Under the Bridge:Residents Seek to Re-Use Land Under Tobin

By Seth Daniel

The dead spaces under the Mystic/Tobin Bridge have long been reserved for a lot of nothing.

Few people ever wanted to be caught there after dark and it was considered an area to drive by and not look too closely at – for fear of what one might see. Nowadays, it is mostly innocuous land covered with gravel from Vine Street to the far end of Chelsea Street where the Little Mystic heads to the sea.

Dump trucks, salt piles and state-owned equipment dot the landscape.

But nowadays with every square inch of land being eyed for programming and positive uses, many are looking to other communities like Chelsea and the South End – which have worked proactively with the state to use land under the Tobin and under the Expressway for parks and public amenities. For the past few years, quiet calls have come out to look at using the space under the Tobin in Charlestown for the same creative and practical purposes.

This month, that idea is being shifted into overdrive with the beginning of the public process on the redevelopment of the Bunker Hill Housing Development, a project known as One Charlestown. That project – which creates 13 new city blocks and adds 2,200 market rate housing units to 1,100 existing public housing units – abuts the Tobin and the dead space underneath. At public meetings last week, the developer and members of the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) expressed major interest in activating the space.

This week, the Patriot Bridge learned that the state Department of Transportation (DOT) has already begun working with One Charlestown and other state departments to think about programming under the bridge.

“The area under the full length of the Tobin Bridge is a combination of Massport, State, and City of Boston-owned property,” said MDOT spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard. “Representatives from MassDOT’s Office of Real Estate and Asset Development have engaged in preliminary discussions with the City’s designated developer of the One Charlestown project and participated in a site tour of that project in late summer. The developer and City expressed interest in upgrading and maintaining the area, including parking and other improvements. MassDOT representatives told the developer that we would be interested in working with the developer and City to improve the area, with the understanding that any activity may not adversely affect Tobin Bridge operations. The developer agreed to prepare ideas and schematics following further discussions with the City and neighborhood. MassDOT has not yet received any further information but MassDOT looks forward to continued conversations with all stakeholders including members of the public.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan said he looks forward to being part of the conversation, but was not on the tour last summer. He said, informally, that he could see some benefits to using the dead space.

“I’d love to explore opportunities for using the space under the bridge,” he said. “There are some jurisdictional issues that would have to be worked out among several government entities that control property under there. But, other cities have done some incredible things with bridge space. Manhattan has a restaurant under the interstate near the old Fulton Fish Market. Washington D.C. had tennis and basketball courts under the bridges in my neighborhood when I lived there. There are great possibilities. If the community can come up with a good plan for the space it will make it a lot easier to bring the government agencies that control the land into the conversation.”

At the IAG meeting, One Charlestown’s Sarah Barnat brought up the subject.

“Would you all like to see that area under the Bridge activated?” she asked. “We would too. I think that’s something we can get started sooner rather than later.”

That came after IAG member Bill Kelly noted that One Charlestown should push the state to make it safer and better lit under the bridge.

“That’s really underutilized space and we should have something happening there,” said Kelly last week.

After the meeting, Barnat said they are having their landscape architects and transportation engineers take a quick look at the area to see what they can come up with. She said they do really want to see something creative happen under the Bridge.

“We are having our landscape architects and transportation engineers analyze the area, and we’re looking forward to working with the City and MassDOT to see if there are opportunities to activate space under the Tobin Bridge for the benefit of the Charlestown neighborhood,” she said.

Meanwhile, the new CharlestownDogs group has chimed in as well, having been calling for an official dog park to be put under the Tobin since the group formed last year.

“CharlestownDogs is an active stakeholder in the consideration of any open space in Charlestown,” said Chris Lovell of CharlestownDogs. “In support of all residents of Charlestown, we seek to increasingly recognize the importance of reserving open space for all our residential use including dogs and dog owners. The areas under the Tobin are one of several places where dog areas should be a consideration. We welcome the conversation and consideration.”

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