Statement: Environmental Impact of Melnea Cass Reconstruction Plan

Several people have reached out recently to ask about our stance on Boston’s plans for overhauling Melnea Cass Boulevard. As you may have read, many Roxbury residents and environmental advocates oppose the city’s plans because they involve removing more than 100 mature trees. We share those concerns. So although the BCU has for years been supportive of the city’s goal to improve safety for all people on Melnea Cass Blvd — particularly those biking and walking — we don’t believe the current plan is the best one, nor that the process has been truly inclusive of the community’s voice and concerns.

Though many take it for granted, shade is an environmental justice issue. Trees play a critical role in boosting air quality and mitigating urban heat, but they’re distributed inequitably along racial and economic lines. Boston is no exception. Losing mature trees, even though Boston plans to plant new young ones in their place, would be a major blow to an area where more than 90% of residents are non-white, and where residents already face disproportionately poor air quality and the urban heat island effect.

Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard are leading a petition calling for a public hearing about tree removal. We support this petition, and encourage you to add your name below.

To be clear: As is, Melnea Cass is unsafe for everyone, with one of the highest crash rates in Boston for all modes of transportation. Although a narrow bike path currently spans the entire length of Melnea Cass Blvd, it is so riddled with protruding tree roots that many consider it unrideable. Something must change. 

When Boston began the latest Melnea Cass project in 2014, plans called for the removal of more than 240 trees. In response, we amplified efforts by residents (led by Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard), activists and advocacy groups to save as many trees as possible while still moving forward important mobility and safety improvements. For four years, while we were engaged with this project, advocates and the city worked together to bring the tree removal total down to 48; of those 48, we were told at least half were unhealthy and/or dying. At that time, we felt the group had made quite a bit of progress, and while no parties were entirely satisfied with the final plans, we believed this was the best possible compromise. 

However, in the two years since then, plans have somehow ballooned — out of the public eye — to a loss of 121 mature trees. We believe this latest tally is excessive, and are concerned about how Boston arrived at it despite the previous public process.

You may be wondering: Why are we speaking up now, and not sooner? 

  1. As noted above, the number of trees slated for removal more than doubled since we were last informed about the plans. At a public hearing in March 2018, Boston presented plans in the 25% design stage. A MEPA certification (standard environmental review process) of those plans showed removal of only 48 mature street trees. Satisfied with what we believed was a settled outcome, we directed our organizing efforts on other projects. It was only recently that we learned these plans had changed.
  2. We know now, even better than we did two years ago, the escalating impacts of climate change. That should be central to any calculus around environmental impact, especially when it involves a community with preexisting environmental justice issues.
  3. Boston has failed to produce a plan for maintaining and nurturing new trees. Although Boston says it would replace trees cut down for this project, it has not answered requests from residents for a commitment to to make sure those trees live and prosper
  4. Boston is unfairly pitting bike and environmental activists against each other. This is a false choice. We are not demanding a one-way bike facility on each side of the road, as plans currently call for. Although this design would provide the greatest ease of access, we would be amenable to a more modest plan that, rather than decimating trees, instead repaves and improves the existing two-way bike path on the eastern side of the street. Plus. while this project would address a high-crash corridor, it would not even address the intersection with the highest crash rate ( Melnea Cass Blvd and Mass Ave,) for all modes of travel
  5. Local groups organizing against the current design have asked us to speak up. In 2018, we scaled back our involvement in this project. Now that it is clear it’s back on the wrong track, and with local organizers asking us for support, we’re once again getting involved. To be clear: Although there is community consensus that the current design isn’t the best one, there is no consensus on what design should replace it. We don’t have that answer, but we’re poised to listen, to let the community lead, and to help them amplify calls for change. 

Where things stand now

Bike lanes are tools to not only make biking safer, but to make cities greener, too. Boston shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. 

Redrawing plans is complicated by the fact that the state has committed to fund part of the reconstruction. If Boston were to change the scope of the project now, they would likely lose some or all of that funding. We believe that’s a tradeoff the city can and should make. Boston can achieve similar project goals with a more modest $5 million project instead of a $25 million project. If Boston can afford to spend $100+ million on a downtown bridge for private shuttles, they can spend far less to fix this corridor. 

This month, the Conservation Law Foundation and Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard, raising legal questions about the public process around Melnea Cass, demanded a commitment from the city to a public tree hearing about this issue. We support that demand, and hope Boston will agree to publicly address the tree loss (and change since previous public meetings) and work to come up with a better plan.

If you agree with those goals, we encourage you to sign the petition from Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard calling for the City to hold a tree hearing here.