Transforming Challenging Urban Environments

The I-93 "Understory" Project, Boston, Massachusetts

Connecting communities, fueling economic development, and creating civic pride.

The neighborhoods o​f the South End and South Boston are on their way towards redefining walkability and connectivity through targeted improvements that will transform a tough urban infrastructure environment into a destination that is unlike anything these two communities have ever seen. These new connections under the elevated I-93 viaduct and the activation of this unclaimed space is thanks to the grassroots efforts of neighborhood associations, uncommon coordination and cooperation among elected officials and government agencies, and a passionate VHB team with our design partners, Landing Studio. And just in time for a rebirth of real estate development in and around this emerging urban district. 

The I-93 “Understory” project is an innovative example of how an extremely challenging urban environment can be transformed into a community asset that accomplishes important urban planning and economic development goals. As a visual and psychological barrier, the shadows of the complex highway viaduct and ramp system had become a haven for increasing illicit activities, homelessness, and crime. Anxious to reverse this trend, the Old Dover Neighborhood Association of Boston’s South End asked their local representatives to address the condition of this weedy and trash strewn area. MassDOT, the owner of the property, was contacted and engaged VHB to help lead the planning and design process through a series of on-call contracts. 

Public outreach meetings determined a set of priorities that would set the stage for the transformation: 

  • Activate the space with 24-hour uses

  • Strengthen cross-street pedestrian connections between the South End and South Boston

  • Complement and enhance the value of adjacent land uses and ongoing redevelopment in the area


With these priorities in mind, MassDOT proposed three market–responsive and revenue producing commercial parking lots beneath the viaduct between Herald Street and Randolph Street. Leveraging a $250,000 contribution by Normandy Real Estate Partners in conjunction with its 275 Albany Street redevelopment, MassDOT committed approximately $2.5 million for the initial phase of the project of public funding which included the design and construction of the lots—but with a few twists. Innovative public art and lighting was to be incorporated into the preliminary phases of construction. 

Spaces adjacent to the three lots were targeted for public realm improvements that included temporary light installations that informed the design of permanent artistic light structures, as well as, improved way finding and pedestrian accommodations and sidewalk upgrades that will reconnect the neighborhoods. A new urban park is being designed that will celebrate the context of the surrounding transportation infrastructure, while showcasing innovative stormwater features, improved pedestrian connections to the Fort Point Channel, and new flexible community spaces that can be used for such events as farmers’ markets and craft fairs. These project elements will bring new life to the site, enhance the pedestrian experience, and attract foot traffic between the neighborhoods, leading to a safer and more secure environment. ​

“This is a great story on so many levels. Two neighborhoods worked to make this a reality, with the city and state pitching in to make it happen in a really short time frame,” says Geoffrey Morrison-Logan, Managing Director, Planning and Landscape Architecture, VHB. “There were—and continue to be—​numerous permitting, design, and engineering challenges, and our team has collaborated in unprecedented w​ays to allow MassDOT to deliver as promised on the construction schedule. It’s been gratifying to see the initial results unfold—people intrigued and walking where they once hesitated to go only several months ago.”  

The challenges of the project dictate a high level of multi-disciplinary and cross-office collaboration and integration. The VHB team has drawn on everything from our urban design, landscape architecture and waterways permitting expertise, to highway design and stormwater management skills, to hazardous waste analysis and bicycle planning.


 

 

​​Spaces adjacent to the three lots were targeted for public realm improvements.

Before construction, the site was an extremely challenging urban environment.


Innovative public art and lighting was incorporated into the preliminary phases of construction. 


Temporary light installations informed the design of permanent artistic light structures, as well as, improved way finding and pedestrian accommodations.

 

 


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