Upstaged by DNC, street project faces delay
It took nearly a decade of pestering, phone campaigns, and sit-ins before residents near the concrete mess along Cambridge Street in Boston persuaded city and state officials to install the red brick sidewalks and tree-lined medians that Mayor Thomas M. Menino promised when he pledged a "grand boulevard."
But now that construction has started, now that pavement has been torn up and some sidewalks reduced to rubble, officials are talking about another delay, this time because of the looming Democratic National Convention. Worried that construction projects like the one on Cambridge Street, with their noise, mess, and maze of traffic-snarling orange barrels, would give the wrong impression to the tens of thousands of expected visitors, officials are looking to pave over what they've done and leave the project dormant until after the convention ends.
City construction officials say they'll get as much done as they can before "prettying it up" in May and leaving it until some time after the convention ends in late July. The postponement has grabbed the attention of state legislators and other officials, who say it is a sign that the effects of the mammoth political event next summer will reverberate in Boston's city life for months before and after. And neighbors of the project worry that, once interrupted, the Cambridge Street improvements could take plenty of time to get going again.
"I don't know how much money it costs to lay the pavement and dig it up again, but it has to cost a lot," said Karen Cord Taylor, a Beacon Hill resident who publishes the Beacon Hill Times and helped lead a neighborhood fight for the Cambridge Street improvements. "And they're going to be so exhausted from the convention, there won't be any impetus to come back and finish the job."
Security officials are considering shutting down parts of Interstate 93 and closing North Station during the four-day convention. News has also come that the annual Tall Ships festival has been canceled, partly because the crowds it would bring downtown in mid-July would be too much to contend with so close to the July 26th start of the convention.
"We've had the tall ships many times in Boston; we'll have them many more," said state Representative Paul C. Demakis, who is upset by the delay in the Cambridge Street project. "I think we have to expect that there are going to be certain inconveniences and disappointments that have to occur in order for the convention to happen."
Menino brushed aside contentions that Bostonians will suffer inconveniences or delays as nonsense. "We're moving forward," he said of the Cambridge Street project, though he added that construction will be delayed. "Will there will be some stoppage of construction in close proximity [to the convention]? That's common sense."
Joseph F. Casazza, the city's commissioner of public works, said construction will be prohibited for about two months preceding the convention in a large "impact zone" around the FleetCenter, where the convention is to be held. He added that anywhere delegates will be, he won't allow construction during the weeks of preparations for the convention or during the convention itself.
Before the end of May, Casazza said, he plans to send crews into the impact zone to "pretty it up" for the event, then leave it alone.
Prettying up Cambridge Street would consist of picking up the debris and laying a thin coating of asphalt across the road, Casazza said. Then "if we need to," he said, the city could continue the construction project in fall 2004.
That would mean digging up the asphalt and tearing up the sidewalks all over again.
State transportation officials who are working with the city on the street's redesign have said city officials knew the Cambridge Street construction would not be finished in time for the convention. "The mayor wanted all projects buttoned up before the DNC," said John Cogliano, state highway commissioner. "There's not enough time here . . . so we'll button it up before the DNC then resume afterward."
Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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