(Boston Natural Areas Network/Schneider Studio)
It’s back to the negotiating table for the Massachusetts Port Authority and advocates for a public walking and bicycle path adjacent to Logan International Airport, after a heated discussion at Wednesday’s Boston Conservation Commission hearing.
At its March 23 hearing, the commission directed Massport officials to meet with neighborhood residents who support extending the East Boston Greenway from Bremen Street Park across the edge of the airport’s North Service Area. The agency had come before the commission seeking approval to build a more environmentally friendly bus depot on that site to replace an existing maintenance facility in Chelsea.
This extension of the greenway would bring its supporters one step closer to their goal of connecting Bremen Street Park to Constitution Beach, though they would still need to extend the path another quarter-mile, probably along either an unused Massachusetts Water Resources Authority right-of-way or along Coleridge Street. From Constitution Beach, they hope to extend the path into Belle Isle Marsh, providing a bicycle- and pedestrian-safe connection across the entire length of East Boston.
But Massport officials say building a public pathway adjacent to the airport raises too many security issues in a post-9/11 world. They also point to a petition signed by 119 East Boston residents to show that not everyone in the neighborhood supports the plan, including some of those who live closest to the proposed path extension.
Advocates for the path, though, say most opponents are not true abutters but instead live across the Blue Line tracks or a street or two over from where the path’s supporters hope to see it built. They acknowledge that Massport has valid concerns about security but feel the issues can be addressed.
On Monday, April 4, neighborhood advocates and government officials who back the path sat down with Massport officials to share their goals and concerns in what both sides described as a productive meeting. But this was seen as beginning, not concluding, the discussion. At the meeting’s end there was no agreement about how or even if the agency could include the path in its construction plan.
The tensions between the two groups came to a head at Wednesday’s hearing, with strong words spoken on both sides.
District City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina — who said he spoke on behalf of State Representative Carlo Basile and State Senator Anthony Petruccelli as well — told the commission he supports the plan for a more environmentally friendly bus depot and welcomes the benefits it will bring to the community, but he wants to see a greenway connection included.
He recalled how, during his own childhood in East Boston, Bremen Street was an unsightly area where trash was allowed to pile up. But today, through cooperation between Massport and the community, the area has been transformed, he said, into a beautiful park where parents can take their children and it’s safe to ride a bicycle — until you reach Neptune Road, where there is a “vital piece missing.”
“We have an opportunity today to complete that greenway,” LaMattina said.
Commissioner Stephen T. Kunian asked LaMattina what he made of the petition signed by 119 residents opposing the plan.
“I can tell you in my experience in East Boston, when we were proposing Piers Park, people were opposing it. When we were proposing Bremen Street Park, people were opposing it,” LaMattina said, citing two public green space projects that have become widely embraced by the community.
“If you want me to, I can get 1,000 people here who support the park,” he continued. “I don’t understand that opposition, to be honest with you.”
Neptune Circle resident Allison Snow, who lives just across the Blue Line tracks from the proposed depot, said she doesn’t oppose the greenway and didn’t sign the anti-extension petition when she was asked to. But Snow still has concerns about security and noise control on the path and doesn’t believe there is funding to support policing the area.
Advocates for the path said it should be possible to provide ample security because the areas around the path are in the unusual position of being secured by four police agencies — Boston Police, Massachusetts State Police at Constitution Beach, MBTA Police at Wood Island Station and Massport Police at the airport.
They pointed out that Captain Frank Mancini, Boston Police District A-7 commander, publicly supports extending the greenway, saying that it will make the area safer and easier for his officers to patrol.
Gretchen Schneider, an architect hired by the Boston Natural Areas Network to develop a plan for the extension, said that Mancini is putting together statistics to demonstrate how much safer the Bremen Street Park area is now than it was before the park was built. Schneider, who has worked on projects in high-security areas of lower Manhattan, said she had confidence that all the issues around the extension could be worked out.
“It’s complex, to be sure. It takes a lot of people around the table to make it happen,” Schneider said. “But it absolutely can be done.”
When one advocate expressed concern that Massport might not continue its talks with the community without prompting by the commission, Lowell Richards, chief development officer for the agency, said outgoing CEO Thomas Kinton had issued a written statement that the discussions with the community would continue.
Richards said it was unnecessary for the Conservation Commission to have any further role in those talks and pointed out that the proposed path area between the depot site and the Blue Line tracks was outside the resource area governed by the commission and thus the issue fell outside their jurisdiction.
Richards went on to say that after meeting with the greenway extension supporters on Monday, Massport had met with the path’s opponents on Tuesday, whose numbers were greater than the advocates had indicated and who had strong and well-articulated reasons to oppose the path.
The airport’s top priority, Richards said, had to be its security. “This area is a highly sensitive and previously identified area of concern,” he said.
After Richards said he had just heard for the first time that the greenway proponents preferred to extend the path along the shoreline rather than beside the Blue Line tracks, LaMattina forcefully countered that claim, saying a waterfront path had been the preferred option since talks on the issue began in 1997.
“For you to come here saying this is the first time you heard this, that’s absolutely wrong,” LaMattina said.
And Richards’ statements provoked pushback from some commissioners who questioned his premises. “In my experience,” Kunian said, “the one thing that helps security … is public access and public involvement.”
Richards told Kunian he believed “aviation security is different than general security.”
Antonia Pollak, who heads the Boston Parks and Recreation Department as well as sitting on the commission, referred to Massport as a “900-pound gorilla” that takes what it wants.
“My concern is that Massport comes before this commission chronically asking to build in Boston Harbor, but when we ask you to make part of the shoreline accessible to the public” the agency does not cooperate, Pollak said.
Pollak said East Boston residents had a right to access their shoreline and that it would have been wonderful if Massport had come back to the commission with a proposal that resembled Piers Park, the large park facing downtown Boston that the agency built in the 1990s. “I’m very disappointed by this response,” she said.
In the end, the commission delayed voting on the request for two more weeks. Since Richards appeared to be correct in asserting the commission lacked jurisdiction to require cooperation on the greenway plan, Pollak based her motion to continue the matter on a request for written responses to earlier questions about revisions to the planned fence and stormwater filtration ditch along the edge of the proposed depot site.
But Vivien Li, the acting chair, said the commission would also expect an update on the talks between Massport and the community. The commission will meet again on April 20.
Email Jeremy C. Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Massachusetts Port Authority)