When the high fences started creeping closer and the noise started roaring a little louder, residents and developers in the Box District knew something was amiss in the comfortable neighborhood they recently chiseled from a field of old, abandoned industrial buildings.
Once the trees on the other side of those fences were leveled and MWRA heavy equipment began appearing on the other side, it was confirmed.
Never mind the new emergency access road carved into the back door of the new neighborhood.
In order to get to the bottom of it all, City officials, residents and MWRA officials are scheduled to meet on Feb. 11th in City Hall about the surprise MWRA storage yard that emerged recently right next to the revamped Box District on what most believed would one day be a dedicated bus road combined with a walking/biking path.
The heavy equipment that now rests where that road and path were to go are now putting some questions in the minds of many.
“We have been working very hard with the state and City to make this a great neighborhood,” said Ann Houston of The Neighborhood Developers (TND), a non-profit developer of the Box District. “We’ve invested $70 million with Mitchell Properties to get what we have here now. Mitchell Properties is preparing to invest another $30 million to do more housing on Gerrish Avenue. The Box District has been touted as an example of building a great mixed-income community with renters and owners that is also transit-oriented, meaning you can hop on a bus and go to work. People choose to come here when they could go elsewhere. If the industrial use of the MWRA encroaches onto the Box District, it loses all of that. You lose the investment we’ve all worked so hard on to create this vital community.”
Bart Mitchell of Mitchell Properties has also been vocal on the situation, and plans to be in attendance on Monday’s meeting. He was not able to make comments in time for this story, but agreed with Houston’s summation.
What appears to have happened is that the state purchased a railroad Right-of-Way from CSX Railroad last year. The ownership of that parcel of land went to the Mass Department of Transportation (DOT). Without any warning or notification, DOT decided to lease that land to the MWRA for the purpose of storing heavy equipment and creating an emergency access road for its existing site on nearby Eastern Avenue/Griffin Way.
That, unfortunately, didn’t jive with long-term plans that had been drawn up for years. Those plans didn’t call for heavy equipment, but rather trees, a walking path and a dedicated bus road for the expanding Silver Line/Urban Ring project.
Houston and City Manager Jay Ash indicated that the MWRA had been worried about getting stranded at its existing facility if there were flooding on Eastern Avenue. So, they wanted to cut an exit through the right of way up to Highland Avenue.
“The bus road and path have been a really important part of our planning on the Box District,” said Houston. “It is a very, very critical part of the Box District being a great place to live. Unfortunately, what has happened is the MWRA leased the land from DOT and put up high fences that go about to the property line and they’ve leveled all the trees. It’s being used as a storage area…We’ve heard from residents that it has become really noisy.”
Ash said he is convinced that the MWRA will come around and will reach a very positive agreement that can be announced at the Feb. 11th meeting.
“The lease allows them to utilize the right of way,” said Ash. “We are absolutely talking with the DOT about utilizing that right of way as a rail trail or a dedicated bus route. The lease agreement, though, says the DOT can reclaim the land from MWRA at any time. We are meeting to see how all of our goals can be met. The MWRA has said to me directly they will be cooperating and hope that there will be a great resolution.”
Houston said she also – at least at this point – has faith that the MWRA will come through with something positive in what has potentially been a very negative situation.
“It’s still very much in the ‘we’re working on it’ stage,” said Houston. “The MWRA has committed to remedying the situation, but the devil is in the details and we continue to work on this. We hope MWRA officials will come up with a credible plan in the next couple days. I have faith they will.”
The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. in the Council Chambers on Feb. 11th.