Thursday, September 6, 2012

Commonwealth Avenue

It's hard for me to believe, but it's been exactly a year since I started writing on this blog. Time goes faster the older I get, it seems. By sheer coincidence, my published count is currently 99: so this will be the 100th article I've written in a year. I never expected that I could write so much when I started. It's been fun. I'm going to take this opportunity to write about the past and the future of Commonwealth Avenue, which is a widely-known Olmsted boulevard through the heart of my neighborhood of Brighton.
Commonwealth Avenue at Packard's Corner
Commonwealth Avenue is often touted as a green boulevard, but in fact, it is greatly degraded by the 4 to 6 lanes of automobile traffic along it, as well as the additional parking lanes. There is nothing elegant about a boulevard being turned into a racetrack in the heart of Brighton. Commonwealth Avenue was designed by Olmsted long before high speed automobile traffic became a reality. In his world, horse-drawn carriages shared the streets with all kinds of users. Streets were public open spaces for all. He could never have envisioned the extent to which it has become a nasty near-highway with 4 to 6 lanes devoted to speeding traffic and largely kept off-limits to other uses. I've noticed that some people don't like the trolley that also runs down it. But by far the biggest and most negative impact on the Commonwealth Avenue corridor is the presence of highway lanes, destroying the potential of the park. The vehicle right-of-way occupies approximately 65% of the width of the boulevard. This nearly matches the layout of the 1890s plan, which devoted 120 feet out of 200 feet to roadway. But when that plan was created, Commonwealth Avenue was envisioned as a peaceful boulevard serving upper-class residents riding in sedate horse carriages.

If it weren't for the trolley, Commonwealth Avenue would be in much worse shape, because currently, far more people use the Green Line to commute than there are cars driving along Commonwealth Avenue. The transit mode share of the surrounding census blocks is greater than 50% in many cases. Without the trolley, I can only imagine that an otherwise similar Commonwealth Avenue would be piled high with parked cars and gridlock. Instead, with the help of the Green Line, the boulevard only needs to handle amounts of traffic that are well under the capacity of 4-6 lanes.

Alternatively, Commonwealth Avenue may have never developed properly without the trolley. According to the Brighton Allston Historical Society:
As the Brighton Item editorialized dejectedly on April 4, 1890, a year and a half after the completion of the costly new thoroughfare: “Commonwealth Avenue has been built at an expense of nearly half a million dollars, and there is not yet a house upon it from old Brighton Avenue [Packard Square] to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.”

Allston-Brighton’s Commonwealth Avenue was laid out between 1885 and 1888, but the building of this grand boulevard did not lead to the large scale, high-quality development that its projectors had envisioned. Development of the Commonwealth Avenue would not occur for another two decades.
Commonwealth Avenue by Wallingford Road as it appeared in 1900* (source)
 Further on:
Despite improved economic conditions by the late 1890s, the Commonwealth Avenue still lagged developmentally. Beacon Street was the focus of development. The existence there of electric streetcar service was enormous advantage. Until such service was instituted on Commonwealth Avenue, in 1909, little development occurred on the Allston-Brighton roadway. 

Trolley along Commonwealth Avenue, mid-century (source)
In modern terms, Commonwealth Avenue would be considered a fine example of "Transit Oriented Development" as it was built through the "the least populated section of Allston-Brighton" (BAHistory). Once the electric streetcar service was established, many apartment buildings were built along the edge of the boulevard, starting around 1916.
Also, the developers [of the Avenue] did not foresee the rise of apartment buildings along the Avenue. What they visualized at this stage was the construction of large-scale, high style detached houses in the Colonial Revival, Shingle, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival styles, the sort of development that was occurring in the Aberdeen Section near the Reservoir.
Luckily for us in 2012, the city did not have the legal authority to stymie development on behalf of their particular aesthetic prejudices, or else the growth of Commonwealth Avenue and the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton may have been permanently stunted.

More recently, MassDOT traffic counts reveal that the average daily traffic is 14,049 vehicles using Commonwealth Avenue near Boston College. And that is reduced to only 11,880 vehicles near Harvard Avenue. By contrast, the "B" branch of the Green Line is estimated to have approximately 30,745 weekday boardings on the surface stations alone, with Harvard Avenue being by far the busiest surface station in the whole Green Line system, at 4,077 weekday boardings. And also consider in comparison that Harvard Avenue sees upwards of 18,112 vehicles in average daily traffic handled by only two lanes. So, it seems clear that the 4-6 lanes on Commonwealth Avenue are massive overkill, dangerous to the local residents, and only serve to degrade the corridor in its current state.

When the eventual reconstruction of Commonwealth Avenue between Packard's Corner and Washington Street takes place, they will be working on moving the MBTA reservation to the center of the road and updating the intersections to modern safety standards. I hope that they take into account the fact that Commonwealth Avenue has much more value as a green boulevard than as the highway that it currently resembles, and that there are and will be more people moving by foot, bike and trolley than by motorized vehicle. So the accommodations for each should be laid out more equitably in light of that fact. And perhaps we can even reclaim some of Olmsted's vision for the corridor, updated for the realities of life in the 21st century.

*I am not sure that this could be 1900 because I see the presence of trolley wire infrastructure in the picture and the Comm Ave article as well as the Cleveland Circle article claim that this wasn't available until 1909. But I think it is safe to say that the picture was taken prior to 1915.

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