Sunday, May 26, 2024

Riverbend Park – a section of Memorial Drive when closed to traffic – is seen last fall. (Photo: Jan Devereux)

After a 30-month hiatus, the state’s plan to reconstruct Memorial Drive to improve bike and pedestrian paths and restore landscaping along the Charles River is back on the table.

A virtual site visit is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday as part of the required Mass Environmental Protection Act review process, and public comment is due by Jan. 27. The visit – held on Microsoft Teams, not Zoom – was announced only Jan. 10 by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, fully two and a half years after the previous public meeting on its Memorial Drive Greenway Improvements Phase III project. There have been no public updates since June 2019.

The release of the plan, described as at the 25 percent complete level, took many by surprise, including members of the City Council and other elected officials. The People for Riverbend Park Trust, the nonprofit that has stewarded the project area since 1975, was not notified that planning had resumed, and was not included on the email list. A legal notice concerning it ran in the Cambridge Chronicle on Dec. 23, going unnoticed by officials and residents.

A member of the city’s Public Planting Committee said the group got a late request to add the project to its already-full agenda from last Wednesday; the committee will instead hold a special meeting Friday to discuss it.

Though this is the first opportunity for the public to reengage with state staff and planning consultants and there may be many questions about the details of what is proposed, a request to record Tuesday’s virtual site visit and meeting was declined by a representative of DCR. Some members of the public might feel uncomfortable having their comments and questions recorded, the representative said.

A shrunken project

The project has been significantly scaled back. It extended originally all the way from the Eliot Bridge in West Cambridge to the Boston University Bridge in Cambridgeport, more than 2.2 miles, and much of the public comment submitted in 2019 centered on how to improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians in its section farthest to the east, through the area between Magazine Beach and the BU rotary. Now the project’s goals are for a 0.8-mile section between the Eliot Bridge and the Anderson Memorial Bridge just southwest of Harvard Square.

The project page has not been updated to reflect the new scope, and DCR offered no explanation of whether the remaining area will be reconstructed in a later phase.

The cover letter accompanying the 149-page environmental notification form of a plan prepared by engineers at Stantec Consulting Services includes this description of the project’s goals for the 0.8-mile section:

The project consists of the reconstruction and narrowing of Memorial Drive to have a 26-foot-wide cross section, construction of a new 10-foot-wide multiuse path and a 5-foot-wide aggregate path, and parkland improvements in landscaping and passive recreation areas. In addition, substantial stormwater system improvements are proposed to improve stormwater quality being discharged into the Charles River. The purpose of the project is to provide for pedestrian and bicycle improvements and to enhance the Memorial Drive parkway as a recreational amenity and important bicycle and pedestrian corridor.

The key changes proposed include:

  • Road diet: Memorial Drive would go from four travel lanes to two in this section. The new lanes would each be 10 feet wide, with a 3-foot shoulder on both sides. Existing guardrails would be removed. On the river side, a stormwater swale would separate the roadway from the pathways.
  • New bike and pedestrian pathways: On the river side, the existing 6.5-foot paved path and informal dirt paths would be replaced with a 10-foot multiuse paved path and a 5-foot unpaved pedestrian path. Except where there are large existing trees, the two paths would run side by side with no separation. In some places the riverbank drops off steeply next to the pedestrian path. On the north side, the existing concrete sidewalk would be replaced with a new 5-foot path of flexible porous pavement. Overall, the amount of impervious surfaces would be reduced by 1 acre.
  • Tree removal and planting: Eleven mature trees that measure 14 inches in diameter at breast height or more, including seven London Plane trees and four cherry trees, would be removed. All are described as in poor health or compromised in some way. One of the trees to be removed is a 54-inch London Plane tree, part of the majestic allée of trees that define the historic landscape. Many smaller trees also would be removed. Fifty new trees would be planted, though none are London Planes and sizes are not stated. Four rain gardens and three dry swales are also proposed, along with restoration of the native landscape at the riverbank. The new swales between the road and the path are intended to better protect the trees and the river from salt and stormwater runoff.
  • Traffic reconfiguration: The northbound right turn slip lane from Gerry’s Landing Road onto Memorial Drive would be removed to create space for the new pathways and additional parkland. A right-turn signal would be added to the existing signal at Gerry’s Landing and Memorial Drive. Other signal timing would be recalibrated to accommodate the reduction in lanes based on pre-pandemic traffic counts.
  • New midblock crossings: Two pedestrian crossings would be installed and marked with flashing beacon signals roughly opposite Sparks Street (where there is an MBTA bus stop on Mount Auburn Street) and near where the path from University Road meets John F. Kennedy Park. The existing crossing at Hawthorn Street would be retained and slightly relocated.
  • New viewing platforms and scenic vistas: Two overlooks described as “pile-supported platforms” of 300 square feet each would be added on the river side at the sites of existing concrete drainage outfall headwalls. In addition, a 400-square-foot scenic vista with seating opposite Mount Auburn Hospital would be created by re-landscaping the riverbank with low-growing native vegetation. A full restoration of the riverbank vegetative landscape is not proposed.
  • Parking removal and new curb cut: The resident parking between Hawthorn Street and the St. John the Evangelist Church and monastery would be removed. A curb cut would be added for access to the monastery’s parking lot, the first and only curb cut on the project area.

Once the environmental notification form is filed – potentially as soon as Feb. 7 – the project would need to be reviewed by other authorities, including Cambridge’s Conservation Commission and Historical Commission. Construction would take place in a single phase beginning in 2023 and finishing in 2026. The plan has a 25-year lifespan; by 2050 the area would almost certainly need additional landscape improvements in response to the projected impacts of climate change. The budget is estimated at $9 million.

The 1 p.m. Tuesday virtual meeting can be joined on a computer or mobile app by clicking here. Call in for audio only at (833) 436-6264# toll free with this phone conference ID: 236 521 639#.