Harvard has been drawn into yet another expensive political dispute over a construction project in Allston — this time over a drainpipe that the University maintains is essential to prevent flooding in its new developments. Opponents contend the project has been advanced without transparency and engagement with stakeholders.
As the Boston Water and Sewer Commission and Harvard proceed with the North Allston Storm Drain Extension Project — an estimated $50 million endeavor the University has pledged to fully fund — local politicians, residents, and environmental groups have called for further investigation into its potential environmental impacts.
The BWSC, which will own and operate the drainpipe, wrote in its environmental notification form filed with the state in February that the project intends “to address longstanding deficiencies” in the existing system, which have resulted in “substantial surface ponding and flooding” in the vicinity.
According to the filing, the project will involve creating a new “trunk drain system,” more than doubling the diameter of the existing pipe in some locations, and re-routing it to a “new BWSC-owned outfall” that will empty into the Charles River next to the River Street Bridge. The BWSC will also add in two new hydrodynamic separators to filter out pollutants from the collected stormwater.
Altogether, the new infrastructure aims to decrease flood volume by more than 53 percent, per the filing from BWSC.
Construction of the drainpipe expansion will span 24 months and require the installation of a temporary crane on top of a 40-foot by 40-foot platform adjacent to the outfall site, according to form.
John Sullivan, chief engineer at the BWSC, said the University’s pledge to pay for the project means that the BWSC will not have to raise sewer rates for local residents as much as it would have otherwise.
Much of the Harvard-owned land in North Allston lies in a future flood zone. University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke wrote in an email that the project would protect residents and property owners in approximately 160 acres of North Allston from flooding and property damage in the case of a substantial storm.
Before the drainpipe expansion proceeds, however, the BWSC and Harvard require approval from the Massachusetts legislature because the project will involve construction on a portion of state parkland, according to the Boston Globe.
Several legislators are already wary of the project, signaling the potential challenge of securing such approval.
In a March 4 letter to Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen A. Theoharides, legislators representing North Allston, State Rep. Michael J. Moran and State Sen. Sal N. DiDomenico, wrote they had “not even begun to consider” granting the approval, citing the developers’ lack of outreach to the legislature and their constituents.
Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution was approved by voters in 1972 with the aim of conserving the state’s environment. It stipulates that development on state parkland requires the passage of legislation — known colloquially as ‘an Article 97’ — by a two-thirds vote of the state legislature and the signature of the governor.
Moran said in an interview he does not see any reason for why the pipe is necessary, nor “any rush” to start the project.
“They have to prove to my constituents and the abutters of this project that this is even necessary. And they have to prove that to me, as well,” Moran said. “I’m not entirely saying that this isn’t necessary, or couldn’t potentially happen.”
Moran added the BWSC had never previously reached out to him to speak about problems with the current pipe, and he wonders why nothing had been done to fix it.
“At no point in time has [Boston] Water and Sewer [Company] ever reached out to me and explained this problem to me,” Moran said. “If this was such a horrific problem, why have you done nothing to fix it?”
Sullivan, the chief engineer for BWSC, said the utility has met with representatives and disputed the contention that the project is not necessary.
“In 2006 we thought we needed it, and we still do — the climate is changing,” he said. “When the big storms are going to come, they’re going to come.”
Sullivan said he is “unaware of the specifics” of why Moran is objecting to the project, but said the BWSC will move forward with what it can on the project.
“Everyone’s got the right to object and he’s got his reasons, I’m not sure what they are, but he’s got his, so we’re moving forward, getting where we can,” he said. “But we can’t get into the river without the aid of the representative filing Article 97 — that’s simple, we understand that, and he’s going to have his right.”
In a written public comment responding to the filing by BWSC in February, local resident Jennifer Pieszak said she also believes outreach efforts by the developers have been inadequate.
Pieszak, a self-described “avid rower,” alleged the project seems to be moving ahead without any substantial input from stakeholders — a notable one being the Head of the Charles Regatta.
“Why is this project proceeding without consultation or engagement of the river community, as it impacts the safety of thousands of river users every day?” she wrote. “Why is there no mitigation plan in place so that the Head of the Charles Regatta cannot be impacted?”
Sullivan said, however, that the BWSC is “attempting to make a public meeting,” and he anticipates one will occur at the end of April.
Pieszak added in an interview she believes the drainpipe expansion plans devised by the BWSC are a “failure of imagination.” She said the expansion should have been coordinated with other local infrastructure projects — an idea she also mentioned in her public comments to the BWSC.
“I would suggest your office request that the [BWSC] reconsider resilient alternative options to be coordinated with the MassDOT Allston Multimodal projects to find a coordinated solution to resolving this complex engineering project,” she wrote, referring to the Allston Multimodal Project, a proposed project to realign the Massachusetts Turnpike that Harvard will partially fund.
Barbara M. Parmenter, a resident and member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, said she wishes the BWSC would have explored more “green infrastructure” alternatives instead of the current “gray infrastructure” proposal.
“What I like to see is really beautifully designed green infrastructure, so there would be some water features that would help with the drainage in a way that that enhances ecological functions — not just puts it all into a pipe underground — treats the water using those functions, and creates beautiful, mentally-calming, and educational space for the community,” she said.
Green Cambridge, a local environmental group, and the Charles River Watershed Association have also expressed reservations about the project proceeding without more research into the environmental impacts of the drainpipe expansion.
Steven Nutter, the executive director of Green Cambridge, said he supports research into “green infrastructure” and that he believes all developments should focus on the “ecological history” of the site.
Nutter also said focusing on ecology goes hand-in-hand with outreach to local residents — not just environmental or engineering “experts.”
“I think that experts are the ones who can help facilitate and complete a community vision, and provide the kind of knowledge that we really need to have in terms of what steps are most recommended next,” he said. “But in general, I think it always has to start with the community and its relationship to the land.”
Janet Moonan, stormwater program director at the Charles River Watershed Association, said the organization has outstanding questions about how the expanded drainage system will preserve water quality.
“We wanted more information from them on how the project is going to comply with water quality requirements, how it will address phosphorus and pathogen pollution and reduce that, and understand how it will comply with some federal and state permits related to those pollution requirements,” she said.
The CRWA is also concerned with how construction will impact wildlife habitats, aquatic ecosystems, and local river users, per Moonan. Those concerns, she said, require “more information” and “more public education and engagement around the project.”
“Generally speaking, we want more thought and transparency from the project,” she added.
O’Rourke, the Harvard spokesperson, wrote that the project would “reduce the total amount of phosphorus-containing sediments” and remove more than 80 percent of suspended solids from the runoff, leading to a health improvement of the Charles River.
Sullivan also said the project will not cause any harm to the environment.
“We don’t see anything that is going to harm the existing environment. We see the benefits — we see us taking up more suspended solids. As we make people hook up to this pipe, they’re going to be required to take up the phosphorus,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking at putting green infrastructure up there, so I look at it as a win, win, win.”
— Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff writer Maribel Cervantes can be reached at email@example.com.