All posts by David Maerz

Historic Preservation + Contextual Design

Regarding Overpasses

Over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to attempt to break down my proposal for the Mass Pike Realignment into bite-size chunks. After being asked a few questions regarding the feasibility of extending currently dead-end streets near the BU across the Pike and into Lower Allston, I decided this would be the perfect place to start.

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As it currently stands, a vast swath of Lower Allston is cut off from Allston proper and the remainder of Boston by the chasm that is the Mass Pike and the MBTA’s Worcester Line. To access the commercial district along Commonwealth Ave, the B branch of the Green Line, or downtown Boston, residents must take a detour to the only practical crossing at Cambridge Street.

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Demand for this crossing is high. Jobs, education, restaurants, transit, entertainment, and myriad other amenities require Lower Allston residents to trek out of their way every day. After crossing at Cambridge Street, there are only two north-south streets that are practical to reach Comm Ave and the Green Line; and they are narrow and vastly over capacity.Image

This demand is not only one-way. Not only do Lower Allston residents need to return to their homes at the end of the day, but there are many attractions in the neighborhood and beyond that encourage those from the south to trek north. Access to the Mass Pike, Harvard and Central Squares in Cambridge, the massive redevelopment currently under construction at Barry’s Corner, Herter Park for its scenic beauty and canoe rentals, and the Allston Public Library all reside on the far side of the Pike. The same two streets are used for reverse travel as well.

If only there were some way to shorten this trip and reduce overcrowding on Linden Street and Harvard Avenue…

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Dead-ending at the abandoned Beacon Park rail yards, Malvern Street, Babcock Street and Agganis Way (itself an extension of Pleasant Street) have the potential to triple the current capacity on this North-South journey while slashing trip times.

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The maps that precede this one were made primarily from a pedestrian viewpoint. But drivers can not be forgotten, after all, this projects genesis is rebuilding a highway. So lets take a look at a pretty common trip: from the entrance/exit of the Mass Pike in Lower Allston to around Babcock Street on Comm Ave. That is, everyone going to or from the Pike from Allston, BU, Kenmore, Brookline, parts of Brighton, and possibly the Longwood Medical area and beyond. Any car exiting or entering the Massachusetts Turnpike from the south must cram through the tiny streets of Allston Village.

In the 1.4 Miles it takes to go this roundabout route, one encounters seven traffic lights. If an overpass were added at Babcock Street, this trip would be cut by more than half, to less than 0.6 Miles, all while bypassing the ultra-congested heart of Allston Village. But that only benefits drivers, coming from afar on the turnpike.

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From the top floors of some homes in Lower Allston, one can see the Green Line running down the center of Commonwealth Avenue. And yet to get to it, one must walk far out of the way across Cambridge Street. Once across that overpass, your lowly pedestrian may either choose to take their life in their hands and make a legal yet extremely dangerous crossing at Linden Street** (as shown), or go even further out of their way to Harvard Ave.

Starting at the intersection of Empire and North Harvard Street to the MBTA stop at Packards corner, the current walk is nearly a mile. If an overpass were built at Malvern Street, that same journey would be reduced by a third of a mile, to just around 0.6.

**A crossing is legal if it is more than 300 feet from a marked crosswalk. Linden Street is nearly 400′ from the nearest crossing, meaning that despite the DOT dropping Jersey Barriers and proposing a fence to discourage crossing here, it is perfectly legal and within your rights. 720 CMR 9.09

In recent years, the city has made some great strides to improve cycling facilities. Bike Lanes on Comm Ave and around the neighborhood have vastly improved the experience of cycling downtown. Of course, long before the lanes were striped, Allston has had a wonderful, carfree way to bike downtown via the Paul Dudley White bike path, at least theoretically.

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If your proverbial cyclist was to start at Packards Corner to take the bike path downtown, they essentially have two choices. Either risk 1.1 miles on the right hook and dooring prone Comm Ave to the nearest overpass at BU Central, or 1.3 miles on the the equally deathalicious Cambridge Street. Building an overpass at the end of Agganis Way cuts that trip down to a mere half mile.

 

So extending these streets would be unquestionably good for the area. It would reduce trip times for automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians. It would drastically reduce the amount of traffic crawling through Allston Village, not to mention air pollution from all those idling vehicles. But the question remains, is it feasible? Many people have noted that in this section, the railroad tracks and highway are at grade, directly at ground level. This is true, however as luck would have it, this grade descends from Commonwealth Ave towards the Mass Pike, considerably so in the last block between Ashford Street and the tracks.

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AGGANIS WAY —— 100′ Run, 7′ Rise (7% Grade)

At Agganis Way, BU has constructed a retaining wall next to the tracks, that is by visual estimate at least twelve feet high. Above, I have used the terrain feature from Google Earth to model a bridge from this location. While GE is not entirely accurate, it is close enough for these purposes. As you can see in the picture below, taken from Buick Street, Agganis Way (where the road curves out of view at the top of the photo) is considerably higher than the adjacent tracks.

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Some quick background on my bridge models. Interstate Highway standards mandate 16′ of vertical clearance, and (not that it matters for local streets), a maximum 7% grade. To make things a bit harder on myself, I instead used CSX railroads recommended minimum vertical clearance for double stack containers, which is 22’6″. To account for the margin of error in Google Earth terrain, I made the clearance at least 23’6″. In short, the bridge’s I’m showing are higher than necessary. The bridge itself is three feet thick.

Getting back to Agganis Way, thanks to the retaining wall, the grade to climb is very short, starting roughly at the end of BUs 33 Agganis Way dormitory tower. Below is a (very) rough rendering of how it could appear from street level.

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BABCOCK STREET —— 230′ Run, 14′ Rise (6% Grade)

Moving west to Babcock Street, we have another bridge with no problem to get up and over the railroad and any other at-grade structure. As you can tell in the photo below, from Ashford Street, Babcock slowly descends to near level with the tracks, meaning that a bridge starting in this location already has considerably less height to climb.

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The only complexity in constructing this overpass would be relocating the loading bays for some BU services, seen at the very rear left of the above picture. The fire exits seen on the right would also have to be moved or otherwise accommodated. In the grand scheme of the project, these issues are relatively minor. Seen below another rough rendering from approximately the same location.

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MALVERN STREET —— 270′ Run, 13’6″ Rise (5% Grade)

The final potential crossing I examined was Malvern Street. Like the two previous sites, a decline from Ashford Street makes the start of the bridge already higher than the tracks and highway it has to cross.

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A bridge at Malvern Street is no problem, however the site has a few challenges. unlike the previous two examples, Malvern ends at Ashford Street instead of the tracks. This means that a taking would be required, and the small one story building at the left of frame above would have to be demolished. In addition, Malvern Street is narrower than either Babcock St or Agganis way. Narrow streets are certainly not unique in Boston, and this issue could be mitigated by making the road either one way or removing on-street parking. However, as is the case with Babcock Street, these issues are relatively minor, and hardly unheard of in similar construction.

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I believe I have stated it previously, but I am not a traffic engineer, or an engineer of any kind. I don’t have survey equipment or the tools to 100% accurately take measurements on this scale. However, with the resources available to me, I see no reason why MassDOT could not construct overpasses in these locations as part of the realignment project. The effects on traffic reduction and load spreading would be incredible. Access between Lower Allston and Comm Ave would be vastly improved. In the scope of rebuilding a large interchange, three overpasses are hardly going to break the budget. Since these new overpasses would be used to spread traffic to and from the turnpike, it is firmly within the scope of this project.

At the very least, MassDOT needs to send an engineering team here to determine exactly why, or why not this can happen. No is not an answer, facts and figures are.Image

 

 

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The Charlesgate

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While looking at my proposal for the Mass Pike realignment, several people have pointed out that drivers should not be encouraged to use Storrow Drive, instead encouraging traffic to use the Mass Pike, so Storrow may one day be downgraded or all out eliminated. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, but getting traffic off the Pike and onto Storrow is a long process that will involve exits being added to the Pike, better transit, and an assessment of what is more important to Bostonians: at-grade access to the Esplanade, or free flowing traffic.

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This used to be a park.

As part of this plan, I have superimposed a new street grid on top of the existing one. Below, you will see the Bowker overpass completely removed, with traffic exiting and entering Storrow using the at-grade roadways of Charlesgate East and West. The mainline of Storrow Drive is reconfigured as an overpass, which would be constructed of stone similar to that which carries the Riverway over Boylston street. This enables the Muddy River to be restored in this section to Olmsted’s original vision, as pictured above.

But wait, MassDOT has said this would be impossible as the traffic volumes existing and entering the Bowker would simply overwhelm the intersections!

This may be true, even though car ownership is showing to be in decline, many cars use the Bowker to access the Fens and Longwood from points east and west. But this does not mean we have to keep an overpass cutting through the heart of the Back Bay. It means we must find a way to get these users to the Fens and Longwood without having to use Storrow Drive in the first place.

As such, I have reconfigured the westernmost portion of Newbury Street into a Collector/Distributor road. Cars can enter from Mass Ave, Charlesgate East or West and Kenmore Street to access the Mass Pike westbound. Cars exiting the westbound Pike can use this same road to access Charlesgate East, Kenmore Street, and Brookline Avenue.

Removing the Bowker and consolidating the ramps at its Northern edge allow a massive amount of the Esplanade to be restored, as well as the majority of the original Charlesgate. Cycling facilities could be vastly improved, and at-grade pedestrian access is possible.

 

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As always, make sure to click for full resolution.

This is not perfect. The eastbound Mass Pike does not have room for exits in this location due to the adjacent railroad tracks. A separate project (that MassDOT and Boston University have been looking at) could address this by adding ramps at Mountfort or Saint Marys St just west of this location, while also improving a terrible traffic inducing interchange at the BU Bridge.

However, MassDOTs decision that it is not possible to remove the Bowker overpass at this location is unacceptable. It has to be, but the scope of the project must be increased far beyond the simple overpass. A systematic program of increasing the utility of the Mass Pike and other redundant roadways, improving transit and bike usage, and downgrading Storrow Drive similar to New York City’s West Side Drive should be begun. As with the Beacon Park interchange in Allston, the solution here is to look at a much wider picture.

Mass Pike Realignment

MassDOT is planning to alter the alignment of I-90, the Massachusetts Turnpike, through Allston. With a former rail yard now unused, there is potential to straighten the mainline of the turnpike and condense a spidering mess of ramps and toll booths to open up land for development. Recently, the DOT released two conceptual plans along with announcing the project.

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MassDOT Plan 1
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MassDOT Plan 2

 

The official MassDOT plans suffer in that they are primarily designs for high speed roads: while opening up land for development is noted, it appears very little thought was put into it. In addition, the plan does little to address a traffic nightmare that currently exists at Cambridge Street, where all drivers exiting and entering the Pike are forced through a small stretch of roadway. In addition, there is a nearby parkway with even further deficient on and off ramps that further compounds the traffic situation. This parkway, Soldiers Field Road, also is directly next to the Charles River, ruining an otherwise continuous linear park along its edge. Soldiers Field Road is not under control of the MassDOT, but rather the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and it does not appear the two departments have sat down to see if they could help each other out in this massively transformative project.

For some time, this has been a pet project of mine. With the announcement and release of these deficent plans, I started working on a proposal to counter it.

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Be sure to click for full resolution.

Please be sure to let me know what you think below! Over the past few months I have already amended several elements of the plan thanks to some great suggestions from local residents, and look forward to continuing to do so.

Transit and Development

A demographic shift appears to be occurring in which the younger generation is less enamored with the “car culture” of their parents, and is choosing with greater and greater frequency to live car free. In addition, many older “empty nesters” are returning from the suburbs to the city center, desiring a more immerse environment in which to retire. Both of these trends are evident by simply gazing at the Boston city skyline: it is littered with cranes. However, there is only one project currently in the works to extend the rapid transit network, and it has been cut back from its original length; more must be done if this trend is to continue. I believe that just as the previous two generations built out a world class interstate highway network, it will be the next two generations legacy to compliment that with rail, both regional and rapid transit.

That being said, here is my vision for the MBTA at the latter half of this century:

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Be sure to click for full resolution. Beware, its large.

Almost all of my proposed extensions use existing abandoned or underused railroad right of ways. I plan a whole series explaining each extensions and it’s logistics. For now, consider this map and its google maps counterpart a teaser.

Cleaning the Desktop…

Every time I work on anything, I fill my desktop with a ton of files. Usually its just autosaves, pictures for making textures, text files of notes, test renderings, and other garbage I delete when I get a chance. Every once and a while though, a gem gets lost in the mix, like these two night renders of my Twin Donuts proposal:

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If I recall, I abandoned this file because the interior of the cafe kept crashing my computer. I may return to it one day, particularly since the Hamilton Company is now looking at renovating the existing building.

Farm Kitchen Photoshoot

It’s a great feeling when a project looks as good as it does in its renderings. Even better is when it surpasses them. I previously posted about a kitchen I designed for a 1780 colonial, and recently got a chance to shoot some pictures of it complete. I feel pretty good.

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The fridge is a Liebherr, chosen for its lack of conspicuous vents and clean lines, which allow it to blend in to the historic home despite being very modern.

The first four pictures are as close to shot-for-shot as possible to the previous renderings.

Island W
The built-in to the far right houses the microwave and toaster oven, with extra deep drawers beneath for tupperware and wraps.
Island E
Beyond the island is a small seating area, perfect for a morning cup of coffee. Through the door on the right one can spy the door to a 5″ deep spice rack built into the side of the pantry.
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The pantry is not yet complete, but I could not resist snapping a few quick photos of my favorite piece.
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The next time I return I will need to find a wide angle lens to capture the pantry in full.
Corner Cab
The antique corner cabinet was used as inspiration for the entire project.
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The original fireplaces were removed long ago, the existing one was built between the two rooms in the 1970s by a Welsh mason.
Rattail
The wrought iron rat tail hinges used throughout the kitchen were custom made by a Pennsylvania blacksmith. The range is an Aga Six-Four. Discontinued for a few years, finding one in maroon took months of searching until we stumbled upon this one in a dusty corner of a showroom.
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The soapstone counters and sink were done by Jason Chizmar of Atlantic Soapstone. I can’t say enough good things about Jason; his craft is top notch and his eye for detail unmatched. All the pieces were cut on site, and he even took the time to fabricate a small filler piece to go behind the stove when he noticed there was a gap.
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A hole in the beam from previous construction is perfectly repurposed to hold an oven mitt. The small bookshelf built in to the end of the island is perfect for cookbooks.

As a full disclaimer, this was my first shot at both kitchen and lighting design. By carefully planning out what each space was to be used for down to the individual drawer, I was able to maximize work space while allowing multiple people to co-exist in the room, a failure of the previous kitchen. Other challenges included multiple paths of egress that had to be preserved (four in total), sight lines out the various windows that could not be moved, very little natural light, and the fireplace directly in the center. In addition, the room had been renovated as a dining room very recently, and the homeowner wished to preserve as much of that work as possible.