was built to span? (All images will enlarge if you click on them)

photo: Jamaica Plain Historical Society
In 1898, these handsome trolleys rode through Jamaica Plain heading for Forest Hills Square:

 But soon the elevated subway line now known as the Orange Line ran down Washington Street to the end of the line at Forest Hills.

photo: Boston Public Library
photo: Boston Public Library
photo: Boston Public Library
By 1910, Frederick Law Olmsted's Arborway parkway was barely hanging on just north of the new elevated line's Forest Hills Station. The Arborway itself was not yet paved, since motor vehicles were still uncommon.

Further west past South Street, the Arborway was a green parkway heading for the Arboretum and Jamaica Pond, lined with Red Oaks and flowering shrubs.

Past this handsome granite heavy rail viaduct carrying the Boston & Providence line, South Street continued towards the southwest much as it does today near the present day VFW hall and the State Lab. Two carriage ways, two bridle paths and a pedestrian path traveled under these five arches originally.

photo: Jamaica Plain Historical Society
The trolleys on South St had grown larger and longer by 1939 as they bustled under this viaduct and the El on their way to the Arborway Yard.

photo: David Wilson

photo: Marty Bernard,
photo: Paul Joyce,
All these transportation hubs - trolleys to the Yard, heavy rail passenger and freight traffic, elevated subway lines, two side-by-side train stations, taxi stands, buses and yes, private vehicles - came together in a very small space, all weaving through and around each other to get where they were trying to go. Above, a trolley way winds under the elevated lines from Arborway Yard on it's way to South St - approximately where New Washington Street is today.

1929 aerial view of Forest Hills. The Arborway is where the trees are in the upper left.

photo: Library of Congress/HAER

Arborway under the El, 1948. photo: Boston City Archive
Hyde Park Ave, one-way north beside El Station, 1948. photo: Boston City Archive
The elevated trains and embankments made ground-level navigation difficult for other modes. With metal supports substituting for the massive cement piers found closer to the station (under where the Overpass was built), pedstrians, cars, cabs, trolleys and buses jostled for space.

photo: Anthony Sammarco/Jamaica Plain Historical Society
By mid-century, the post-war growth in private vehicle ownership led to Eisenhower-era plans to span Forest Hills with an overpass, but it's huge piers and abutments made things even worse for local traffic on the ground, and further severed the northern portions of the Emerald Necklace parks from Olmsted's and the City's crown jewel: Franklin Park.
Atop the heavy rail viaduct of the New Haven line with the Casey above, 1962. photo: Tom O'Toole
Arborway trolley en route to South St. 1984  photo: Paul Joyce
Casey Overpass high above (back to front) Hyde Park Ave, the El, the B&O rail and South St
photo: Jamaica Plain Historical Society
The El's Forest Hills Station from the west near Bussey Woods, Casey Overpass on left
 photo: Library of Congress/HAER
photo: David Wilson
Massive cement piers of both the El and the Overpass make the ground-level almost impassable
photo: Library of Congres/HAER
A trolley heads for South St under the Olmsted-era rail viaduct, Casey Overpass above. Photo: Richard Heath
Through the S-curve to the Yard  photo: Jamaica Plain Historical Society
All three: El, Overpass above, viaduct in background
photo: Library of Congress/HAER
The last days of the viaduct, in 1986
photo: Richard Heath

 The heavy rail viaduct and the elevated lines lasted until both lines were sunk into the Southwest Corridor trench and the current MBTA station was built beside the original:

Today the El is gone. The trolley no longer runs down South Street to the Yard. The massive rail viaduct has been demolished, it's granite blocks re-purposed in Southwest Corridor Park - the nearly five mile long ribbon of greenways, footpaths and bikepaths that runs from the Back Bay to Forest Hills. And the Orange Line and the Amtrak run in a sunken trench beside and beneath the park.

But the broken connection in Boston's Emerald Necklace remains.

The surface roads here are handicapped by the ramps and massive supports of the 60 year-old Overpass. They take up so much space that the Overpass cuts off Forest Hills from the rest of Jamaica Plain, and Jamaica Plain from Roslindale and West Roxbury. The pedestrian and vehicular navigation required to get around and under it makes for a complex mess of frustration for drivers, walkers and cyclists alike.

photo: author

photo: author

photo: author

photo: author

This is the legacy that the Casey Arborway project addresses, straightening and rationalizing routes throughout the area; coordinating traffic signals; dedicating paths for cars, bikes and pedestrians; returning trees and sky to an area long-overshadowed by an outdated and now crumbling Overpass.

photo: author