by Anna Jordan


- Old road gets a new look

- Massachusetts General Hospital

- Charles Street Jail

- Charles River Plaza

- Saltonstall Building


Old road gets a new look

Cambridge Street undertakes multiple renovation projects

Beacon Hill is a community resistant to change. It is evident everywhere, from the old brick sidewalks to the maze of one-way roads that still direct traffic out of the peaceful neighborhood.

But on the outer artery of Beacon Hill that pumps traffic and passersby through daily, change is happening - and fast. Cambridge Street, the gateway to the city off the Longfellow Bridge, is undergoing a major facelift to bring commerce and activity back to Beacon Hill's drab perimeter.

"It's going to be amazing," Suzanne Besser, Beacon Hill Civic Association executive director, says. "We're all wondering how it's going to come together."

The divider between Beacon Hill and the old West End, Cambridge Street is a thoroughfare whose burgeoning projects offer an opportunity for beautification and business. Its success hinges on the satisfaction of residents, who are focused on maintaining the history of the neighborhood during revitalization efforts.

Beacon Hill is the site of Mass General Hospital - arguably the heart and soul of Cambridge Street. MGH, established in the early 1800s, brings 16,000 employees to the neighborhood daily.

In addition to being a source of activity, MGH is a source of funding for several of the construction projects that will attempt to change the bleak façade of Cambridge Street to a more inviting one.

Three of four major projects planned along Cambridge Street are shared by the hospital. The fourth is controlled by the state.

The renovation projects, beginning at the west end of Cambridge Street and heading toward the Government Center area of Boston, are the Charles/MGH MBTA station, the Charles Street Jail, the Charles River Plaza, and the Saltonstall Building at 100 Cambridge Street.

Though additional projects are planned along the street, these four concurrent endeavors will challenge the neighborhood and test years of planning. These are the projects that are most visible to the public, and boast the most promise of change.

"I think it is wonderful," Babak Bina, Beacon Hill Civic Association president, says. "The more the merrier has always been my philosophy."

That is the general tone of Beacon Hill residents and business people.

The White Hen Pantry, a small convenience store across from the Charles River Plaza, has no fears of construction and more retail, manager Francis Sasi says.

The Charles/MGH station, one pit stop of several on the scenic trip down the Red Line, is facing a renovation that aims to transform rusty, damaged, deteriorating walls into a modern transportation hub.

Elevated over Cambridge Street, the station requires renovations for more than simple aesthetic purposes. The current design creates disruptive noise. In addition, it is not handicap accessible.

By the end of the year, the station should become ADA compliant, though a date for renovations to begin has not yet been set. Expected completion of the project is 2006.

Across from the Charles/MGH station, enveloped in construction and in the shadow of the hospital, stands the Charles Street Jail. The historic site, once known as the Suffolk County Jail, is undergoing multiple phases of construction started six months ago.

The plans are to transform three wings of the building from a concrete-walled jail to a combination hotel/hospital wing. A fourth wing will be destroyed in construction.

Mass General Hospital will convert the wing of the jail closest to the hospital into part of a new ambulatory unit called the Yawkee Center. Additionally, an underground parking garage will be added to offer 725 parking spaces.

The two other wings of the jail will be transformed into a hotel. The rooms that once housed prisoners will be modified into meeting rooms and reception halls. An additional site - that will connect to the wings - will be built to offer rooms to guests. This project is also expected to be complete in 2006.

Further down the street, the Charles River Plaza is home to retail shops such as Stop & Shop, CVS and Beacon Hill Photography. It additionally hosts office space. Development planned for this stretch, 161-209 Cambridge St., will add to both.

The project will add approximately 430,000 square feet of new office and laboratory space, to serve both the Government Center/Financial District and MGH. It also will add 10,000 square feet of retail space. The project plans detail the new retail as "designed with a depth that will work for smaller neighborhood service retail tenants such as florists, dry cleaners and perhaps a café." A grocery store, Bread and Circus, will also be incorporated.

The new space promises new jobs - about 1,100, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority - and is expected to be completed by 2004.

Additional new office space will also be found at the Saltonstall Building at 100 Cambridge St.

The project will rehabilitate the current Saltonstall Building, and add a new four-story building - five-stories on the Bowdoin Street side - called Bowdoin Place. Of the 75 new housing units, 19 will be affordable housing.

David Fernandez, spokesperson for Boston Redevelopment Authority Housing, says the project fits in perfectly on Beacon Hill as Bowdoin Place will run along the street in front of the Saltonstall Building, to mask its height.

"It creates a situation where it looks like the rest of Beacon Hill," he said. "[The thought is] no, this isn't a huge office space." Completion of the project is expected in the fall.

As these projects overlap, neighborhood residents adapt. They look forward to the incentives brought by finished construction - a return to a center of activity and commerce that was lost with the old West End (LINK to West End Narrative).

In the meantime, traffic tie-ups are likely to be the biggest problems Beacon Hillers will have to put up with.

"[The projects] will increase traffic, but that is a price worth paying," Matt Kiefer, legal counsel for the Charles Street Jail project, says. "It is far outweighed by the benefits."

Traffic will be further grid locked by work on the street itself.

In efforts to truly create atmosphere and improved traffic flow, Cambridge Street will be gaining luxuries such as wider sidewalks, improved pedestrian walkways, signs and landscaping. Changes to a median in front of Charles River Plaza will also be made to create easier access to the garage.

Despite the resistance to change felt on the inside of historic Beacon Hill, the changes to Cambridge Street are welcomed. If all goes according to plan, they should ultimately bring improved transportation, more jobs and more commerce to a street that's needed a facelift for sometime.




- The Charles/MGH T station in the past

- The Charles/MGH T station today

- The Charles/MGH T station of the future

- The old Charles Street Jail

- Construction at the site of Charles Street jail

- The Charles Street Jail in the future

- The Charles River Plaza now

- The Charles River Plaza in the future

- The Saltonstall building now

- The Saltonstall building in the future

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