City Plans Harvard to Porter Square Mass Ave Improvements

City Plans Harvard to Porter Square Mass Ave Improvements

By Karen Klinger

With its eclectic mix of small stores, restaurants, university-owned buildings and Victorian houses, many Cantabrigians consider the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter Squares to be the most interesting portion of the city's main thoroughfare. But that doesn't mean it can't be improved, and a report by residents suggesting how that could be done has been embraced by city officials who are holding a series of meetings seeking additional public input.

In March, the city sponsored a public round-table discussion of the avenue's problems and some proposed solutions that included consultants and the authors of the report, titled "Massachusetts Avenue, Harvard Square to Porter Square: A Proposal for Sustainable Improvements" (http://www2.cambridgema.gov/cdd/cp/zng/psq_cc/psq_cc_proposal.pdf). The event included an overview of Mass Ave's strengths and weaknesses by Cynthia Smith of Boston's Halvorson Design Partnerships and suggestions from residents that ranged from making it more bike and pedestrian friendly to creating pocket parks, adding crosswalks, planting more trees and adding greenery to the median strip.

Future Art Institute of Boston site

To follow up and provide an update on what's happened since then, the Cambridge Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee is holding a meeting April 7 from 5 p.m to 7 p.m. in the city hall Sullivan Chamber. The report that has formed the basis of the efforts so far is the work of residents from the two neighborhoods that border the Mass Ave stretch, Agassiz Baldwin and Neighborhood Nine, as well as businessman Charles Christopher, owner of Christropher's restaurant in Porter Square. The authors lay out four primary goals for the project:

  • Improved Streetscape and Pedestrian Safety:--The number of pedestrian crossings, which are literally few and far between, should be increased; traffic intersections that have not changed since 1956, when many side streets that are now one way were two way, should be altered; improvements should be made to the sidewalks, which have numerous broken panels and frost heaves; and additions are needed such as street furniture and plantings that enhance the retail viability of Mass Ave shops.
  • Intersection Reconstruction:-Intersections should be reconstructed to reflect car and pedestrian traffic as it is now, not more than five decades ago. For instance, the report notes that at the intersection of Mass Ave and Shepard Street on the west and Wendell Street on the east, "pedestrian patterns have changed and increased dramatically with a new Lesley University dormitory." It says the entry to Shepard, now a one-way street that was built for two-way traffic, should be narrowed to improve pedestrian safety and allow for more street trees and a wider sidewalk. At Mass Ave and Everett Street, Harvard University has already rebuilt the intersection as part of the construction of the massive new Harvard Law School building.
  • New Tree Plantings:--In the first part of the 20th Century, much of Mass Ave between Harvard and Porter was graced by a canopy of elm trees, which the report says gave "special dignity and beauty to the area." But both the trees and broad sidewalk which ran alongside them were removed when the street was widened in the 1950s. Since then, tree planting and maintenance has been haphazard. A survey of the trees between Waterhouse Street bordering the Cambridge Common and Upland Road across from the Porter Square T station found that only half of existing trees seemed healthy, with 30 percent needing replacement and 20 percent in "fair" condition. In addition, 22 tree wells had no trees or were paved over.
  • Promotion of an "Avenue of the Arts:"--With Lesley University's planned relocation of the Art Institution of Boston from Kenmore Square to the site of the former North Prospect Church in Porter Square (adjacent to Lesely's Universtiy Hall) and the opening of the Agassiz Baldwin Community's Maud Morgan Arts center on Sacramento Street, as well as the presence of numerous artist-residents, the report says the city has a chance to promote the Harvard-Porter Mass Ave stretch as an arts district and "major communal meeting ground serving all surrounding neighborhoods."

Crosswalk at Garfield Street

Architect Dennis Carlone, a Neighborhood Nine resident and one the report's authors, said he envisioned Mass Ave not only as an arts showcase but as a communal gathering space and "main public square that brings the neighborhoods together" (including the Porter Square neighborhood on the north end of the project area). He added that studies show that increasing a street's foot traffic by 20 percent will increase retail sales by 10 percent.

Carlone also said it was vital to increase the number of pedestrian crosswalks, which can be more than 800 feet apart, or three-to-four times the standard distance used by urban designers, especially along retail corridors. He reasoned that so many people jaywalk by using the median strip to get across Mass Ave during breaks in the traffic because pedestrians are forced to "cross where they need to cross."

One spot where there is a painted crosswalk but no traffic light, at Mass Ave and Garfield Street, has been the subject of much discussion and criticism, notably by City Councilor Craig Kelley, who calls it dangerous and lacking police enforcement. While the report called for a nonspecific "pedestrian crossing upgrade" at the Garfield intersection, some at the March meeting suggested the installation of a pedestrian-activated traffic light.

Open space at corner of Linnaean Street

The report said nothing about bicycling on the avenue aside from suggesting that the Porter Square T park that is, in effect, the northern anchor of the Mass Ave stretch could be a "depot" for bikes if Cambridge becomes part of a bicycle sharing program Boston is planning. But a number of the March meeting goers said it was vital for Mass Ave to have bicycle lanes and city officials indicated that would happen.

Both the report's authors and some at the meeting suggested the little-used T park (for a story about the MBTA's neglect of it go to: http://www.cctvcambridge.org/MBTA_Park_Porter_Square) be made into a much-needed pedestrian pocket park along with part of an open space adjacent to a residential building at Mass Ave and Linnaean Street. "There are no public resting places along the 3,600-foot long length of Mass. Avenue. Two highly under-used sites offer different opportunities. A portion of the privately-owned Linnaean Street corner would create a wonderful, public green amenity and better buffer the adjacent apartment building," the report said.

"The existing MBTA 'no man's land' should be brought under City control and programmed in part with an active, public use."

With respect to the T park, the authors also noted that the bus stop and sidewalk adjacent to it and in front of the next door building housing Commonwealth Lock comprise a space too narrow to accommodate pedestrian flow at peak travel hours, forcing some people into the street. In addition, they point out that a public phone mounted on the building juts too far into the sidewalk, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. They say the phone, the bus stop and a low dividing wall next to the park should be moved.

Porter Square T park sidewalk

For the next step in the Mass Ave improvement project, they recommend that the city develop a "Concept Plan," identify funding sources and solicit additional input from residents, businesses and property owners. The city has established a website (www.cambridgema.gov/commontoporter) where people can find more information, sign up for mailings and answer a short questionnaire.

The neighborhood representatives who put together the Mass Ave improvement report were: Fred Meyer, Stephen Diamond and Carole Weinhaus (Agassiz) and Dennis Carlone and Ronald Axelrod (Neighborhood Nine). They were joined by business owner Charles Christopher. Send comments or questions to Axelrod (ronaldaxelrod@aol.com) or Carlone(dcarlone@carloneassociates.com).