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Imagine if cars were permanently barred from the banks of the Charles

Proposal for Charles River Embankment

See it larger (1886 proposal; source).

What if Storrow Drive had never been built? Imagine if it were just removed?

After posting about a Cambridge debate over keeping Memorial Drive shut to traffic on Saturdays, some folks on Twitter argued it shouldn't have been a highway to begin with.

One could make the same argument across the river, where, in fact, the banks of what we now call the Charles River Basin were originally a tree-lined promenade right up to the houses and buildings along Bay State Road, at least until the state built Storrow Drive in the 1950s, forcing pedestrians to use one of several pedestrian bridges to get to the river - and then further cemented the auto-primacy of the area by building the Bowker Overpass over Charlesgate in the 1960s.

The idea for a Charles River Embankment - today's Storrow Drive and Esplanade - dates to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the state constructed a dam across the mouth of the Charles, turning what had been an estuary into more of a large lake (in large part to keep smelly sewage pouring out of Stony Brook and the Muddy River covered by water, which kept the odors from wafting into the tony Back Bay). The result would be a "water park" with an esplanade along the river, backing up to the homes of the Back Bay.

The dam was completed in 1905. Charles River Embankment as seen from the Harvard Bridge in 1910 (source):

Charles River Embankment from the Harvard Bridge

Swimming near the old Charles Street jail, sometime in the 1930s or 1940s (source):

Charles River Embankment beach

The Hotel Sheraton, 91 Bay State Rd., used to be right at the water - compare to today (building is now a BU dorm, source):

Charles River Embankment hotel

Storrow Drive was built in 1950 and 1951. In the postcard, note how peaceful and uncrowded it looks - and how it doesn't have a complex overpass system at Charlesgate (source):

New Storrow Drive

The state built the Bowker Overpass atop Charlesgate in 1965 and 1966 (source):

Bowker Overpass under construction

Photos posted under this Creative Commons license.

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Comments

know that all cars must be banned. either they will be banned, as well as the naive culture which spawned them, or humanity will be extinct.

no one cares if you have a nice car. lame. bring back public space.

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Voting closed 70

Sorry your prius only has 100hp and sounds like a hairdryer.

You do realize that transportation only accounts for 14% of all global greenhouse gas production. Whereas electricity and heat account for 25%.

https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data

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Voting closed 15

You have to drive an electric car or take an electric trolley/bus OR half of us don't get to heat our home this winter or turn on a computer.

Sorry your home doesn't have triple paned windows but I don't think you need to roll coal any longer. It doesn't matter what the biggest gorilla is...it matters what the easiest one to tackle is. America's car culture needs a diet.

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Voting closed 38

You don’t know what that means, do you? Just sounded cool so your threw it in there.

My new house is energy star rated. How about yours?

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Voting closed 6

tons of things are "energy star rated", doesn't mean much.

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Voting closed 21

You must be the same commenter from an older thread that thought my house wasn’t custom.

I witnessed what they did first hand to get the rating and it absolutely means something. Keep blowing your energy out your leaky windows and walls though.

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Voting closed 3

Please gore someone else's ox.

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Voting closed 5

A discussion about possibly changing how the Charles River roads are used is not a personal attack on you.

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Voting closed 15

My buttplugs are all Energy star rated

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Voting closed 5

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and a significant source of harmful air pollution. And it is the largest source of emissions in Massachusetts. You are killing the planet and other people.

Have fun paying for gas, sweetie.

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Voting closed 29

Transportation is *barely* the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

Filling my tank for $80 doesn’t even make me think twice. $80 is nothing to me, but I’m glad you like to rub gas prices in other peoples faces that are barely making it by and have no choice but to drive.

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Filling my tank for $80 doesn’t even make me think twice.

*Slow clap*

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Voting closed 33

"Barely" at 27%, followed by electricity generation at 25%. Both are huge, and electricity is shrinking as a greenhouse source as renewables take over from coal and oil. Further, even with electricity as big a source as it is, electric vehicles are far less polluting than fossil-fueled ones. Gasoline is over. It only remains to be seem whether its use will end soon enough to stop heating the planet.

You're part of the problem.

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Voting closed 17

For every coal plant they close they build three biomass plants, why you ask because renewables are not reliable. You can just spin up the coal plant when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind isn’t blowing. It has to be running to take the load when renewables don’t cut it. The biomass plants are burning while trees to keep the lumber barons paid. Your giant ugly wind turbines cost 25 million a piece and only last 7-10 years. Solar panels take high grade coal and burn it with high grade quarts to make silicon dioxide metal the thin plates in the panel. How do they do that they burn more high grade coal.

It would be nice if one of you “your car is killing me” people would admit these things but never mind the products I smear on my face and skin and take without even thinking about how they are manufactured in China like your solar panels and wind turbines.

Sell your soul for clean energy, makes us all pay the price. Also I’m with 80 to fill the tank guy. It’s 110 for me to fill my tank right now and it doesn’t hurt me but let’s take it out on the lower middle class that can’t remodel their home or buy a Tesla or worry about anything other than getting to work and feeding their kids.
#endthecultofclean

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Voting closed 5

Ya, because Lithium Ion batteries are about as environmentally unfriendly as possible to both produce and dispose of.

I drive an average of 7,500 miles a year since I’m a remote worker. What about yourself? When was your house built and what does the insulation look like? Your furnace and water heater? Are they both high efficiency. Do you own a car? If so what model and how many miles do you drive a year? You assume I’m part of the problem, but I’d bet a large sum of money that my greenhouse gas production is way under what you produce. Keep telling yourself whatever you need to to sleep at night though.

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Voting closed 2

Lithium batteries are recyclable, duh. Or are you pretending that the manufacture of your gas car had no carbon footprint? I hope not, that would be stupid.

As for my house and car, it's not relevant. I'm not the one proudly proclaiming my happiness at buying tanksful of gasoline. Not that it's any of your business, but my 2005 house has 5.5 kW of solar panels on the roof, meaning I don't buy any grid power. My 30mpg car sits at home almost every day, because I do, too. In short, you lose. You are still part of the problem.

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Li-Ion are really not recyclable right now. So you’re wrong.

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220105-lithium-batteries-big-unansw...

We have a solar grid on our new house too with two 240v 50A drops in our three car garage for when we transition to EV. I’m looking at you Porsche Taycan Turbo S!

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Li-Ion are really not recyclable right now.

Tell it to these guys:

GlobalTech® Environmental is a global leader in Hybrid and EV Battery Recycling. At GlobalTech®, we are an end of life facility that specializing in EV and Hybrid vehicle battery recycling.

Things are evolving. Try to keep up.

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Voting closed 10

You’ve never dealt with high voltages have you? And I’m not talking about 120V or even 240V house electricity. Li-Ion in vehicles is not something you just pull out and send. Even if you could, you’d need to send your 1000 lb battery via freight and pay to recycle it.

You pointed to one company that has 25 employees and $5M in revenue. That’s peanuts, but I’m glad that someone is attempting to make a business out of recycling Li-Ion.

Your lack of knowledge in this domain is showing.

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You're miffed that I only linked to one place that recycles Lithium batteries in response to your claim that they are "really not recyclable right now?" OK, this report has three more, along with a USDoE project and an international collaboration of organizations, both working on recycling solutions.

If EV battery packs are "not something you just pull out and send," then why did Tesla promote a program to swap out the batteries in their cars for charged ones "in less time than it takes to fill a gas tank?"

SOMEBODY's lack of knowledge is showing, all right.

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I said Lithium Ion batteries are really not recycle-able right now in my earlier post. You even quoted it! That’s correct and you’re even supporting my argument with your links and text that companies are working on if. You know what right now means, right?

Tesla scrapped the battery swap a year ago because it’s riddled with problems.

https://electrek.co/2021/03/01/tesla-denies-report-back-into-the-battery...

I have no idea what you do for a living, but it’s certainly not engineering. You keep digging yourself deeper with your ignorance and lack of knowledge. Time to move along.

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Voting closed 4

If you work remotely, why do you drive so fucking much?

I drive a motorized vehicle like 2-3 times a year for a total of probably 50 miles. I largely work from home, and bike/walk/take transit if I need to be on site somewhere and for errands.

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VT, NY, NJ, the Cape A LOT in the summer, etc.

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CO2 is a single measure of environmental impact. Single occupancy vehicle exhaust is the single leading cause of local pollution causing a vast array of horrible and utterly preventable disease: https://www.epa.gov/mobile-source-pollution/research-health-effects-expo...

Industrial polluters will always clobber individual’s contribution to climate change. That’s why they invented the anti-litter campaign. But your choice to drive a car proudly with your $80 tank of gas is directly harming your neighbors. That’s on you and you’re being an ass about it on top of it all.

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Voting closed 19

Pretty sure global warming is a, hence the name, a global problem. Saying I’m being obtuse because local CO2 production is led by single occupant vehicles is like saying water is wet. I posted the facts from the EPA. Read them how you want in your fantasy world.

What would you like me to do? $80 in gas is 15 gallons at the current price. That’s a small tank on average. Take the T from Dorchester to Somerville? It’s a mile walk to and from the red line each way. So a two mile walk or 40 minute walk then a hour long train ride each way!

I assume you never fly for work or vacations because that’s far greater impact on ‘your neighbors’ than my car with 4 catalytic converters.

I earned what I have. Nothing was ever given to me. You’re damn right I’m proud of where I’m at.

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Voting closed 5

In Massachusetts transportation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse emissions - not to mention all the bad stuff from maintaining car infrastructure - e.g. single biggest source of microplastics from car tire wear, algal blooms due to road salt run off, brake dust pollution contributing to Alzheimer’s. Electric cars won’t solve these latter problems and since they are heavier they will create more wear and tear. We also won’t be able to produce batteries fast enough in the next 2-6 years, which is our current window for drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Was not delivered by fairies running on pixie dust. Neither was your couch, or the groceries you got from Whole Foods, or anything else for that matter,

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Restorative Justice!!!!

Remove the Charles River Dam and restore the river to a tidal basin! Nature wins!

Why do half measures?

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Voting closed 27

i mean, agreed unironically

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Voting closed 39

Probably would need to remove most of Back Bay and South End to restore the marshes. The smell at low tide after all the filling in was one of the main reasons for the dam. MIT would lose their land too, but I assume they've already prepared Jetsons-style stilt legs for all the buildings.

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Voting closed 7

Bring back the Shawmut peninsula!!!

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I was only kidding.

You people do realize that Boston is the heartbeat of an economy of about 4 million people.

Somehow the Camberville /JP mafia’s ego doesn’t get that. There’s more to the life of this area than you.

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Voting closed 13

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

What the costs to removing dams and locks near the end of their service lives is worth investigating as benefits to marsh rehabilitation, etc. are real, particularly given increased sea level.

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Would crumble in about 5 years owing to piling rot from the lack of water. That is why there are monitoring wells all over the filled tidelands.

The damming of the Charles was a real estate play disguised as a park.

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The damming of the Charles was a real estate play disguised as a park.

I thought I once read that some fool thought he could generate hydro power with that dam. Did I hallucinate that?

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Yes, please!

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Voting closed 13

I've always felt the way to fix all of this is to revert Storrow Drive to be a fully at-grade two-lane in each direction street. Double yellow line, no median. Three-way intersections would connect to the Comm Ave/Beacon side streets. At-grade crossing for all pedestrians at all intersections, no need for the ped bridges. Traffic lights timed so that the flow of rush hour (inbound in the am, outbound in the pm) gets green after green if you drive the 25 mph speed limit.

This would take up significantly less land, and would free up the bottled up land between the highway directions, the overpasses, etc. It would cost significantly less to maintain because it would be at-grade and have significantly less material. It would eliminate Storrowing, because there'd be no flyovers [be careful with engineering at Longfellow, etc]. You could certainly have parallel parking on the 'Charles Side' of the outbound direction for people to park near their now-expanded recreation area.

This would free up 100s of acres of park land, save many many millions of dollars of reconstruction and maintenance, and eliminate Storrowing.

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Voting closed 39

I agree in principle however I must point out that this town generates very little excitement outside of a sports team win, Go Celtics!, so the removal of The Storrowing would kill off one of the truly unique cultural traditions we have.

Also, since it's a state road, there will be huge opposition by those seeking to bypass the city entirely and make it to and from Fenway Park without having to deal with the realities a city bring with it.

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Voting closed 25

There remain other places to Storrow, and what could be more Boston than to name a thing after a thing that doesn't exist anymore?

As for the rest of the state enjoying that highway, you're absolutely right. Metrowest has decided that Boston doesn't get parkland, and there isn't much that Boston can do about it. It's unfortunate to say the least.

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When they remove overpasses, they invariably make the road WIDER, since it takes more lanes to make up for the delays introduced by the traffic light. For example: https://goo.gl/maps/4Z2DXXN7Ugxhtx3Q8

The Storrow median is about 4 feet wide. So replacing it with a double yellow won’t gain much land.

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I was a gondolier on the Charles for almost twelve years and heard lots of stories about the planning and history of the area. One of them was that James J Storrow himself never wanted there to be a road along the embankment, so it must have been a double slap-in-the-face to have it named after him. (I am less certain about the veracity of this claim).

What I do know for sure, though, is that I was shown some early 20th century prints for proposed construction and project planning along the lagoon, which included gondolas. Later when Arthur Shurcliff developed this area, he included bridges that would fit a gondola (I was just tall enough where I didn't have to duck whilst rowing). And those stairs going into the water? That's straight from Venice too, concrete steps facilitated the boarding of watercraft.

Boston's Gondola di Venezia went out of business a couple years ago...I sure miss it! And the stories.

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Voting closed 32

I think you are right about James Storrow.

James Storrow had been instrumental in earlier projects along the Charles River, in particular the Charles River Dam. Additions to the Charles River Esplanade had been made during the 1930s only by omitting an important part of the project, a proposed highway from the Longfellow Bridge to the Cottage Farm (Boston University) Bridge, which had provoked tremendous protest.[13] After Helen Storrow, the wife of the now deceased James Storrow, supported a group opposed to the highway, it was dropped;[13] part of the funding was to have come from a million-dollar gift from her.[14] Soon after Helen Storrow's death in 1944, a new proposal for the construction of the highway was pushed through the Massachusetts Legislature. In spite of still strong opposition, and through some dubious parliamentary procedures, the bill approving construction of the highway and naming it after James Storrow was passed in 1949.[15]

Source: Wikipedia (which links to City of Boston page about Storrow Drive's history)

So yeah it was a slap in the face that they named the roadway after him. tbh I see this more like sh*t on his grave, because Storrow wanted green space and betterment of the basin. A roadway..... is not green space or betterment.

And in typical mid-century Massachusetts fashion..... "f*ck whoever, let's build ROADS" and built it anyways. Like I constantly say.. I think MA road planners were on LSD. They just didnt care about anything else except building roads... even if they were un-safe or went against people's wishes.

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Voting closed 21

Were Urban Renewal and the auto/oil industries.

I remember seeing somewhere many years ago that at one point it was possible to travel from NY/Boston (?) to St Louis on public transit streetcars and trolleys, but bus manufacturers and petroleum interests essentially drove them all out of business as they gained control of municipal decision-makers.

And then the Urban Renewal monster appeared, hungry for land, and it destroyed our cities. Living in Revere, I see the effects of it every day and it is infuriating. I can't get around my city without extraordinary effort because cars are more important.

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Voting closed 9

...but bus manufacturers and petroleum interests essentially drove them all out of business as they gained control of municipal decision-makers.

It was more direct than that. In what's known as the Streetcar Conspiracy, vehicle, tire, and oil companies conspired to buy up regional streetcar companies. First they converted them all to buses, then they just closed them. The Justice Department prosecuted the conspiring companies and won convictions for conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce.

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good to know, thanks for the info.

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It's quite true, as cybah and other commenters have already posted, that both James Storrow and his wife Helen strongly opposed the construction of a highway, or parkway, adjacent to the river.

More significantly, Storrow personally donated a very large percentage of the funds to create the Embankment in the first place, when the first Charles River dam was built, around 1910. Before his gift, there was just a granite seawall adjacent to Back Street, no landscaping, no walkway, nothing between the pavement of Back Street and the river. Parts of that seawall are still visible if you stand on the Mass. Ave. Bridge.

And so it was called the Storrow Memorial Embankment. The terms of his gift said no roadway.

Then after James' death, his widow Helen donated more money in the 1930s to widen the embankment further. Again, she was quite insistent that there should be no road on the newly filled parkland.

It was with the 1930s enlargement of the park that the first islands, and one lagoon, were built, although not in the same configuration as today.

It is true that when the road was built in the 1950s, the islands were expanded to "make up" for some of the lost parkland.

When Storrow Drive was first built it was just 2 lanes in each direction. It opened on June 15, 1951. Soldiers Field Road already existed beyond University Road (near the B. U. Bridge); and the Eliot Bridge (up past Mount Auburn Hospital) also opened in 1951. Once all these roadways were connected to each other, the traffic demand soared, and the highway engineers decided to widen all of them. So everything from Market Street in Brighton to Leverett Circle was expanded to 3 lanes each way in 1954-55. This also conveniently connected at Leverett Circle with on-ramps to the new Central Artery. (The northern part of the artery, including the Leverett Circle ramps and the ramps to the Tobin Bridge, opened in 1954.)

If you look at old pictures, you'll see that the original 1951 Storrow Drive was much less of a "highway" than it was after 1955 widening. The curve of the Arthur Fiedler footbridge was actually designed to follow the curve of the roadway below. It looked very different.

The name "James J. Storrow Memorial Drive" refers just to the section between David G. Mugar Way (formerly Embankment Road, near the junction of Beacon and Arlington Streets) and University Road (just east of the B. U. Bridge). The segment between Leverett Circle and the Longfellow Bridge is still officially part of Charles Street. From the Longfellow to Beacon Street it's Mugar Way/Embankment Road. West of University Road, it's Soldiers Field Road. And west of Market Street in Brighton, it's Soldiers Field Road to North Beacon Street, then Nonantum Road to Watertown.

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Voting closed 10

And if they hated horses and buggies.

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The horses might actually be aware enough to stop for pedestrians, even if the buggy driver was too busy glancing at his daguerrotype camera and telegraphing his friends to pay attention to the path

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If one is a velocipede or penny-farthing, one must comprehend, surreys and wagons shall strike you

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Voting closed 12

Let's consider the case of former US Senator John Conness, who, after getting booted out by the California legislature, retired to the life of a gentleman farmer on River Street in Mattapan.

This story is mostly about his feud with Boston officials over the perilous state of River Street at the time (today's potholes have nothing on 19th-century River Street), but scroll down far enough and you'll read about his 1886 beef with the city over speeding sleighs:

The petition was introduced by Councilman Andreas Blume who, while acknowledging he had never been to River Street, said it was wrong to allow a heavily traveled street full of children be used as a race track by "fast men, and possibly fast women" - and not just "rich gentlemen from Dorchester," but from Weymouth, Dedham, Milton and Hyde Park (then still an independent town).

"It means that a rabble of respectable and every other kind of people will go there from every part of Boston and the surrounding towns and trot their horses," he predicted. He said he supposed if the supporters of a River Street with no speed limits were to live there, "they would sing a different tune."

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US Senator John Conness

Connopio.

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I’ll say it first. Let’s bring it back to the native habitat!

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Voting closed 13

Storrow is going to be pretty hard to excuse/defend when the floods get higher and higher.

Tidal basins were tidal buffers. Naturalizing them may ultimately be one of the few ways to create space for the flooding to come.

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Voting closed 17

Tear Down the Seaport and all construction from Fort Point Channel to the Reserved Channel.

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Voting closed 7

The people saying that reducing or eliminating lanes on storrow or memorial drive act as though there isn't an 8 lane highway right next to it. Sure you have to pay a toll (less than a subway ride) but it seems ridiculous that we act like people will only have local surface roads east-west if storrow was reduced or eliminated.

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Voting closed 27

This seems like a good time to plug Karl Haglund's excellent 2002 book, Inventing the Charles River, from MIT Press. He documents the invention of The Charles in Boston, via dams and bridges and embankments and all the rest. He pays particular attention to the development of roads and bridges, as these are fundamental to how the Charles River Basin has been developed by white settlers, especially since the Industrial Revolution.

As we know, James and Helen Storrow were vehemently opposed to the building of a roadway along the embankment. After James's death, Helen continued to try to block construction. Their son, James Storrow III, served as executive secretary of the Storrow Memorial Embankment Protective Association, formed in 1948 to oppose the roadway. Here is Haglund describing the legislative process that led to the construction of what came to be called, in a bitter irony, Storrow Drive:

On April 12, [1948], the Storrow Drive bill was defeated by eight Democrats. But the defeat was short-lived. Two weeks later, the doors of the house chamber were locked. Then the House provided for the required three readings of the bill by adjourning twice and then reconvening. The roadway was passed by one vote. Efforts to require a referendum and to make the road a separate bond issue failed.

I believe we will live to see a day when this roadway is un-built, and converted to parkland with plenty of wetland buffer and bioswales to accommodate the frequent flooding of the Charles River basin. Until then, it's extremely useful to study the history of how this monstrosity came to sully our beautiful riverfront parkland.

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Voting closed 25

Although I'd trade them back to get rid of the highway, we should remember that the islands were built in order to compensate for park land lost to the road.

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That being said did anyone else notice that the drawing for the original proposal seems to show 4 carriage lanes. That's a lot of manure. Who was supposed to clean all that up?

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Voting closed 3