Is There Room for Equity on the Mass. Pike?

Allston Multimodal Project Area - Bird's-Eye View
A satellite view of the area covered by the Allston Multimodal Project. At center from the bottom, the Boston-Worcester Commuter Rail line, Beacon Park Yard, the MassPike with entrance and exit ramps, and Cambridge Street. The Throat section of the Charles River is visible in the bottom right.

The Mass. Pike Extension has always been controversial. To some, it is an ugly source of pollution that divides communities and inhibits access to the Charles River. Transportation and environmental advocates castigate the “obsolete, failed transportation policy that placed a highway above the needs of neighborhoods and the environment.” Yet to others, it is a lifeline ensuring access to jobs, city culture, and low-density living. With a pre-COVID average of 150,000 trips per day, the interstate has been a critical link between Boston and western areas of the Commonwealth with little access to public transit. The current impasse around the Allston Multimodal Project, MassDOT’s planned realignment of the Pike, is the latest iteration of a debate that centers around questions of community preservation and equity.

By now, the project’s details are well-known. The Mass. Pike Extension would be straightened through the former Beacon Park Yard, and the wasteland of entrance and exit ramps turned into a new Harvard University-developed neighborhood. West Station would finally be built along the Commuter Rail’s Boston-Worcester line. Sun-scorched Cambridge Street would become a landscaped, bike-friendly boulevard. And the portion of the highway elevated on the crumbling Allston Viaduct would be either repaired or reconstructed at grade. Everyone agrees the project is necessary and would benefit, well, everyone. But nobody seems to agree on how to squeeze the Pike, Soldiers Field Road, the Commuter Rail, bike and pedestrian paths, and a modicum of grass into the section of the Charles River known as the Throat. The differences that have emerged between those who commute along the viaduct and those who live in its shadow raise a question that has plagued the Mass. Pike since its earliest days: who stands to gain most from the project?

MassDOT's proposal for the Allston Multimodal Project
MassDOT’s July 2019 proposal for the Allston Multimodal Project.

MassDOT’s July 2019 proposal for the Allston Multimodal Project.

It can be hard nowadays, amid Boston’s development boom and the looming climate crisis, to understand why transportation planners opted to separate communities from each other and the Charles River to accommodate an interstate. Yet their decision, damaging as it was, had context. By the 1960s, Boston was becoming known as a has-been city. Manufacturing was at an all-time low after forty years of decline. Work was drying up at the Boston Navy Yard, which would soon close after nearly two centuries of operation. Suburban development, driven by white flight and post-war American Dreams, spurred the construction of office parks and shopping malls that drew white-collar and retail jobs out of the urban core. The Charles River was already polluted from centuries of industry along its banks. Environmentally friendly transportation policies rarely factored into planning discussions at a time when the car was king and climate change relatively unknown. With U.S. News and World Report declaring that Boston was “dying on the vine,” planners seemed to face a stark choice: preserve neighborhoods or preserve a city. They chose the latter.

Typical of mid-century highway projects, the immediate beneficiaries were people with means, and the immediate victims, low-income and Black communities. Under the bull-headed leadership of William F. Callahan, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority had purchased a right-of-way from the declining Boston & Albany Railroad, facilitating construction of the Mass. Pike from West Stockbridge to Route 128 between 1955 and 1957. The Turnpike Authority used the same right-of-way in 1962 to extend the road into Boston, connecting the western suburbs to the city. The project drew fierce opposition from communities in Newton and Allston-Brighton that were squarely in the bulldozers’ way. Though building the Mass. Pike Extension along an existing railroad reduced the need to seize land through eminent domain, those who were uprooted included society’s most vulnerable – people whose race or income forced them to live beside train tracks in the first place. Of the 350 homes and businesses demolished in Newton, ten percent belonged to the Hicks Street African-American neighborhood, which the Mass. Pike nearly eradicated. On top of the injustices common to all displaced community members (the Turnpike Authority gave locals merely two to four months’ notice to relocate and has been accused of insufficiently compensating them for lost property) racial discrimination prevented many evicted Black residents from buying new homes in the city. Meanwhile, highway construction in Allston-Brighton led the MBTA to discontinue the Green Line’s A-branch, rendering inefficient bus service the most accessible means of public transit for the working-class neighborhoods riven by the Pike. At least initially, the highway’s benefits were distributed unequally among the communities along its path.

Construction of the MassPike in Newton, 1964.
Road construction in 1964 in front of the Old Main building related to the laying of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Newton Free Library.

Yet the idea that the Mass. Pike Extension has helped only the affluent and hurt only the vulnerable is simplistic. In the decades following its construction, Boston flourished. Improved transportation networks brought new industries to the city that attracted both high and low-skilled workers. Small businesses grew alongside increased foot traffic and disposable income. Urban residents enjoyed a more convenient travel route to locations outside the city. Even communities that disproportionately endured the highway’s negative impacts benefitted to some degree from the boost it gave to the regional economy. Now Boston’s prosperity has given way to gentrification. As historically working-class neighborhoods like Allston-Brighton grow prohibitively expensive, low-income people are moving to more affordable towns far from MBTA stations. The Mass. Pike – rightly criticized, by those who can still afford to live in or near Boston, for its chronic congestion, pollution, and damage to the neighborhoods it runs through – is often the most convenient way for residents of these western communities to commute to work in the city. And herein lies a great irony: the highway that helped resurrect Boston’s economy and facilitated suburban growth at the expense of working-class urban communities, today enables low-income people displaced by Boston’s soaring rents to reach jobs in the city at the expense of those same, now rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

The view from Cambridge Street in Allston isn’t pretty. To the southeast, a knot of entrance ramps and exit ramps, underpasses and overpasses, looping through construction sites and empty lots. The Mass. Pike slicing Allston-Brighton in half, eight high-speed lanes clogged with cars. Beacon Park Yard stripped of train tracks, bulging like a growth against the highway’s curving southern edge. This no-man’s land of heat, dust, and noise is what MassDOT’s Allston Multimodal Project seeks to fix. But whether the Mass. Pike is on a viaduct or on the ground will do little to solve the larger problems historically intertwined with the highway – income and racial inequality, environmental and transit injustice, gentrification and political disfranchisement. The time has come for project stakeholders to reach a compromise and to redirect their time, energy, and considerable talents to tackling the bigger issues.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

The Speedway Progress Update: July 2020

The Speedway courtyard construction site viewed through a hole in the interior wall
The courtyard and Building F under construction. Photo by Ella Rinaldo.

Where to begin? When we posted our first Speedway progress update in early March, we never imagined a pandemic would shut down renovations for a month. Nor did we expect that we would have to delay opening until winter, or that the restaurant and retail industries would be thrown into turmoil. While the Speedway construction site came to a standstill, AHF staff worked feverishly to adapt the project to a world of social distancing and economic disruption. Despite these challenges, we’ve managed to move the project forward.

During the shutdown, our main priority was to stay connected with our Brighton neighbors. To this end, AHF connected with State Representative Michael Moran, Charles River Community Health (CRCH), and local wholesaler Katsiroubas Brothers to help address more immediate needs in the community. The result is the Speedway Produce Program. Now in its eighth week, this initiative has delivered 320 boxes of fresh produce, as well as masks, to CRCH members experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic. AHF sponsored the first month’s worth of produce boxes; thanks to dozens of individual donations and a Harvard University Allston-Brighton Emergency Response Grant, we are able to extend the program until the end of July. Visit our GoFundMe page to help Brighton’s most vulnerable residents access fresh food through the summer.

Meanwhile, the Speedway rehabilitation has progressed by leaps and bounds! Construction restarted in early May after a month-long shutdown. Since then, our contractor D.F. Pray has worked hard to renovate the complex, and it shows:

1. Shingling

If you’ve recently driven past the Speedway, you’ve probably noticed that the Western Avenue and Soldiers Field Road sides of the complex have gotten a makeover. Shingling is nearly complete on the buildings’ public-facing walls, transforming not only the Speedway, but the streetscape itself.

The Speedway's nearly completed shingling along Soldiers Field Road
The Speedway’s shingling is nearly complete along Soldiers Field Road.

2. Repointing Masonry

The masonry of Buildings C and H is being repointed, creating a stable foundation for the buildings’ future tenants – Notch Brewery and a to-be-determined restaurant operator.

Masonry undergoing repointing at the Speedway
The Speedway’s masonry is being repointed.
An open doorway at the Speedway with surrounding masonry being repointed
The masonry around one of the entrances to the Speedway’s Building H is being repointed.

3. A New Roof for the Speedway

The Speedway has a new roof! Ensuring that the complex is water-tight was one of our main priorities when construction got underway again.

The Speedway's Building H with new shingles, new roof, and restored windows
The Speedway’s new roof is now complete.

4. Restoring the Speedway’s Windows

For years, the Speedway’s windows were boarded up – the most visible sign of the blight that had set in at the site. Under the direction of DCR, a Student Conservation Association crew painted fake windows over the plywood, while the 169 real ones were locked away in storage. Now the original windows have been restored and are being re-installed. The difference is unmistakable.

Restored windows at the Speedway
Restored windows are a big improvement for Building H.

5. Ramping and Decking in the Speedway Courtyard

AHF is particularly excited to activate the Speedway courtyard as a public space. Last week, D.F. Pray began laying the foundation for ramping and decking, which will make the courtyard accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

Ramping and decking foundation in the Speedway courtyard
A foundation is being laid for ramping and decking in the Speedway courtyard.

6. Interior Renovations

The interior framing of Buildings E, C, and D –  future creative/retail bays and  Notch’s brewery and taproom – has been restored, allowing for more extensive improvements.  In fact, rough electrical work has begun in Building E!

Interior framing in the Speedway's Building E
The interior framing of the Speedway’s Building E has been restored.
Electrical wires hanging inside one of the Speedway buildings
Rough electrical work has begun inside the Speedway.

Behind the scenes, AHF is preparing to open the Speedway in a radically altered environment. Stay tuned for future announcements as we approach the Speedway’s new opening date in winter 2021.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Learn more about the Charles River Speedway revitalization project.

Speedway Produce Program Awarded Harvard Grant

Architectural Heritage Foundation’s COVID-19 relief efforts in Allston-Brighton got a big boost last month from Harvard University. On May 27, the school named twenty-seven local nonprofits – among them AHF – as recipients of its new Allston-Brighton Emergency Response Grant.

AHF Launches Speedway Produce Program in Brighton

This week the Architectural Heritage Foundation, through the Charles River Speedway project, announced the Speedway Produce Program, an initiative to expand food access in Brighton during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of state Representative Michael Moran, AHF has teamed up with the Speedway’s next-door neighbor, Charles River Community Health (CRCH), and local wholesaler Katsiroubas brothers, to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to CRCH patients facing food insecurity as a result of the shutdown. AHF is offering the general public an opportunity to contribute to this program.

AHF launched the Speedway Produce Program last Thursday with a delivery of forty produce boxes to CRCH, each of which contained enough fruits and vegetables to feed a family for up to a week. A Katsiroubas Brothers truck dropped off the boxes at the health center in the morning, and CRCH staff arranged for them to be safely picked up later that day. AHF also contributed eighty hand-made masks donated by a Wellesley-based volunteer sewing group. We plan to contribute 120 more produce boxes to CRCH’s constituency over the next three weeks. With additional support, we can increase the number of households served and even extend the program into June.

Even before the pandemic, many CRCH patients were struggling to get by. Seventy-one percent were living at 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, and many were forced to work two jobs to make ends meet – jobs that have disappeared or become much more hazardous due to the public health crisis. Now food insecurity – an ever-present issue for so many households – has become a dire problem.

AHF and the Speedway team invite the public to participate in the Speedway Produce Program through the GoFundMe Link below. A donation of $25 will sponsor one produce box; $100 will provide four boxes over the next three weeks; $1000 will enable us to extend the program by another week. (As of this writing, we have raised $850, nearly a fifth of the way to our goal of $5000!) With this initiative, we hope to play a small role in the much wider regional efforts to ensure food access for the most vulnerable members of our community.

Support the Speedway Produce Program

For updates on the Speedway Produce Program, follow AHF’s blog and FacebookInstagram, and Twitter pages, or sign up for the The Speedway newsletter.

Staff from the Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) and Charles River Community Health pose with the first batch of Speedway Produce boxes.
Staff from AHF and Charles River Community Health with the first batch of Speedway Produce boxes.

From Markets Insider – “Twain Financial Provides $1.6 Million in Historic Tax Credit Equity to Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA”

Twain Financial Partners announced the investment of $1.6 million in federal historic tax credit equity for the historic renovation and adaptive reuse of the Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA. The Speedway is located in the North Brighton section of the growing Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 2010. The 1.28-acre site includes three adjoining parcels, including the original 1899 former historic racetrack administrative building and garage facility.

Speedway Progress Update – March 2020

Since construction began at the Speedway five months ago, the renovations have progressed by leaps and bounds. Thanks to our partners at D.F. Pray, the historic site is getting a makeover from top to bottom that is transforming what was once a collection of dilapidated buildings into a vibrant public space. Here’s what we’ve accomplished so far:

Let’s work together.
info@ahfboston.com