Congressman Michael Capuano called together a public meeting last month to discuss the concerns of some residents about the City of Boston’s plans to improve Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square, but thanks to organizers in the neighborhood (including members of the BCU), supporters of the city’s plan slightly outnumbered those in opposition.
The city’s “surface option” plan for the area was approved by the community last year in a process that included seven public meetings, and would create a far more pedestrian and bike friendly square as well as a linear, SW Corridor-like park down Rutherford Avenue to connect with the N. Washington St. Bridge, the locks over the Charles, and ultimately the Harborwalk. The plan even won an “Outstanding Planning Award” from the Massachusetts chapter of the America Planning Association.
But Bill Galvin, a member of the Charlestown Neighborhood Council and Jim Dillon, a former council member-both of whom were involved in the original process but unsatisfied with its outcome-have been leading a charge against the plan, mainly because it eliminates an underpass that allows traffic to flow through at high speed. In the weeks leading up to the meeting they took to the streets with flyers and petitions in hand and riled up a much larger group of residents who were not familiar with the plan and hadn’t known of the community process that took place, which was well advertised in the Charlestown Patriot Bridge, the local paper, at the time.
Once the rumor spread about Capuano’s intention to call a meeting to hear the Galvin group’s concerns, the new Charlestown bike group and the Boston Cyclists Union got involved with a larger effort including the Friends of Sullivan Square and a new group called Surface Option Supporters to back up the plan and turn out supporters to Capuano’s May 18 meeting. All in all around 200 people showed up.
At the beginning of the meeting, the Congressman took a somewhat nuanced approach. He asked for people’s opinions, but also seemed to discredit the process that took place and raise concerns about the plan. Speaking of those who were involved in the community process, Congressman Capuano said, “their civic involvement does not allow them to disregard the folks who may be not as civically involved. I want to do what you want, but I need to know what that is on a consensus basis.” Of the traffic engineers who created the plan and produced studies that deemed it feasible, he said “I’ve never met one that couldn’t come to the conclusion that I want them to.” He went on to highlight the fear that some have about people cutting through other Charlestown streets by saying he would likely be among them if the plan went forward. “I’m probably going to be one that doesn’t want to wait at a red light and I’m going to try and find an alternative,” he said.
But as the meeting went on, it became clear that those who knew the details of the plan were more likely to support it and those who did not know of it were more likely to be concerned or opposed. Nearly a dozen people who said they were part of the process supported the plan, whereas Galvin and Dillon were the only two who participated who said they were opposed.
“I was impressed with that process, I’m still impressed with that process and I think we should keep the decision that process made,” said Boston Cyclists Union member and Charlestown resident Nathan Blanchet.
“Yea it wasn’t everybody,” agreed Charlestown resident Jim Fantini, but “democracy was at its best at those meetings.”
“Cars are going to be backed up,” said Galvin, criticizing the plan. “The quality of life is going down… The surface plan creates more and better development parcels. That’s money for the BRA, real estate taxes for the city. The city is sacrificing the people of Charlestown for its own interests. What’s in the best interest of the city is not in the best interest of Charlestown.”
“You can’t look at it in a tunnel,” countered Charlestown resident Jane Bryant. “It’s a whole piece and it works all together.” Calling the new plan for Rutherford “the local elevator,” she said “they’re not going to get on the local elevator, they’re going to want to get on that I-93, which we paid a dear price for. We’ve paid our dues, we’ve done our due diligence, it’s time to take back Rutherford Ave.”
By our count, out of 51 speakers, 27 were clearly in support, and 19 clearly opposed, with the remainder undecided or unclear.
Perhaps reacting to the support from the community, Capuano was adamant that he would not block the plan, reminding the crowd that he originally secured a $17 million earmark to help fund it.
“I’ll go back and take a look at this,” he said. “Contact my office, write a letter, I know there are some petitions going around and that’s fine. I will tell you what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to stop this project… I’m going to go back and if it takes a few more weeks or a few more months, so be it, I need to be more comfortable.”
Vineet Gupta, director of planning for the City of Boston Transportation Department, was satisfied with the meeting when reached by phone the next day.
“I think the meeting went well,” he said. “There was support and ratification for the process that was held. So I think that was a good thing.”
To help the Congressman inform his decision, the Surface Option Supporters group in Charlestown has named tomorrow (Thursday, June 15) a day to contact Capuano’s office and let him know why you support the Surface Option and the city’s community-approved plan for Sullivan Square and Rutherford Ave. This is a friendly affair so be kind about it, but if you use the area on a regular basis please do contact the Congressman at (617) 621-6208 or using his website at http://www.house.gov/capuano/contact/email.shtml.