Saturday, July 13, 2024

The state plans upgrades to Memorial Drive and the parkland running between it and the Charles River. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

A “road diet” plan that would narrow car traffic on parts of Memorial Drive could start construction in the fall, state Department of Conservation and Recreation officials told Cambridge’s Conservation Commission on Feb. 26.

It comes as part of a broader project for Memorial Drive greenway work intended to improve recreation along the Charles River – including walking and bicycling paths – that began with a 2017 master plan. The affected section stretches west of JFK street to Hawthorn Street, a shrunken version of an original that went more than 2.2 miles from the Eliot Bridge in West Cambridge to the Boston University Bridge in Cambridgeport.

“Once Covid hit, we started to really rethink,” said Dan Driscoll, green transportation director for the DCR. “We determined that it was just too much to bite off as one big project.”

The full length is “really complicated” and demands a rethinking of River Street and Western Avenue, Driscoll said.

The state expects to be back before the commission March 11 to present the truncated, $13 million plan at its 75 percent-designed stage. Finishing the design is expected in the spring, followed by putting the job out to bid midsummer for fall construction. “That’s probably a little aggressive,” Driscoll said. “It could be the spring of 2025 depending on a bunch of elements and how this all comes together with the budget.”

The second portion, east of JFK Street, does look complicated: At a February community meeting, residents of the Riverside neighborhood objected to any change that might worsen traffic on their residential streets, and the road diet was news to them – and bad news. Even city councillor Paul Toner expressed skepticism at the meeting, saying that although the state’s safety goals were good, Memorial Drive is “the one throughway we have.”

DCR commissioner Brian Arrigo looked cowed by the uproar about a road diet and closing a section of Memorial Drive to car traffic on Saturdays, which creates a recreation area known as Riverbend Park. There’s no sign that a follow-up meeting agreed on for the third week of February happened.

Memorial down to two lanes

The existing roadway for traffic between Hawthorn and JFK streets is 40 feet wide; it will go down to 26 feet, with 3-foot shoulders and two 10-foot travel lanes. Along the river will be an 11-foot bike path and 5-foot walking path.

The span in this phase is between Eliot Bridge to the Larz Anderson Bridge – slightly over a mile. “This is arguably one of the most dangerous parts of the path, considering the number of people that use it,” said Driscoll, noting its limited width, lack of compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and sharp edges that have injured runners. The state plans to make the path wider and ADA compliant, allowing for the removal of guardrails without sacrificing safety.

For the section between Hawthorn and Riverbend Park, the path for bikes and other modes of transport will be closer to the road; the pedestrian path will be set against the river. “It’s really going to feel like a park experience away from every other user,” Driscoll said. To further enhance the walking experience, DCR wants to add an overlook structure like one on the Boston side of the river. There will also be water fountains.

The project has gone through extensive public comment over several years and additional review processes due to new environmental justice criteria, Driscoll said.

Trees and stormwater

Trees came up frequently in public comment, particularly the proposed removal of several London planetrees. “We have seven compromised trees that do need to come out – they’re literally hazard trees that have been hit over the years and have big cavities,” Driscoll said.

DCR plans to add 70 new native tree species as well as additional London planetrees. Sidewalks will be made of “finicky and difficult to put in” porous pavement for the benefit of the trees, as it allows in more air and water “to help those trees in any way we can,” Driscoll said.

Stormwater collection will be improved with more collection systems, catch basins and bioretention swales – so despite the addition or widening of paths, the project will still lead to an overall reduction of impervious surface by an acre, Driscoll said. This means less phosphorus entering the Charles River.

The public parking lot of the Cambridge Boat Club will also be reconfigured, Driscoll said.