Efforts to revamp the dark concrete space underneath Interstate 93 between South Boston and the South End are progressing, Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials told residents Monday night.
Since late 2013, MassDOT has been constructing parking lots underneath the hulking structure that carries traffic into and out of Boston. Eventually, 432 public parking spaces, lighting, and security will be added to the approximately 8-acre area in three separate lots.
Phase 1 of the parking project features the construction of two lots for 235 parking spaces accessible from Albany Street. Improved pedestrian connections and added lighting along West 4th Street, which connects to the South End’s East Berkeley Street, are included in the plan. An operator for the two lots will be selected by the summer.
Phase 2 of the project is the construction of 192 parking spaces accessible from Traveler Street by December.
Some of the parking will be reserved for electrical vehicle charging and ZipCar parking.
As part of the project, a number of improvements will be made to the area, including the possible addition of public art, event space, lighting, and walking paths.
Money generated by the parking lots will eventually pay for their construction, said MassDOT.
On Monday, residents and area advocates began discussions about more permanent public realm improvements to the area. In addition to MassDOT’s funds, the project has $250,000 to spend specifically on the improvements. The money was donated by the developers of 275 Albany St., according to the Boston Herald.
Temporary artistic lighting has already been added to the lots along East Berkeley Street, with permanent improvements expected in the near future.
Planners also discussed the future of Lot 5, the area north of Traveler Street where the additional 192 parking spaces will be added.
“The parking allows us to do a bunch of secondary improvements, such as improve pedestrian and bike conditions,” Robin Blatt, a project manager for MassDOT, explained to residents.
The space has long been a haven for unwanted activities, including drug usage and homelessness. In early 2013, a man was found murdered underneath the structure.
“We had a situation out here where MassDOT was using the space with the concentration on the highway above,” said Blatt. “They were using it for a single use and we know there were some unintended consequences.”
Designers with Landing Studios, MassDOT’s consultant for the project, gave a number of examples of possible additions to the space that they believe could make a huge impact to the area.
Lot 5, which has yet to be built or fully designed, will house a number of empty areas that can’t be used for parking. The idea for those empty spaces is to create something that will draw people and add an amenity to the neighborhood. The Lot 5 construction and design phase will also include the installation of permanent public realm improvements near the other two lots.
“The strategy is to take the areas we can’t use for parking and create something positive,” Blatt said. “Instead of saying ‘keep out,’ we want to introduce as many activities as we can.”
Although a permanent design has yet to be generated, a number of creative uses were suggested for the Lot 5 space, which offers views of the Fort Point Channel.
“I’m going to propose we have some sort of dog use there,” said Bill Gleason, a South Boston resident and member of the Community Advisory Committee for the project. “If there will be one thing that will get people out there 16 hours a day, it’s a dog park.”
For the large sidewalks that connect East Berkeley Street to West 4th Street, Dan Adams, an architect with Landing, suggested a series of large, flexible lights that could illuminate the sidewalk for pedestrians and highlight public art and signs.
The space has also been imagined as an area that could support food trucks/carts, art galleries, and performance/event space. MassDOT is expected to add bike cages, crosswalks, and ramps to the area to support pedestrian and bicycle connections.
Residents at the meeting offered feedback on the proposed uses.
“It’s very loud under there,” said Michael Moss, a Fort Point resident. “Realistically, you probably couldn’t have live music.”
“For the safety of people crossing between these two locations, I’d like to see a bit of a barrier added between the road and pedestrians,” said Lindsey Chitichiello, who manages restaurants in the South End and South Boston.
Some had concerns about how the project would benefit cyclists.
“I haven’t seen anything that is going to keep me and my fellow bike riders safe,” said Jon Ramos, a South Boston resident. “If a little piece of the sidewalk could be dedicated to bikes that would help.”
Although the scope of the project does not include roadway work, designers said the project will support a connection to the South Bay Harbor trail near East Berkeley Street. A path could potentially be added from the Broadway Bridge to the Lot 5 area to help riders bypass the busy intersection near the bridge.
The Lot 5 space was pitched as an area that could include landscaping and drainage that would support the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Watersheet Activation Plan, an initiative that aims to bring more life to a cleaner Fort Point Channel.
“It may not be everything everybody wants, but it’s going to be a lot of good things for a lot of people,” explained John Romano, a community liaison for MassDOT. “We’re looking at this as a fun project…and I think we’ve already made some dramatic changes underneath the expressway.”
Over the coming months, MassDOT will meet with the Community Advisory Committee to begin the process of determine a more concrete design for Lot 5 and the sidewalks at East Berkeley and West 4th streets. A public meeting is expected to be held once the 25 percent design phase has been reached.
For more information about the project, visit the DOT’s project page.