Saturday, May 20, 2006

More on environmental justice

At a MoveMass meeting on May 19, 2006, Stephanie Pollock, formerly with the Conservation Law Foundation and now with the Northeastern Center for Urban and Regulatory Policy, spoke about public transportation and land use policy. She reported on work underway jointly between the Center and the Urban Land Institute, a developers' group.

Rather than summarize her very informative talk, I'll just note two things of interest to those of us following the interplay of planning for the Urban Ring and Harvard's "Allston Initiative."

1.) Pollock began by emphasizing the importance of transportation to successful development. "You can't," she said, "develop just anywhere and then expect transit to parachute in." We see that access to public transportation leads development, she said, and gave examples.

This contrasted, I thought, with the gist of an MBTA Urban Ring planner's statement that "Transportation is not the tail that wags the development dog. It has to be the other way around. You have to decide that somebody is going to build something and then you ask the question how to get people in and out of there" ((quoted in The Urban Ring, Envisioning an Interconnected Boston, by Michael Keegan,

A synthesis of these two positions is probably underway in the real world right now, as we await the results of the Harvard-funded study of Transportation Alternatives in Allston for the Executive Office of Transportation. The alternatives will include the reconfiguration of the Mass Pike and public transportation, including the Urban Ring, as well as the Beacon freight yards, vital to Boston's economic competitiveness.

On the Urban Ring, I understand the Phase 2 Citizens Advisory Committee has not yet chosen consultants for revision of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Report. In fact, it seems that the contract has not yet been put out to bid. This is a delay from the schedule suggested earlier this year. Possibly the RFR depends on the delayed EOT study.

2.) Because of the importance of access to public transportation to development, there are many in the region that want it. Pollock listed 12 "entities" that have asked for it just this year. They are: Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Lynn, City Square in Worcester, the City of Worcester, Fall River, New Bedford, Harvard University, Assembly Square in Somerville, and the City of Somerville.

When I pointed out the list failed to differentiate between Harvard, which is asking for public transportation for a project in the future, and places like Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Fall River, New Bedford, and Somerville, for example, where existing populations have been underserved by public transportation for years, Pollock responded that the list was only a list--these entities had been the 12 asking for public transportation.

While this is certainly true as far as it goes, that public transportation planners would so quickly place Harvard alongside these communities where environmental justice is a real, live issue, is problematic, I think.

The Urban Land Institute is frankly a developer's organization. Harvard's Allston Initiative will spend billions of dollars over the next 50 years or so--some of it on transportation. I wonder how great the development resulting from any transportation project in any of the communities listed above would ever be, compared to what Harvard plans for Allston. If developers can calculate this, what will the planners and legislature do?

So although "environmental justice" is one criterion for choosing among competing public transportation projects, it seems a slender reed to withstand Harvard's plans to get to the head of the list. As Kathy Spiegelman, Harvard's Chief Planner for Allston said, whatever the Urban Ring is, they want it.

Toward that end, along the line of Harvard's apparently favored route for the Urban Ring Phase 2, Cambridge is confirming Cambridgeport and East Cambridge as "environmental justice" communities in a federal block grant application right now.

(I'm waiting for the announcement of a "public-private partnership" with Harvard for the Urban Ring, analogous to one for developing the Charles River Parklands with Harvard to its specifications, especially near the relocated Fogg Museum at 1380 Soldiers Field Road.)

Marilyn Wellons