Commentaries Health & Environment Real Estate

Downtown View: Make MEEI’s Plan Better

Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary has proposed giving up its parking lot on the Esplanade, rerouting Storrow Drive and its ramps, building an addition to its main building over the Charles Street extension and constructing a large parking lot underneath the Esplanade. Ambitious.

There have been the usual complaints, anxieties, and turf battles. West Enders direly predict more traffic and blocked views. The underground garage will be an undesirable permanent private use of a public park, wrote Renata Von Tscharner, president of the Charles River Conservancy. The Esplanade Association, the other major park advocate, has reserved judgment until MEEI’s plans are further along, said Sylvia Salas, executive director of that organization. The Beacon Hill Civic Association has also declined to comment officially as yet.

It’s understandable that organizations advocate for their special interests. It is also understandable that residents are wary of a strong institution’s effect on their community.

Nevertheless, it is tiresome to hear fear and doom without evidence. It lacks creativity to see the future in only one dimension.

I wonder if anyone has ever had the inclination in considering changes such as this to ask a bigger question: over the long run, what is best for Boston as a whole?

I have two biases that I must admit to. I am grateful to Mass Eye and Ear for the high standards it has for keeping up its property. Compare the beautiful small gardens in front of the John Jeffries House and in its parking lot (owned by the Eye and Ear) with the bedraggled mess around the Liberty Hotel across Charles Circle to see the difference between an institution that cares about its effect on the neighborhood and a commercial enterprise that doesn’t.

My other bias was formed from reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies.” Mukherjee describes the cancer breakthroughs Eye and Ear scientists have had working with their colleagues at MIT, coordinating by walking across the Longfellow Bridge.

Keeping research and medical services within Boston and near Cambridge’s research entities benefits our city economically and socially in myriad ways. It’s a good city that has lots of scientists. I’m particularly fond of imagining that I pass them on the Longfellow Bridge. The medical services are a convenience for those of us who live downtown and have to make use of them from time to time.

There is a third bias I have. I believe in public transportation and walking. Commuters should be on trains to get into the city. Tourists should take the T or taxis. I don’t understand why shoppers can’t leave their cars at Alewife and happily ride the T. We should implement a congestion charge for vehicles entering the downtown.

Hospital patients, however, with fewer options and special conditions, get a pass from me for driving. That’s what cars are for. I’m sympathetic when the hospitals say they need more parking. If we want them to stay and thrive in Boston, we have to help them achieve that.

So instead of knee jerk reactions to change, I’m hoping for some collaboration.

Charles and Leverett Circles are a mess of autos and pedestrians facing one another head on. Some people think this is good because everyone is so confused they are more careful than they otherwise would be. And, remarkably, both these circles are among the safest areas of the city in terms of pedestrian accidents, so maybe that point of view proves true.

But the circles need work. MEEI officials believe their plans will reduce traffic since the current pattern of patients’ drivers coming through Charles Circle, turning into North Grove, dropping off the patient at MEEI’s door, and then driving back to Leverett Circle and turning around in the other direction onto Storrow Drive to get to the parking lot will be reduced to one trip directly into the underground drop off and parking garage. Those people concerned about traffic should pat attention to the upcoming traffic studies to fully understand the impacts along Storrow Drive and the two traffic circles. Then everyone—the park advocacy organizations, MEEI, Mass General and MassDOT in the reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge—should work together to make the circles work better.

The park advocacy groups should work with MEEI officials to design the roadway and ramp configurations to improve pedestrian access to the Esplanade, improve the parkland above the garage and make more felicitous what still looks in the proposal like a jumble of cars.

West Enders should work with MEEI to get a truly handsome building, not just another box.

Most changes that occur in downtown Boston aren’t as bad as the doomsayers predict, and they are not as good as the proponents claim. Moreover, how good or bad they are sometimes is not obvious until years have passed. Too many times I hear of turf battles, selfishness and petty power struggles that prevent people and organizations from getting together to solve problems. But what’s good for Boston is not just one person’s, one neighborhood’s or one organization’s narrow interest. It’s got to work for all of us and make things better for years to come.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at