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Comments on Planned Development Area for the Air Rights Parcel 12 Project

Comments on Planned Development Area for the Air Rights Parcel 12 Project

July 22, 2019

Aisling Kerr
Boston Planning & Development Agency
City Hall, 9th Floor
One City Hall Square
Boston, MA 02201-1001

Re: Development Plan for the Planned Development Area for the Air Rights Parcel 12 Project

Dear Ms. Kerr:

WalkBoston has reviewed the proposal for the development of Parcel 12 in Boston’s Back Bay, and believe that it will significantly improve the pedestrian environment on what is now a wind- swept and uncomfortable bridge above the MassPike. The site design shows significant attention to the movement, comfort and amenities of people coming to and through it, and should provide an inviting new space for people to walk and linger. We are pleased that the tunnel under Mass Ave will be reopened allowing people to make intermodal transfers between buses, blue bikes, and walking and the Green Line without crossing Mass Ave. We do have some thoughts about some of the complex pedestrian and bicycle movements that the site must accommodate and would like to share the following comments.

Our Understanding of the Parcel 12 Development Project

The proposed development of Parcel 12, located between Newbury and Boylston Streets, and fronting on Massachusetts Avenue, consists of two towers – an office tower and a residential/ hotel tower on either side of a park located above the Turnpike. The two towers are located partially on existing terra firma and partially on air rights above the Turnpike and the commuter rail tracks. The proposed park, situated primarily on a platform using air rights above the Turnpike, contains facilities for both pedestrians and bicycles.

Public open space for the project totals 28,000 square feet on three levels. The public space facing Mass Ave is likely to be the most heavily used space for pedestrians and is described as a public gathering space where 16,000 square feet on the street level is dedicated to primarily pedestrian activities. The remainder of the open space is located either along Boylston Street or on two raised levels that bridge the space between the two dominant on-site buildings.

In the 16,000 square feet of open space along Mass Ave – a large triangle – a significant number of activities are planned. These include generous sidewalks of varying widths along Mass Ave and along the facades of the two proposed buildings. The open space also contains landscaping, bicycle facilities, bike racks, trash receptacles, lighting, street trees in raised planters, an expanded bus shelter on Mass Ave, a new headhouse (called a kiosk) with elevator and stairway to Hynes Green Line Station via a tunnel under Mass.Ave, and seating elements integrated into the rim of the bicycle path or in treed areas. Outdoor dining areas line two sides of the triangular open space.

The lobby entrance into the hotel-residential building faces this Mass Ave oriented open space, and the lobby entrance of the office building is located on Boylston St.

Access to the frequent buses on Mass Ave is a dominant use of the Mass Ave fronting sidewalk. The existing bus stop shelter is to be replaced next to a wider Mass Ave sidewalk with a larger shelter to serve the 140’ long bus stop on Mass Ave which can serve as many as three buses at a time. A new connection to the Green Line is provided, connecting the Parcel 12 site and the entrance to the subway on the east side of Mass Ave via on-site access to a stairway and elevator that links to an abandoned under-street tunnel for pedestrians. In addition to the Mass Ave sidewalk, a broad and generally parallel sidewalk leads from the Boylston Street entrance to the site to the Newbury Street entrance. A bicycle path is located between this sidewalk and the Mass Ave sidewalk.

Signal timing

The Project will include a full intersection redesign and the installation of new traffic signal equipment at the intersection of Mass Ave and Newbury Street, with a more limited set of intersection and signalization improvements planned for the intersection of Mass Ave and Boylston Street.

  • Per the MassDOT Separated Bike Lane Design Guide, pedestrian signal timing near separated bike lanes should include sufficient clearance time for a pedestrian to cross the entire roadway including the bike lanes and street buffers. Both intersections fit this description, and should have that additional time included for people walking.
  • In the Boston Smart Utilities filing (p 584-585), ‘Adaptive Signal Technology’ is referenced as a consideration, “where appropriate, and feasible.” We would encourage the proponent to adhere to the forward-looking signal policies put forth in the GoBoston 2030 plan, since the City of Boston’s current Signal Timing Guidelines do not yet reflect that same vision. ‘Smart Signals’ should be able to ‘see’ and serve the needs of people walking and biking as well as people in vehicles. Likewise, we urge the timing be used to improve bus service along Mass Ave and not be allowed to delay buses along Mass Ave in order to push more vehicles through the Mass/Newbury intersection to access the I-90W ramp.

Plaza level bicycle path

The bicycle path is a potential problem for people circulating throughout the new plaza, raising several issues:

  • Both north and south of the boundaries of Parcel 12, the bicycle lane is a protected lane located behind a row of parked cars along Mass Ave on the west side of the street. On the proposed plaza between Newbury Street and Boylston Street, the proposed bicycle path leaves the street and crosses the land included in the new park provided by Parcel 12. Although this appears to have been planned to avoid having bicycles compete with buses on-street, it results in bicycles having to compete for space with pedestrians.
  • Bicycles on the bike path will intersect at a right angle with an important pedestrian route between the bus stop and access to the Green Line in the new kiosk. At this location, many transit riders are changing modes (bus to Green Line, Green Line to bus). People who are connecting between these two transit services will be required to cross the bicycle path to make the connection, unless they cross Mass Ave midblock illegally or use the Boylston St. or the Newbury St. crosswalks. We are concerned that the large pedestrian volumes in this area, and especially the potentially large groups of people transferring between buses and the Green Line, may result in conflicts between people walking and biking. We would encourage a close examination of this issue with the use of projected bus transfer, pedestrian and bicycle volumes.
  • There are potential bicycle/pedestrian conflicts at the crosswalks on Newbury and Boylston Streets. Bicycles make the move from the street-based bike route north of the site into the on-site bike path across pedestrian flows on the crosswalk at Newbury Street and leave the Parcel 12 site by crossing pedestrian traffic on the Boylston Street crosswalk to reach the street-based route of the bicycle path on Mass Ave south of the site. We would encourage making the spaces for pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross the street generous, to discourage further conflicts and enable efficient crossings.
  • The proposed open space containing the Mass Ave sidewalk, the bicycle path, the wider sidewalk between Newbury and Boylston Streets, the bus stop and the kiosk leading to the underground tunnel to the Green Line Hynes Station comprises a 16,000 square foot destination. We urge you to compare the proposed space with the downtown park at the intersection of Washington Street and School Street, sometimes called “Readers Park.” The plaza and street area in both locations are roughly similar in dimensions. The Downtown plaza is occupied by outdoor tables, landscaping, benches, the Irish Famine Memorial, benches and street trees. A wide sidewalk stretches along Washington Street, and an even wider sidewalk fronts onto Walgreens. Both are flooded with pedestrians every day, and the plaza seems to offer little space where a bike path could be threaded through it. It would be interesting to compare projected numbers of pedestrians in Parcel 12 with the actual numbers at Readers Park.

We encourage the proponent to consider some options that could minimize potential conflicts between the on-site bicycle path and pedestrians including the following:

  1. Keep bicycles on-street on Mass Ave. This could be a shared bus/bike lane allowing a direct continuous path for cyclists on Mass Ave since southbound cyclists north and south of Parcel 12 are already in the street and not potentially conflicting with pedestrian space on the sidewalk.
  2. A separated, on-street bike lane with a floating bus stop. As an alternative, consider the possibility of a separated, marked bike lane on-street with a floating bus stop: similar to what is being built in the Commonwealth Ave Phase 2A Project, even if it means taking space from the plaza. This would avoid requiring cyclists to leave the Mass Ave pavement, and cross several different pedestrian paths at north and south crosswalk entrances to the Parcel 12 development to get to a 260’ long bicycle path through this busy plaza.
  3. Move the Green Line kiosk and stairway east, to be closer to the bus stop. It may be possible to reposition the kiosk with access to the Green Line via elevator and stairs closer to the bus stop. This shortens and makes the route more direct between the bus stop and the kiosk, and would allow the bicycle path to be moved a bit further away from potential conflicts with transit riders making connections between buses and the Green Line, but bicycles would not be trying to move through the group of people making the connection.
  4. Design the proposed bicycle path 2”-3” lower than the pedestrian areas. A 2”-3” vertical difference drop with angled edges would emphasize the path, and make its edges less abrupt. There would need to be one or more raised crosswalks, especially for the potentially heavily used route between the bus stop and the Green Line access kiosk. The raised crossing would clearly help direct pedestrians while signaling to, and slowing down, bicycle riders as they pass through the pedestrian crossing. There may need to be warning signs to avoid pedestrians tripping at the edge of the path. The proponent could add tactile longitudinal strips to guide visually impaired people and further warn pedestrians near the bike path. The proposed parallel row of bollards helps to define the bike path, but some cyclists view bollards as dangerous if one needs to jump in or out of the bike path.
  5.  Make sure that there is a back on the “bench” that is next to the cycle track behind the bus stop to eliminate people sitting facing Mass Ave with their legs going into the cycle track.

Boylston Street Access

  1. Another design issue that we believe should be re-considered is the Boylston St. vehicular access to the office building. At the loading zone and vehicle entrance to the office building on Boylston Street, trucks may have to back into the loading zone area, creating a difficult safety issue for pedestrians walking along the street, as well as the traffic disruption that backing vehicles may cause on Boylston St. Requiring police units to help trucks or parkers seems to indicate that a certain level of difficulty in using this space is anticipated and the difficulty cannot be resolved in the present design. Perhaps the proposed parking spots along Boylston St. could become truck loading zones to alleviate the problem.
  2. The proponent and the City should evaluate requiring all vehicles exiting the parcel to turn right on Boylston Street. We believe that left-turning vehicles would pose a hazard to pedestrians walking along the sidewalk and would also disrupt traffic on Boylston Street. We do not believe that the proponent will be able to have a police officer directing traffic at all times.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on this important project.

Sincerely,

Wendy Landman
Executive Director

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