PLAN: Charlestown Process Creates More Questions as It Moves Forward

By Adam Swift

Put some Charlestown residents and representatives of the Boston Planning & Development Agency in the same room, even if it’s a virtual room, and there’s sure to be some emotions running high.

Last week, the PLAN: Charlestown staff held an online forum to update residents on the city planning initiative for the neighborhood and get input on visions and goals for PLAN: Charlestown.

Throughout the Zoom meeting, BPDA members were peppered with online chat questions, and later, questioned in person, about the overall framework of the plan and development in Charlestown in general. Some community members did urge patience as the PLAN: Charlestown efforts head into a next phase where there will be a deeper dive into priorities and future scenarios and land use goals for the community.

The framework for last week’s meeting was a review of where PLAN: Charlestown currently stands, and beginning to establish a draft planning framework that includes visions, goals, and principles to build upon in the next phase of the process, according to Kelly Sherman, a planner with the BPDA.

“In the first beginning part of PLAN: Charlestown we wanted to understand what led us to Charlestown today and what are some of the existing conditions,” said Sherman. “Through our Land Use Through Time and Open Space and Climate Resiliency workshops we talked about what led to and also shaped the physical form of Charlestown that made it the way it is through its history of urban renewal. We also wanted to understand what currently exists today in terms of open space and climate resiliency.”

During the planning process thus far, Sherman said the BPDA has asked a series of questions of residents, including the biggest hopes and concerns for the community over the next 10-20 years and what types of investments they would like to see in Charlestown in the coming decades.

“This is what we heard back from you, we heard that your hopes were that you wanted improved mobility … you hoped to see a more diverse and equitable community, and an affordable one that allowed more residents to stay,” said Sherman. “You also hoped that there would be more open space that there would be more open space in the area, and that that open space would help deal with flood resiliency, and you hoped that Charlestown kept its current character.”

Concerns raised during the process included worsening traffic, the lack of affordable housing for residents, and flooding.

BPDA planner Anna Callahan discussed how that information the PLAN: Charlestown staff has gathered so far is being used to draft a vision statement and goals for the planning process.

“Using all the feedback we’ve heard … we compiled a draft vision statement and I pulled some key words and phrases we heard from comments,” said Callahan. “We are united, a place where people who grew up here can afford to stay, human-scaled, vibrant, affordable, and we used all the feedback we heard to come up with this draft vision statement.”

As presented during the meeting, the draft vision statement reads, “In 2040, Charlestown is a thriving, diverse, accessible, and resilient neighborhood that unites an enhanced historic residential fabric with new affordable homes, jobs, and public parks along Rutherford Avenue and in Sullivan Square.”

The draft goals presented by the BPDA revolved around mobility, homes, climate and environment, and jobs.

During a poll asking for initial feedback about the vision statement and goals, the top concerns included a lack of specifics about lowering traffic and creating clear sight lines to the water and Bunker Hill, that the vision statement was not actionable and could lead to approvals of unwanted plans and development, and that it could increase the housing density rate in Charlestown.

During the public input portion of the meeting, several residents continue to raise concerns about how the planning process would effectively address overdevelopment in Charlestown.

Charlestown resident and former Boston public works director Joanne Massaro asked if the planning process takes into account all the potential development that is currently being considered for Charlestown, as well as the impact development in adjacent communities will have on the community.

“I know we are talking about vision statements and goals, but I’m not understanding completely what this document will be,” said Massaro.

Charlestown attorney Rosemary Macero wanted to know about the number of residential units the BPDA used to calculate a 2019 regional traffic study, as well as the number of units that have been approved in Charlestown since 2019.

“By my count of the projects that are on the drawing board, for the Sullivan Square area, not mentioning the Bunker Hill housing project redevelopment, we’re talking over 1,200 units directly in Sullivan Square,” she said. “I want to know what is going to happen to get that traffic through the bottleneck, because the overpass, which was taken down some years ago, has never been reconstructed and there is a huge traffic bottleneck.”

Macero also upbraided the BPDA for not taking the historic nature of Charlestown into account in the development of the plan.

“I think it is disgraceful that (the BPDA) has no understanding of what is historic in Charlestown, and we’re having a community meeting about doing a plan for our community, and there has been no effort by your staff, by the people who are on this call, to understand where this historic (district) is,” said Macero. “That is our heritage.”

Meghan Richard of the BPDA said she understands that there are existing national register districts in Charlestown.

“Much of the original peninsula that is identified on the map that came out of one of the earlier workshops is certainly historic, and none of us have argued that the neighborhood is not historic,” said Richard.

However, she added, it is the Boston Landmarks Commission that handles the nomination process for officially designating something either as a local landmark or creating additional national register districts.

As the PLAN: Charlestown process moves forward, Callahan said there will be a deeper dive into priorities as consultants are brought onboard to look at issues such as infrastructure, land use scenarios, and preservation tools.

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