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Boston Society of Architects

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wild ride

The city is a case study of how to fast-track transit and public access upgrades

Everett IMG 20190709 192333

Bike riding down the Harborwalk, Everett.

Photo courtesy of Mystic River Watershed Association. Photo by David Loutzenheiser.

From exclusive bus lanes to bike share stations, from new waterfront parks to digital wayfinding signs, Everett is changing faster than Boston’s Seaport, and not just around its infamous casino. This majority minority city of 45,000 has undergone a transformation of its open space and transportation infrastructure seemingly overnight.

For Mayor Carlo DeMaria, the lifelong Everett resident who has led the city for a dozen years, there isn’t “time to wait for others to solve the challenges facing our City.” He’s empowered his staff to rethink the traditional processes and the associated bureaucratic hurdles that can slow the pace of implementation.

Now, the cumulative effects of this leadership style are beginning to show. When I stopped into Main Street House of Pizza for a slice, the three guys working there told me proudly that what was once a “drive-through town” has begun to “feel like the next Cambridge or Somerville . . . it feels like the city is coming to us.” New apartment buildings are cropping up around recently renovated parks, and breweries are opening amid historic industrial uses such as Leavitt Corporation that produces Teddie Peanut Butter.

Transportation revolution

I asked Morgan, a five-year resident of Everett, about the changes in her city, and she singled out the repaved roads (and a Dunkin’ Donuts that had been relocated inside the casino). It’s true that streets are smoother for drivers, but they’re also significantly better for buses and bikes.

Mayor DeMaria is hyperaware of two things: that many residents “rely entirely on [a] transit system that is frequently unreliable” and that it “isn’t feasible to have a growing city where everyone owns two or more cars and has limitless parking everywhere.” It’s given Jay Monty, Everett’s transportation planner, an ability to maximize the potential for city streets by making them more multimodal and to better support the most economically vulnerable residents that call Everett home.

Inspired by the bus rapid transit (BRT) he saw on a visit to Mexico City and with local support from the Barr Foundation and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Monty has been iteratively improving the bus corridor along Broadway that serves five bus lines and as many as 10,000 passengers daily. Beginning in December 2016, the City took away parking on one side of the street and used traffic cones to create the first bus lane prototype. The cones were replaced by paint, and eventually the entire lane was painted red to delineate the bus-only lane. Traffic signals have also been upgraded to give priority to approaching buses.

Improvements such as these are now being made elsewhere in the Boston region and bear a physical resemblance to the Silver Line on Washington Street installed in 2002—but Everett has gone further. The City is pursuing Gold Standard BRT, which includes better protection for the bus lanes and paying fares before boarding. With a Spanish firm, the City designed and installed “level boarding platforms” that extend up from the sidewalk and allow people to walk, or roll, directly onto the bus in order to improve accessibility and speed the boarding process.

None of these changes came with formal public meetings. Monty noticed that “evening public meetings [were] not a representative sample”—the same handful of people showed up at traditional hearings for projects with a consistent list of complaints. Instead, he has used the pilot projects coupled with surveys, measurable travel-time improvements, and continued upgrades as the community process, thereby generating support well beyond what a whole series of meetings could have produced.

Partnerships with regional advocacy groups such as the LivableStreets Alliance, as well as ITDP, has enabled the City to do more outreach, collect input, and collaborate across municipal borders. Meanwhile, working with Adrian Gill at Ad Hoc Industries, they’ve created a branded look and feel along with creative ways to build momentum for the bus lane. Ad Hoc made a film of the crew painting the “red carpet” and organized a “flower bomb” that turned an ordinary bus stop into a bucolic garden experience. Gill says he is inspired by the “entrepreneurial attitude” of the mayor and admires his leadership style as being “out ahead of the average resident.”

Everett has had fewer and less vocal grassroots advocates than most of its neighboring communities, so although residents are overwhelmingly appreciative, city officials are aware that there may be future limitations. Leading the project from the top has kept the mayor and his team ahead of the curve, but Monty notes that it could be “harder to do bigger things where you need a groundswell of support.” When it comes time to ask for additional funding from the Department of Transportation or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) for larger projects, they “want an entire community that would show up” with residents being willing to testify at hearings, write letters, or demand investment from state leaders. Everett is hoping that the pilot projects will show residents what is possible and inspire them to become advocates.

Lessons learned from the bus pilot have helped to advance other projects. During one surveying phase the City did with the MBTA, officials realized that standard commuter times weren’t the busiest times for bus riders. Passengers were relying on the bus to get them to those jobs that start very early—for example, they were taking the bus to open a Dunkin’, not to stop by and grab a coffee.

Similarly, many residents in Everett are working shifts outside the MBTA’s service hours. With that realization, Monty began focusing more on building bike lanes and on growing available bike share options. The City welcomed LimeBikes in 2018 to provide bicycle options for residents and workers connecting to surrounding communities on the north side of the Mystic River, and in 2019, it joined the intermunicipal BlueBikes system to connect with Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

parks and paths

Conditions for cycling and walking have been steadily improving on paths as well. With support largely from Malden residents, the first section of the Northern Strand Community Trail was paved along an old rail corridor in 2013. Improved connections from the surrounding neighborhood continue to be added. Parkland sits adjacent to several sections of the path, and a new spur leading to the Malden River is nearly complete.

Though long ignored and neglected while it was being polluted by years of industrial processing, the Malden River is getting cleaner and is full of potential that the Mayor DeMaria was eager to take advantage of. Recreational riverfront access wasn’t a big part of the public imagination yet, but for DeMaria, the opportunity to build waterfront parks was clear. It “is one of the only urban rivers that is not flanked by busy roadways,” he says. Using the waterfront path systems along the Charles and Mystic rivers as a model, the City has been working hard to create riverfront paths and recreation access.

Tom Philbin is officially Everett’s director of communications, but since he started the job four years ago, he’s been the person empowered to make the waterfront a publicly accessible destination and amenity. Though it was easy for longtime residents to forget that there was a river along the city’s western edge, Philbin instantly saw the opportunity to make it a defining feature of the community.

The Gateway Park section of the waterfront had a completed path, but it was gated and disconnected. Another section had a private park that could be accessed only with permission through a private parking lot. And most of the remaining waterfront was closed off completely. In order to open these paths to the public and connect them by building more, the City worked with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to enforce Chapter 91 licenses that require private owners to provide public access to waterfronts across the Commonwealth.

While some communities have historically had an adversarial relationship with advocacy groups, Everett decided to lean on CLF and the Mystic River Watershed Association as allies in the effort to expand public access. When National Grid, one of the largest owners of riverfront property in Everett and Malden, applied to DEP to consolidate its Chapter 91 license agreements, it proposed a small 100-foot path to an overlook, rather than full access to the half-mile of riverfront it owned. Everett and Malden, the state legislative delegation, and advocates from across the two communities lobbied DEP to reopen the process and hold additional public hearings. As a result of the coordinated effort, Philbin reports that when DEP issued its final ruling, National Grid was “required to build a riverfront path the length of the property,” which will connect to the two new adjacent paths at Rivergreen Park. Cumulatively, these improvements will result in more than a mile of new recreational pathways.

Thanks to this work and the recent opening of the Harborwalk at the Encore Casino, Everett now has 2 miles of paths and parks built, in construction, or committed, as well as a canoe and kayak launch. If the number and variety of users on the Northern Strand trail is any indication of future success, these paths are certain to be bustling with walkers, runners, scooters, bikes, and dogs when they are completed and connected.

What’s to come

Neither the mayor nor his team are content to rest on their laurels. The combination of entrepreneurial spirit and stick-to-itiveness continues to drive their work. They want Everett to remain unique and to serve the existing residents while continuing to support growth.

The mayor’s passion and drive comes through when he wrote to me: “It is first and foremost an environmental justice issue, and in my mind, it’s a moral imperative to make real and lasting changes and to do so before another generation has to suffer from the inactions of their leaders.” From some leaders, it would be just another talking point, but in Everett, there is physical evidence that he is making this happen and will continue to push for more change. The city spent more than a century as a “dumping grounds of the surrounding area’s economic success,” said Mayor DeMaria, but with investments in transportation and natural resources, the city’s 21st-century identity will be something else entirely.