As the new Silver Line Station soon begins to take shape in the Box District at the northern end of Highland Street later this year or early next year, City officials predict a daily exodus of workers and commuters coming down the street and to the station.
Such a walk, right now, is no hard ordeal – aside from the steep hill and long staircase – but it’s not a pretty walk, and what isn’t in disrepair isn’t exactly inspiring. Highland Street is one of the few north and south streets in the densely populated east side of the city that runs unobstructed for pedestrians from the waterfront to the train tracks – where there will soon be a new station.
Keeping all of that in mind, City planners have put together a cobbling of plans to make the Highland Street corridor more interesting, more pedestrian friendly and a true connecting point for residents on either side of the hill.
The plan, according to Planner John DePriest, is known as the Highland Greenway.
Already, on April 30, the City held a meeting to detail the plans underway for the proposed project, which will begin construction, it is hoped, in July.
The centerpiece of that project will be the rehabilitation of Bellingham Hill Park, but will also include a small passive park at 97 Library St. and improvements to the Highland Stairs. Those improvements will be connected with a greening of the whole pathway, along with the existing Box District Park at the corner of Highland and Gerrish (which is only two years old).
“We want to make a visual connection to the Greenway but also connect the neighborhood to the new Silver Line Station,” said DePriest. “We’ve started to design process for Bellingham Hill park, which has to be done by June 30, 2016. We plan to put a new park at 97 Library St. and improve the stairs. In between those areas and down to the Box District Silver Line Station, we’ll make streetscape improvements to create a green corridor. We’ll have more trees and we’ll trim the trees on the stairs. We’ll do crosswalks and better signage.”
Design of Bellingham Hill Park is to conclude in June, and construction is expected to begin in July – with a goal of finishing this fall. The park project will cost $800,000, with half of that being picked up via a state grant.
Ann Houston, executive director of The Neighborhood Developers (TND), said the Greenway project came out of a plan that her organization helped create in 2009 – known as the Bellingham Hill Action Plan. With a big stake in the properties along Highland Street and in the Box District, TND is more than happy to see the idea sprout.
“We’re just delighted it’s now coming into fruition,” said Houston. “Highland is such an important corridor. It does connect the Shurtleff-Bellingham neighborhood, but it could definitely use some greening. That would definitely help things. This project is terrific and an important piece in improving this neighborhood and making it a really pleasant place.”
One challenge identified by Houston and Emily Loomis, also of TND, is the fact that the stairs lie right int he middle of the plan. The stairs were implemented several years ago and were certainly an improvement, but the last chapter on making the stairs perfect has yet to be written.
It is hoped that it will be written with the current project.
“It’s such a challenge there particularly because of it’s grade and the narrow size of the area,” said Loomis. “I think there is consensus around making it more attractive, clean and safe.”
“They are a real challenge,” added Houston. “We talked about this a great deal during our action plan. The greatest challenge of them being that they’re pretty steep…I don’t know what the answer is, but there has been some ideas around terracing it for gardening, or even terracing it for resting places.”
That, however, is just Phase 1 of the overall idea.
The second phase, DePriest said, is about the other side of the hill – connecting Bellingham Hill Park to the waterfront and, ultimately, the PORT Park on Marginal Street.
Already, sidewalk improvements are underway this spring to help get that part of the phase 2 up and running.
Nothing is set in stone just yet for how Phase 2 will look or when it will happen.
All that’s known now is that the City doesn’t want to stop at the top of the hill.
“The bigger idea is to connect the entire area down to the PORT Park on Marginal Street so that there’s one uniform corridor making it very easy to go back and forth,” he said. “That, however, will be the subject of a future grant.”