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DCR to Reboot Its Planning Process for Memorial Drive

Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Photo by John Phelan, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 3.0.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) will scrap its 2019 conceptual plans for rebuilding Memorial Drive in Cambridge between the Boston University Bridge and Eliot Circle, and will reboot the planning process under two new design contracts, the first of which could get underway this fall.

The state's "Memorial Drive Phase 3" project is intended to complement recent improvements to Memorial Drive between the Longfellow Bridge to the DeWolfe Boathouse just east of the B.U. Bridge.

The "phase 1" and "phase 2" projects, finished in 2004 and 2016, respectively, improved riverfront habitat and the Dr. Paul Dudley White bike and jogging paths along the Charles River waterfront near the MIT campus. But those new paths currently end abruptly at the DeWolfe Boathouse, where bicyclists and joggers dodge aggressive drivers on the traffic circle that leads to the B.U. Bridge.

The original design contract for "phase 3" aimed to draw up plans for extending the improved riverfront path network 2.5 miles westward to the end of Memorial Drive at Eliot Bridge, and also design a replacement for the aging roadway.

Because this section of Memorial Drive gets less traffic (and has historically been closed to motor vehicle traffic on Sundays during the summer and fall), advocates organizing as the Memorial Drive Alliance and several local elected officials had hoped the DCR would reduce the width of the roadway and restore more of the state's riverfront parkland for public recreation.

But at a June 2019 public hearing, many members of the public expressed disappointment in the DCR's conceptual designs, which would have kept the bulk of Cambridge's riverfront parkland buried under four lanes of asphalt for traffic.


From June 2019: State's Memorial Drive Concept Conserves Cambridge Waterfront... for Cars

At that meeting, DCR officials and project consultants from AECOM, an engineering firm, said that more detailed designs would be presented in the fall of 2019, after a period of public feedback. That fall meeting never happened.

In response to a request for an update on the project, a DCR spokesperson wrote in an email last Friday that "for various reasons including, but not limited to, physical and environmental restraints, the analysis of traffic data, multiple cross sections, and the to-be-determined I-90/Allston redesign, DCR concluded the inclusion of the three intersections (at Western Ave., River St., and the B.U. Bridge) was hindering project progression, and terminated the design contract" with AECOM. 

Instead, the DCR will solicit bids for a revised design contract that would focus on redesigning the 2.5 mile segment between the Eliot and B.U. bridges without making changes to the intersections at River, Western, and the B.U. Bridge traffic circle. 

That new planning effort could begin this fall, with a complete design expected in time to begin construction in summer 2022.

A separate design and planning project would begin in 2021 to focus on the Memorial Drive intersections with River Street and Western Avenue.

As for the traffic circle at the B.U. Bridge, the DCR official would only say that "the agency continues to evaluate opportunities to improve the Boston University Rotary."

A separate design process for the intersections could give DCR's design team time to respond to a separate City of Cambridge effort to redesign River Street.

In a project expected to go under construction next year, Cambridge would replace one of River Street's motor vehicle lanes and some on-street parking areas with a dedicated bus lane, protected bikeway, and improved sidewalks and crosswalks between Memorial Drive and Central Square.

Meanwhile, Cambridge advocates continue to press the city and DCR to make short-term changes that can provide more outdoor recreational space that accommodates physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DCR has extended its regular weekend traffic closures on Memorial Drive to include Saturdays as well as Sundays this summer, and a broad coalition of neighborhood organizations, elected officials, and safe streets advocates have been calling on DCR to restrict car traffic further in order to provide more recreational space on Cambridge's waterfront.

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