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Purchased Streets Open Doors to Big Plans

New pedestrian mall part of 11-acre redevelopment

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Those returning to East Campus this semester had a surprise in store for them. Three streets had been transformed over the summer to malls (of the pedestrian, not the shopping variety).

In June, Boston University paid the city of Boston $11.45 million to acquire Blandford, Hinsdale, and Cummington Streets (now called malls) as part of a long-range plan dating back to 1986, when University officials envisioned making the area a stronger research and teaching hub on the Charles River Campus as well as making it more pedestrian-friendly.

“Because of the acquisition of the streets, we can now think of the Cummington Mall area as one large contiguous parcel,” says Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations. “Our goal in buying this was first to be able to unlock that long-term planning development potential.”

With the purchase of the streets and the air rights above them, BU now owns the entire 11-acre parcel containing the Metcalf Center for Science & Engineering, the College of Communication, Warren Towers, and the long, narrow strip of buildings wedged between Cummington Mall and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Previously, the University had to seek special permission from the city to build anything from canopies to building entrances over these streets or abutting sidewalks. “We can now begin to connect our buildings and create new footprints of buildings in ways that before we could not because the street was a barrier,” Nicksa says.

The 2012–2022 Charles River Campus Institutional Master Plan, now under public review with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, identifies several potential projects for the space. One would replace 30-38 Cummington Mall, a building dating from the 1930s that currently houses a science library, with a state-of-the-art research facility that could have a larger footprint and rise as high as 10 stories, according to Nicksa. The science library would be relocated. Other plans include an addition to COM (possibly housing a high-ceilinged soundstage) that would extend out over the current open space in front of the school. The pedestrian mall would evolve in tandem with these major construction projects.

Cummington Street Pedestrian Mall, Boston University Charles River Campus

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The BU community is “not going to see dramatic physical change right away,” he says. “We did not buy the property with a specific landscape plan to remove the streets and replace them with trees and grass. You’re not going to see major aesthetic improvements until we do other projects, but we will have a much more pleasant place for people, particularly those who are in the classrooms and offices that abut the streets.”

Nicksa emphasizes the long-range nature of the University’s plans, saying it will be years before construction begins. BU must first seek zoning approval from the city, find funding, design the projects, and receive public approval.

Since the end of July, Blandford, Hinsdale, and Cummington Malls have been closed to through traffic, except for emergency vehicles, transportation services for people with disabilities, and delivery vehicles with commercial license plates. Access to the Warren Towers garage via Hinsdale Mall has not changed, and a new garage exit onto Cummington Mall (at the west end of 700 Comm Ave) gives drivers a convenient path to make a left turn onto the westbound lanes of Commonwealth Avenue.

Parking & Transportation Services and the Boston University Police Department are monitoring the Blandford Mall entrance for driver compliance on weekdays, after normal business hours, and extended hours during Red Sox home games. Cars parked unofficially will be towed.

The move eliminated 136 parking spaces, including 7 handicap spots, and bike racks now replace parking meters in the area. Drivers who used the handicap spots should contact Parking & Transportation Services to arrange alternative plans. Webb Lancaster, director of operations for Auxiliary Services, says a Parking & Transportation Services survey of meter usage on surrounding streets found that the average number of vacant spots exceeded average demand along Blandford, Cummington, and Hinsdale Streets, indicating that sufficient meter space is available on neighboring streets.

For drivers who prefer an alternative to metered parking, officials say BU parking permits might be a good fit, allowing access to day commuter, pay-on-entry, and evening fixed-price parking lots. Late-night visitors can use the pay-on-entry Granby Lot at 655 Commonwealth Ave., which the University has switched to 24-hour operation, Monday through Saturday, with lower rates through fall semester while it assesses demand.

Students, faculty, and staff who used the area to drop off or pick up equipment or research specimens can still park in 30-minute loading zones on Blandford and Hinsdale Malls and in a few spaces in the Warren Towers garage.

The University’s purchase of Blandford, Hinsdale, and Cummington Streets “is something we thought a great deal about,” says Nicksa, and was not done to make parking more difficult or expensive. “There’s probably no other place on campus, along the mile and a half of Comm Ave, where we have this kind of opportunity to reinvent an urban landscape in a way that supports the long-term development of the Charles River Campus. And buying the streets is the way to start.”

3 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

3 Comments on Purchased Streets Open Doors to Big Plans

  • AP on 09.14.2012 at 10:00 am

    Sadly, the vehicles making deliveries will not treat Cummington Mall like a pedestrian mall, and frequently speed around the blind corner at Blandford Street, drive the wrong way up Cummington, and drive too fast through crowds of pedestrians who are walking in the former street.

    Cummington Street was dangerous beforehand because it was a quiet street where cars expected no pedestrians and pedestrians expect no cars. Now, pedestrians have the right of way but nearly get mowed down by, say, the Office Supply or Water Delivery truck.

  • Samantha on 09.14.2012 at 2:13 pm

    I completely agree with AP. I still look up towards Metcalfe on reflex whenever I cross Cummington, but I have seen several cars and trucks flying up the street the wrong way.

    Also, they are going to demolish the COM lawn to expand the building? That seems like an incredibly stupid move, destroying one of the only two grassy spots on campus where students hang out…

  • Amanda on 09.26.2012 at 12:47 pm

    Demolishing the COM lawn will not be seen well by the students at all! Save the grass. COM doesn’t need an expansion.

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