KENMORE SQUARE T STATION, BOSTON, MA 1993-2009

I can still remember staying late one night at the office back in 1993 to draw a Green Line car for the cover of the proposal for the Green Line Accessibility RFP. Although we would win a portion of the work, the project did not start right away and I was laid off in December of that year. Imagine my surprise when I returned in 2001 and we were still working on that project and it had not even started construction yet. It would continue for eight more years.

With broad support from the Kenmore Square community, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts funded a major initiative, entitled The Kenmore Square Public Improvements Project to make Kenmore Square safer for pedestrians and vehicles while enhancing the square. It was constructed in coordination with a separately funded MBTA Light Rail Accessibility Program (LRAP) for the below-grade station. The project was managed by the MBTA Design and Construction office in coordination with Mass Highway, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the City of Boston. Boston University and the Red Sox were involved on the private side. Does the timeline surprise you now?

Existing conditions in Kenmore Square prior to the The Kenmore Square Public Improvements Project.

The project finally began in 1996. Barbara Boylan, Head of Design for the MBTA from 1995 to 2007, and I had lunch to discuss the project and discuss how more daring design solutions made their way into a series of T projects at the time. Each stakeholder had issues that had to be accommodated through the redesign of the square. Mass Highway wanted to improve traffic flow, The Kenmore Business Association led by President Pamela Beale wanted better and safer pedestrian access, the MBTA needed to provide accessibility and improved bus service, the BRA and the city were concerned with the urban design issues, BU was focused on their campus “front door” and their recent investment in the Hotel Commonwealth, and the Red Sox was targeting safety, access and flow for pedestrians going to Fenway.

The large number of stakeholders and the complicated contractual structure made for slow going in the beginning. Barbara also pointed out a few things that had changed at the T around this time. She had apprenticed for two years under John I. Williams, who had run Design and Construction for 32 years and together they focused on rebuilding trust with the operations staff. She was invited and attended the subway operations meetings to learn more about how things worked. General Manager Bob Prince supported the testing of various operational theories in order to improve performance, such as staging bus resources for Red Sox games. Some radical strategies were tried including moving the station access and incorporating it into a larger side walk on the Commonwealth Hotel side of the street, reducing the impact of pedestrian movements on the roadway. This was vetoed by the bus drivers who did not want to have to make left turns across traffic. All of these fact-based operational studies allowed the team to gain a greater understanding of the myriad of challenges they faced in this project.

In addition, new low floor Green Line cars were on the way and had to be accommodated for accessibility. Barbara pointed out that most of the design happened prior to 9/11 and the necessary security changes had to subsequently be incorporated into the project. Then there was the new fare collection system. And last but not least, the Red Sox hosted the All-Star game in 1999, and after 86 years won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. The extended seasons would greatly impact the construction schedule with the playoffs, the championship series and the World Series going into late October.

In spite of these headwinds, there was agreement on a number of issues that allowed the stakeholders to persevere and move forward. The neighborhood felt that the character of Boston that existed along Commonwealth Avenue up to Charlesgate should be extended to the square and Boston University agreed and hoped to extend it further. The existing bus station’s bunker-like design visually cut the square in half and contributed to motorist confusion about which way to proceed through the awkward alignment of streets. Greater pedestrian safety was a common goal. Likewise, the T was in design on a number of stations at the time including Charles Street, Airport, and Government Center. They had looked to public transportation innovations in Europe for ideas, including the new Jubilee Line in London where extensive use of glass and transparency had improved security.

THE DESIGN

While our scope of work began below ground with the accessibility project, the project’s vision expanded to encompass the whole square and we were asked to manage an above-grade team and to look at the head house design. We assigned a young architect, Alberto Cabre, to the project and he came up with several options for an all glass canopy and was encouraged by Barbara Boylan to explore it further. Working with Steve Varga of Weidlinger, who suggested a cone as an efficient structural shape, the design evolved as a resolution of form, structure, and program. It is an elliptical cone intersected with two planes – one parallel to Commonwealth Avenue and the second plane at a diagonal to echo the Beacon Street diagonal intersection. It covers the stairs and escalators from the station below, allows views across the square, and shelters patrons waiting for and boarding buses.

Early concept sketches.

Station cross section.

The nine triangular stainless steel trusses evolved from simple arc to a double arc to make them more delicate and recall Victorian-era transportation structures like the large train sheds or the Paris Metro in Europe and to better relate to the building architecture of the square. Through the use of special fittings and extensive CAD modeling by Kris Knight, the cone shape was accomplished using shingled flat panes of glass in trapezoidal shapes. To increase the sense of transparency, a glass purlin system spans from truss to truss as a secondary support system.

Left: Sketch of spider fitting for glass. Right: Shingled glass panels on the steel trusses.

Pedestrian circulation was improved significantly by realigning the Brookline Avenue intersection with Commonwealth Avenue and by narrowing roadways and expanding sidewalks at the east and west intersections that define the square.  Traffic was further calmed by an interlocking concrete paver street surface at these intersections.  Crossing locations were defined by paver paths in contrasting colors.  New traffic signals, with state-of-the-art computer programming, assured safer crossing intervals.

Site Plan by Pressley Associates, the landscape architect.

Conceptually, the new “park” fills the entire square from Kenmore Street to the Brookline Avenue intersection.  Over 80 new trees were planted, lining both sides of the square and within a widened center island.  Brick sidewalks and promenades extend the full length of the square and new street lampposts were added that were built in the turn-of-the-century gaslight style similar to those lining the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

Together, the new bus shelter and surface improvements open views through the square from both sides and enhance the setting for existing and new buildings that frame the north and south sides of this important public space, creating a dynamic new urban environment. The space is once again defined by the buildings lining the street as it originally was.

Left: Old bus shelter demolition in 2005. Right: New glass canopy in 2009.

While there were more dramatic changes above ground, the original project started with a goal of improving access. The project provided new elevators, along with raised platforms, to enable wheelchair access from the surface bus way to the mezzanine and platform levels.  A separate project funded by Boston University has provided a new elevator-accessible entrance within the new Hotel Commonwealth façade, to replace existing sidewalk stairs, freeing up more pedestrian space on the sidewalk to handle crowds.

Left: Mezzanine construction below canopy in 2005. Right: New raised platforms for low floor cars.

Towards the end of our lunch I asked Barbara to put the Kenmore Square Station in context of her tenure as Director of Design for the T. She acknowledged a change in thinking about improved safety through transparency learned from Europe as opening the door to innovative new station architecture. She recognized the revitalized Kenmore Square as a “significant civic statement” and the shape of the canopy as “urban icon,” more visible because of its location. She noted that the soon to be opened Government Center station would enjoy a similar status because of its iconic space. She credited the many people involved with continuing to persevere even when the complications seemed overwhelming. She complimented the composure of our own Stuart Carter, the Cornell graduate and retired Navy officer who was able to manage the project for us for thirteen years and keep everything moving forward and contractually organized. I get exhausted just imagining the years of effort. Thanks Stu!

She closed with a story about working with Dan Smith, Chief of the Green Line and his concerns as the project moved forward in design. She noted he was not skilled at reading drawings and she would  walk the site with him and note the things that would disappear and what would come in its place, to help his understanding of the design proposals. Barbara said, “he would tell me ‘Seeing is believing’.”

We agree with Dan, after 13 years of effort, “Seeing is believing.”

Revitalized Kenmore Square with the new Bus Station in the center. Read more here.