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Re-Connecting Cambridge and M.I.T.:
A Framework for the Continuing Redevelopment
of the Vassar/Albany Street Corridor
Yu-Han Chang <[email protected]>
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A Report for the Office of the President of M.I.T.
Submitted as a Final Project in 1.252J/11.380J
December, 2001
Our Institute is undergoing a transformation -- a physical transformation of new buildings,
academic centers, activities complexes, and residential housing. At the same time, the City of
Cambridge is changing, maturing as a center for high-tech and biotechnology as old industrial
sites are converted to office and biochemical lab use. As the face of M.I.T. grows and changes,
we must look to the future of our “evolving campus” in the context of an evolving city. Along
the northern edge of our campus, we have the tremendous opportunity to weave new
connections in the fabric of Cambridge. The Vassar Street rail corridor has long been the
center of a scar that divides the main M.I.T. campus from the rest of the City of Cambridge,
strewn with empty lots and physically separated by an active rail line. With the development of
our campus reaching into and beyond this scar, we have the unique opportunity to create new
connections and new neighborhood where only vacant industrial brownfields now exist.
The Grand Junction right-of-way has cut a path through Cambridge since the early days of
railroading. In the early 1900s, the Cambridgeport area was dominated by industrial uses, and
this rail spur served many of the industries along this corridor. By the late 1900s, many of
these businesses had left the area, and M.I.T. acquired much of the vacant land along this
corridor. As M.I.T. expanded, it has used this land for a variety of purposes. Between Main
Street and Massachusetts Avenue, the corridor is dominated by surface parking lots, parking
structures, the M.I.T. power and steam generation plant, and a few industrial labs. From Mass
Ave to the B.U. Bridge, M.I.T. is only now beginning to utilize this land. Underutilized
parking lots dominate a significant part of the landscape. Future plans include the conversion
of much of Vassar Street into a row of campus housing, similar to that along Memorial Drive.
A few labs already occupy some of this space today, primarily the nuclear and plasma labs
along Albany Street. A few private businesses also occupy spaces on both Vassar and Albany
Streets. M.I.T. and Cambridge both hope to see this area serve as a link between the M.I.T.
residential areas and the Cambridgeport neighborhood. A first step in this direction is the new
dorm, Simmons Hall, being built between Vassar Street and the Grand Junction ROW. As
M.I.T. expands its residential housing to University Park and along Albany Street, it is
becoming ever more important to close this gap between the two parts of campus.
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Many different ideas have surfaced regarding this large tract of underutilized land. Besides
being an eyesore, crime rates are also above average. At night, this area is almost completely
barren and devoid of activity. Bringing life and greenery to this urban desert are the main goals
of many of these proposals. The city of Cambridge has expressed an interest in developing
some of the railroad ROW into a bikeway that would connect the B.U. Bridge and the
Cambridgeport area to East Cambridge. The ROW would also have to be re-landscaped to
create the bikeway. M.I.T. desires to make Vassar Street a residential way similar to Amherst
Way next to the Charles River. A new Vassar Street would be located within the current
railroad ROW. New businesses and new housing are also envisioned for the Fort Washington
area. Many groups would love to replace the rusting rail infrastructure with a linear park or
other greenery.
However, an unavoidable constraint is the active rail line that runs along this corridor. This rail
line must be maintained for both MBTA commuter rail and CSX freight services. Even during
construction of any other modes along this corridor, the rail line cannot be put into extended
periods of unavailability. The MBTA requires the maintenance of a working rail line in order
to connect the south-side commuter rail system to its maintenance facilities, which are located
at the Boston Engine Terminal, on the north-side of the system. Non-revenue moves are made
on a daily basis in order to service south-side equipment at the Engine Terminal. CSX, which
owns the Grand Junction, also uses the ROW to make a few daily transfers to the Guilford Rail
System. Until the North-South Rail Link is built in the distant future, there are no other viable
alternatives for these two services that utilize the Grand Junction.
Several parties also have an interest in the development of the Urban Ring along this corridor.
This is a central issue in the redevelopment of this corridor. Besides being the logical location
for the Urban Ring, there are many reasons why Urban Ring transit services are vital for the
sustainability of this area. With so much new development occurring in University Park and
near Kendall Square, high quality transit is a must. The B.U. Bridge, Memorial Drive, Central
Square, and Cambridgeside roads are already clogged with traffic during normal peak hours
today. The situation will only get worse with more development, and M.I.T. is both part of the
cause and will suffer the consequences as well. Our efforts to encourage the use of public
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transit by institute employees and students will help, and such policies are outlined in the
“Cross-cutting Issues” section of this report. However, there must exist high quality transit for
these prospective riders to utilize. It is imperative that we strongly advocate the initiation of
high quality Urban Ring transit services at the earliest possible rate.
The Urban Ring would connect this area to East Cambridge, Assembly Square, and Chelsea to
the North, and to B.U., the Longwood Medical Area, and the Melnea Cass Boulevard to the
south. M.I.T., the MBTA, the City of Cambridge, the Cambridgeport neighborhood, and
private businesses in the area have all expressed their support of the Urban Ring. The MBTA
recently released its first Major Investment Study for future Urban Ring services. 1 The MBTA
Urban Ring MIS evaluates both surface light rail and tunnel alignments for long-term LRV
service along this route, and proposes bus rapid transit for the short term. Bus rapid transit may
fall short of expectations for high quality transit, especially in areas where the buses must share
increasingly congested roadways with other vehicles.
Moreover, from an urban design
perspective, the busway proposed for the Vassar Street rail corridor will not help mend the gap
between M.I.T. and Cambridgeport. It will only reinforce this divide by adding another strip of
asphalt alongside an active rail line. Even for the long-term LRV tunnel alignments, however,
freight trains and MBTA commuter rail trains would continue to use the surface ROW, as
shown in Figure 1. This physical barrier would still remain. This is due to a variety of reasons:
1) diesel engines cannot operate in the LRV tunnel. If they were allowed in the tunnel, this
would require different tunnel design and an extensive ventilation system, 2) LRVs and the
heavy diesel engines may not operate over the same rail lines due to FRA regulations, so an
extra tunnel would have to be bored or diesel train movements would have to be limited to
overnight hours, and 3) connecting the freight rail system at the B.U. Bridge to the deep-bore
tunnels through M.I.T. may not be feasible given the lower grade climbing capabilities of diesel
engines towing passenger or freight equipment.
In this context, we must admit that any redevelopment of the Vassar Street corridor would
require that an active rail line be maintained at or near the present location. This obviates one
of the main reasons many people prefer the tunnel alternative for the future Urban Ring service.
1
MBTA website, Design and Construction page. http://www.mbta.com/newsinfo/geninfo/projects/urbanring/
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We would still be left with an active surface rail line cutting across Cambridge and the M.I.T.
campus. However, there are also other reasons some parties have expressed a preference for
the deep-bore tunnel. Our Institute and its labs along this corridor have expressed concern over
the EMF emissions resulting from the LRV power lines, as well as the vibrations caused by the
vehicles themselves. A deep-bore tunnel would minimize both of these disturbances. Current
levels of diesel traffic along the Grand Junction ROW would remain, but the Institute has
acknowledged that they are infrequent enough not to be of significant impact to our lab’s
operations. Grade crossings at Mass. Ave. and Main Street are a nuisance but do not usually
cause much of a transportation problem, since train movements tend to be scheduled during
off-peak hours. Thus, a combined deep-bore LRV tunnel and surface single-track rail line has
been the preferred alternative advocated by our Institute.
Figure 1. Graphic taken from the MBTA Urban Ring MIS showing a possible future configuration of an Urban Ring station
along the Grand Junction ROW at Massachusetts Avenue. Notice that even with the underground LRV tunnels, the active
freight rail line remains at grade.2
2
MBTA website, Design and Construction page, Urban Ring MIS, Appendix E, pg. 35.
http://www.mbta.com/newsinfo/geninfo/projects/urbanring/
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In comparison to tunneled facilities, elevated rail lines are a second-choice option. They are
visually obtrusive, cast gloomy shadows, and often tend to be noisy. Moreover, their useful life
span tends to be about half as long as that of tunnels. In recent years, the trend has been to
convert elevated structures into underground facilities. Just in the city of Boston, we have
many examples of this trend, including the Big Dig, the entire Orange Line, and the elevated
Green Line segment by North Station. However, there are still some unique circumstances
under which it may be preferable to build an elevated alternative. There are certainly several
material benefits of an elevated structure over a new underground facility. First, it is much
cheaper. Second, it takes less time to build. Third, it is in the open air and thus does require
special ventilation systems.
In the unique circumstances provided by the Vassar Street
corridor, it may be wise for the Institute, the MBTA, and the City of Cambridge to discuss such
an alternative.
On the Grand Junction ROW, we have the following minimal criteria that must be met: 1)
maintain the ROW operating at all times during construction, 2) follow FRA criteria regarding
the separation of LRV and heavy rail vehicles, 3) minimize vibrations and EMF emissions, 4)
minimize traffic disruptions at possible grade crossings with major Cambridge streets, and 5)
provide high-quality service compatible with Urban Ring plans. An elevated approach could
solve all of these issues. It will not be hard to maintain the current Grand Junction ROW
service as a structure is built over the existing rail line. The elevated line can be limited to
usage by heavy rail vehicles only, and Urban Ring service can be provided by such vehicles.
These technologies are being investigated for use on the Indigo Line, a project proposed by the
MBTA Advisory Board and currently under study.3 There are significant possibilities for
integrating an elevated line along the Urban Ring with the Indigo Line through the southern
neighborhoods of Boston via the existing tracks through Back Bay. This topic is discussed
further on the website that accompanies this report. Regarding vibration concerns, drilling
support piers down to the bedrock will mostly solve this issue. This will also allow us to more
easily pursue an underground transit-way in the future, since excavation will not affect the
elevated service.
3
With normal support piles, excavation would still be possible but
Indigo Line website, http://www.geocities.com/indigoline/
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significantly more complex. Finally, an elevated line would completely eliminate all grade
crossings.
An elevated line could thus meet all of the requirements of current and planned
service along the Vassar Street corridor.
Usually elevated lines are unsightly because they are in plain sight. Elevated lines are typically
built over the road surfaces or median of major thoroughfares, where there is enough room for
such a structure. In the unique situation along the Vassar St. corridor, the elevated line would
remain almost completely hidden from sight, since most of the corridor lies in the interior of a
block, roughly halfway between Vassar and Albany Streets. On both sides of the ROW,
existing buildings or planned future buildings completely hide the view of the ROW. The only
parts of the elevated line that would be visible are the intersections between the ROW and
cross-cutting streets. At these intersections, we can employ the ingenuity and creativity of
modern architects to take a difficult situation and craft an aesthetically pleasing solution. Such
a feat was accomplished with the Zakim Freedom Bridge on the Central Artery project, for
example. With so many high-profile and Pritzer prize-winning architects working on projects
at M.I.T. currently, we can utilize these resources to ensure that these crossings become objects
to be celebrated rather than eyesores to be concealed. For example, at the Main Street crossing,
the ROW will be directly in front of the new Gehry-designed Stata Center, and there would be
an amazing opportunity to echo the building’s fantastic shapes in designing the viaduct
structure for the elevated crossing of Main Street.
BEFORE: The eastern edge of the Vassar Street corridor
features billboards, large-scale office buildings, and large
expanses of asphalt at street intersections. The pedestrian
sky bridge connects two buildings at Draper Labs.
AFTER: One possibility for an elevated station at Main,
Vassar, and Broadway. The visual obstruction of a
combined bridge and train station has been artfully reinterpreted as an object of beauty in this otherwise drab
environment of office complexes.
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BEFORE: The Grand Junction railroad grade crossing at
Mass. Ave. Note the lack of street activity and
commercial development around the area.
AFTER: An artist’s impression of the street with an artful
bridge spanning Mass. Ave. and supporting the new
elevated rail lines. New development and an Urban Ring
station add life.
This report thus recommends that M.I.T. and Cambridge encourage the MBTA to investigate
the possibility of an elevated line along this corridor, in order to eliminate the physical barrier
of the current surface tracks and to provide Urban Ring services at the same time. Provisions
should also be made to convert the rail lines into underground facilities if this should prove
desirable in the future. For example, developments abutting or using the ROW could be
required to build a segment of such a future tunnel in return for building on the ROW.
However, the corridor has many other problems besides the physical barrier created by the
Grand Junction line and the pressing need for Urban Ring transit services. Albany and Vassar
Streets run along the corridor and are currently non-descript urban byways mostly devoid of
human activity. Without the initiation of transit services, they will also become congested with
traffic accessing all the new development at University Park and Kendall Square, as well as
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jobs at M.I.T. itself. The situation will be similar to Massachusetts Avenue today, which is a
busy artery that bisects the campus along a north-south axis.
Our project team has recommended that Massachusetts Avenue be kept at grade through M.I.T.
in order to connect the campus with the rhythms of urban life. The same philosophy applies to
Vassar Street and Albany Street, which will serve as major east-west connectors through the
campus. The same landscaping and traffic calming principles should be applied to this pair of
streets. If we take a look at the conditions today, it may seem far-fetched to believe that Vassar
Street will become a friendly urban street rich with life and activities. Traffic zips through this
section at unreasonable speeds, and very little life is observed on the northern side of the street,
next to the railroad tracks. In fact, suburban style head-on street parking dominates this side of
the street, as if to screen off the industrial wasteland beyond. It is easy to see why M.I.T.
would rather relocate Vassar Street onto the current railroad ROW and re-use Vassar Street as a
small residential road similar to Amherst Way.
However, the future of the corridor paints a very different picture, and we can begin to envision
a landscape in which M.I.T. would welcome the activities along Vassar Street. With Vassar
Street at its present location or in the railroad ROW, it will still cut off the northern parts of our
campus from the main campus. Instead of substituting a similar problem, we can embrace
Vassar and Albany Streets as new avenues that define our campus in much the same way as
Massachusetts Avenue defines our very postal address. Vassar and Albany Streets can be the
main streets of our evolving campus, much as Mass. Ave. is our main street today, our face to
the world. More pragmatically, our institution is constantly expanding and we will soon need
to begin developing the remaining open spaces on the north side of the rail ROW. We might
expect some resistance from Cambridgeport residents and area businesses, who may fear an
increase in traffic and the loss of parking spaces, as well as a general aversion to large-scale
buildings which may be necessary for the growth of our institution.
The designation of Vassar
and Albany Streets as primary streets can serve to mitigate the impacts of these developments.
We have the opportunity to demonstrate that we can be good neighbors by keeping traffic off
the Cambridgeport neighborhood roads. Using good urban design, we can create a lively pair
of main streets that add to the flavor of campus life, rather than being a hazard. Drivers will be
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very aware that they are crossing a campus zone, much in same way drivers through Harvard
Square know that they must be especially aware of constant pedestrian traffic.
Raised
crosswalks and signals will serve as constant reminders to drive slowly and take special care.
Today these northern areas across Vassar Street are still being developed, but we must be aware
of the shape of the future.
Indeed, with the dense development currently being built at
University Park, we can already begin to see a new vitality taking hold “across the tracks.”
Vassar and Albany Streets must not only be parallel main streets on their own, but they must
allow cross-connections as well. If we can remove the physical barrier created by the railroad
tracks, we can reconnect M.I.T. with the growing part of Cambridge north of the ROW. Streets
that currently terminate at Albany Street will be brought across the railroad ROW to connect
with Vassar Street. Pacific Street will serve as a primary link between M.I.T. and University
Park. It will also connect the new graduate dormitories with the rest of the main campus.
Sidney Street will also connect the western part of campus with the Cambridgeport area.
Moreover, Putnam Avenue Street can connect to Memorial Drive at the present signalized
intersection. At each of the intersections along Vassar and Albany Streets, new traffic lights
will serve to slow down traffic on our main streets.
slow through-traffic even on green signals.
Raised pedestrian crossings will further
New landscaping and wider sidewalks will
encourage pedestrian usage.
BEFORE: Ft. Washington Park today, as seen from
Vassar Street. The park is physically separated from the
street by parked cars and the railroad at grade.
AFTER:
An artist’s impression of the park after
redevelopment of the corridor, as seen from an extended
Albany Street. The park serves as a beautiful gateway
between the M.I.T. main campus and Cambridgeport.
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There also exists an opportunity to expand Fort Washington Park across the current railroad
ROW to Vassar Street. Its current state resembles an orphaned island of green in a vast
wasteland of asphalt parking lots, including the Budget Rental lots, unused M.I.T.-owned lots,
and the California paint employee lots. It has the potential to be so much more. Extending the
park to Vassar Street would double the size of the park and create a gateway between
Cambridgeport and M.I.T.
Besides being historically significant, this park provides a
neighborhood amenity that will become increasingly important as the area is developed for
mixed-use purposes. As the area becomes more attractive, Cambridgeport residents will also
come to enjoy the park. With the parking lots and railroad tracks gone, the park can truly
become an urban oasis of greenery as well as a fitting tribute to the Revolutionary War. An
elevated rail line through this unique park may even be artfully interpreted as a significant
historical monument.
An architectural contest may be a good way to solicit some truly
inspirational designs for this important gateway between M.I.T. and Cambridgeport.
A
possible simple design is shown in the figure above.
At the western end of the corridor, the B.U. Bridge connects the corridor to the southern banks
of the Charles in Boston, where there exist connections to Boston University, downtown
Boston, and the Longwood Medical Area. On the Cambridge side of the Charles, Memorial
Drive provides access along the river, and currently Brookline Street serves as the principal
north-south artery.
A rotary underneath the Memorial Drive overpass links these roads
together. However, there are many problems with this overall arrangement. During the
evening peak, traffic in the rotary backs up from the bridge and through the rotary, often
making it difficult for vehicles to use the rotary to access other roads. This calls for either the
re-design of the Cambridge portion of this intersection, or an increase in the capacity of the
B.U. Bridge itself and the intersection with Commonwealth Avenue on the Boston side.
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Figure 2 Map showing changes in the street
patterns as part of the Cambridgeport Roadways
Improvement Project.
Figure 3 Depiction of the full built-out scenario at the
University Park development. By late 2002, only the two
purple (dark) buildings will remain to be built.
Moreover, the City of Cambridge is actively trying to prevent traffic from using the interior
streets of the Cambridgeport neighborhood as through ways. The Cambridgeport Roadways
Improvement Project “is designed to provide access to University Park (see Figure 3) as well as
other existing and future mixed used developments in Cambridgeport, and to mitigate traffic
impacts on neighborhood streets.” A map of the project is shown in Figure 2. The project
includes the reconstruction of Sidney and Waverly Streets (including bicycle lanes, curb
extensions, and new street tress), as well as the construction of a new connector road from
lower Brookline Street to Sidney and Waverly Streets.”4 Reconstruction of the rotary could
allow better access to Albany and Sidney Streets, lessening the current traffic on Brookline
Avenue. As an indirect result, the traffic flow at the Mass. Ave. and Brookline Avenue
intersection in Central Square may also improve. Many of these vehicles could now use
Albany Street to access points north of Central Square. The B.U. Bridge may also need
rehabilitation or even replacement in the near future. The possibility of realigning the bridge to
better access the reconfigured Albany Street should be considered. Moreover, as part of the
Urban Ring project, the rail bridge underneath the current B.U. Bridge would also need to be
4
City of Cambridge website, Infrastructure Projects page.
http://www.ci.cambridge.ma.us/~CDD/envirotrans/infraproj/
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rehabilitated. A combined structure might increase both the aesthetic appeal and efficiency of
this critical transportation link between Boston and Cambridge.
The Vassar Street corridor will be a critical piece of the evolving campus of M.I.T. and a
critical link between this Institute and the evolving City of Cambridge. By working together
with the city and neighborhood groups, and with the MBTA and other agencies, this Institute
can help to shape a vibrant corridor of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented
development along Albany and Vassar Streets. With an elevated, well-hidden rail line serving
as a critical transit backbone for the area, this pair of streets can become true main streets of the
M.I.T. campus, bustling with human activity. The removal of the physical barrier of the Grand
Junction ROW will allow the main campus of M.I.T. to physically connect to the new northern
dormitories and to the rest of Cambridge. A collaborative approach to development will allow
the Institute to utilize the remaining land in this corridor with the support of the Cambridgeport
neighborhood and area businesses. Through open communication and an on-going planning
and review process,5 M.I.T. can lead the effort to sew together our expanding and evolving
campus, forging new connections between the Institute and Cambridgeport, University Park,
and the City of Cambridge.
5
Updates to this project will be maintained at my BostonForum.com website, at the following URL:
http://www.bostonforum.com/my_ideax.php?group_id=63. Initial copies of this work will be
available at the website no later than December 25, 2001. Comments may be made online or emailed to the
author.
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