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Transforming the Lost Half-Mile

A Case Study

See the related story Two Cities: One Future.

At the heart of this process was a classic case of getting a lemon and making lemonade.

For more than one hundred years, the “Lost Half-Mile” was so called for the lost opportunity to connect the Charles River Basin parks to the Boston Harbor. It was not a place for people. That’s changing. Where there had been a rusty warehouse district, there are now 40 acres of new parks, pedestrian paths, two housing towers, the US headquarters for the international Education First company, and the Zakim Bridge, with more improvements and connections yet to come. How this all came to pass is a useful case study for how Boston and Cambridge have worked together, looking for and finding common ground to link the communities physically and visually.

Burying the Central Artery—the Big Dig—had an unfortunate side effect in the Lost Half Mile. “Scheme Z”—a spaghetti of highway ramps that were to emerge from the ground as the Artery resurfaced—was proposed to link the new downtown tunnels with the high-ways on the other side of the Charles River. The city of Cambridge, along with others, brought lawsuits, leading the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to form the Bridge Design Review Committee and the New Charles River Basin Citizens Action Committee, both with representatives of Boston, Cambridge, and the broader community.

This city-building endeavor transformed what could have been an ordinary highway bridge, lost in a maze of highway ramps, into the iconic Zakim Bridge, now so memorably marking the confluence of the river and the harbor. In addition, marvelous new parks, such as Nashua Street Park in Boston, Revere Landing Park in Charlestown, and North Point Park in Cambridge, now line both sides of the river. A “sinusoidal” bridge is designed to snake through this complex landscape and is currently under construction, soon to link pedestrians and bicyclists from North Point to Revere Landing. More is yet to come, as some $30 million in mitigation funding is still available to help realize the promise of the masterplan.

In addition, slightly west, at the junction of Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville, sits the 60-acre North Point development area. North Point will eventually include 23 buildings centered around a five-acre central common, connected by a shared-use path that will also complete the link from the Minuteman bikeway to the Harborwalk. The process of coming to agreement about what should happen here, designing the various elements, and getting them built has been extremely dynamic, sometimes contentious, and ultimately quite productive. Scores of architects, landscape architects, engineers, planners, government leaders, and citizens have toiled in a series of forums over decades to hammer out these new places. This is just one story of change that illustrates how we can successfully build on our common urban values as we design and “celebrate” our differences.