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Overview | Resources

Overview on the South Coast Rail Project and Region

Boston’s metropolitan region, one of the United States oldest urban fabrics, is characterized by patchwork development of its old pre-colonial urban core and an expanding urban influence on its periphery. Today that periphery extends in concentric regions around Boston that are defined by I-195 and I-495 beltways. These highways retrace the former rail network made up of other port cities and mill towns.

Over the last decade there has been a considerable market for repopulating urban cores that are home to higher paying jobs in high tech, finance, and service jobs. The city has proven to be a fabric that is highly desirable not only for its cultural amenities but also because density appears to foster greater commercial interaction between members of different professional fields. In our era of high rate information exchange, the city appears to be one of the better structures for fostering the so-called ‘creative industries’.

The historic town and city network was once an efficient technical outgrowth of early industrialization but a more centralized economic focus to Boston proper and its suburban real estate patterns are proving untenable. Suburban development is often reduced to a compromise between public anxieties associated with our urban realities (crime, high taxes, etc.) and a pastiche of our agrarian ideals. The development pattern that results means that residents who live outside the I-495 corridor, and who now have a direct economic connection to Boston, face up to a two hour commute to the dominant economic center city. There is a perceived need by public officials to increase density as the demand for housing and services spreads out from the center city. In addition, these older small towns, once vital nodes in a complex industrial and agrarian economic system, have lost some of their unique qualities due to loss of local employment opportunities, diminishing farmland and the reduction of funding for public infrastructure and programs.

The South Coast Rail Project

The South Coast Rail Project is a planned extension of commuter rail lines from Boston’s South Station to the Massachusetts South Coast. This project has the capacity to to truly strengthen the economy of the entire region.

The administration of Governor Deval Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray is moving forward with the South Coast Rail project, originally conceived by former Governor Romney and supported by former Governor Dukakis. The goal of the project is to improve transportation between downtown Boston and the cities of Fall River and New Bedford. The project includes a Smart Growth Corridor Plan to develop a blueprint for economic and residential development, job creation and environmental preservation as the communities welcome and shape new growth.

The Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) completed Phase 1 of the project in April 2008. With significant public input, EOT generated a list of 65 alternatives that were analyzed, screened and narrowed to a list of five alternatives with mode options. These alternatives entered Phase 2, a combined state and federal environmental review that will take place over a two-year period. The state and federal documents that kick off the formal review process – the Environmental Notification Form/ENF and the federal Notice of Intent/NOI – were filed in November 2008 with a scope of work for the next phase of the investigation issued at the end of January 2009. Governor Patrick presented the conclusions to the study in August 2009. This year a TIGER Grant was awarded to New Bedford for improvements to the rail bridges and Fall River has obtained funds for making large infrastructural changes to accommodate its plans for rail.

The Corridor Plan is the result of a collaborative partnership among the Commonwealth, thirty-one corridor communities, and three regional planning agencies working in conjunction with the Southeastern Massachusetts Commuter Rail Task Force. The result is a blueprint for clustering jobs and homes around stations, maximizing the economic benefits of rail investment, minimizing sprawl development, and preserving the farms, fields, and forests of the South Coast.

Regional History

Boston is an interesting case study in the history of American urban development. In the 19th Boston faced typical problems of urban development – unhealthy climate due to poor waste management, an increasingly weak tax base, the disappearance of open space and a overburdened infrastructure that hampered the flow of commerce. The need for urban parks in most major cities was thought to be both beneficial to the health of the urban population but also attractors for new development. Boston, unlike a city like New York had little developable open space in its central urban core. Then in the mid 19th century the magnificent Back Bay district was initiated. This long gridded neighborhood centered by the beautiful greenery of Commonwealth Avenue, runs from the Fens Eastward to engage the Public Garden and the historic Boston Common. This ensemble of green spaces is the initial component of the emerald necklace, one of the world’s great urban park systems. Then, from 1870-73 the city began to annex surrounding territories and plans for improve the regional plan were developed extending to Dorchester and West Roxbury – areas that later became part of the Emerald Necklace. In 1874, mayor Samuel Cobb outlined plans for peripheral parks united by parkways and that plan was developed by Charles Dalton leading to the development of Jamaica Pond, Franklin Park in Roxbury, designed by Olmstead, and the Fens formerly on the site of a large marsh. Charles Eliot’s 1891 plan for the city embraced tidal lands, native forests and smaller urban parks into the overall infrastructure and helped establish America’s first metropolitan park system.

The parks of the Emerald Necklace were Romantic landscapes that also were real improvements to the city’s waste management systems. Olmstead in particular recognized the need for sanitary design and the elimination of backyard cesspools. The Fens is a large-scale development from the improvement of the infrastructure, the backyard pool, is a local result of the reprogramming of the back yard. The suburban Boston train stations were designed by perhaps the foremost American architect of the 19th century H.H. Richardson.

The legacy of stewardship of the urban parks carries over to the suburban areas of Boston but not necessarily in as productive ways. The suburban commercial development has been unchecked resulting in the landscapes of Route 9 and 128, reviled by many but promoted by others like Boston’s Modern Lovers as the romantic landscapes of post-war pop culture. In hopes of thwarting the spread of kitsch commercial development large tracts of land are being put into public trusts and zoning laws restrict the scale and density of new development, resulting in an ever expanding push of the metropolitan area into the countryside and perhaps straining the ecosystem of the region as a whole. The South Coast communities were centers of both manufacturing and coastal industries like fishing and boatbuilding. The scale of these historic economies is evident by the quality of public buildings in these older communities and the vast scale of the mill buildings that are part of the regional building types. By the early 20th century many of these industries went into decline.

Trends in sustainable design indicate that new infrastructure may develop new building typologies and new regional networks with formal and therefore architectural implications. Buildings may not be thought of as separate or complimentary to the new urban “green” spaces but as engines working synthetically with the landscape. The dichotomy between country and city may need to be rethought relative to modern infrastructure as a new sub-urban form just as it was in the nineteenth century. In the studio and during our field trip we hope to analyze the historic development of the metro region of the city of Boston and sites that are both products of contemporary infrastructure and paradigms of urban futures, research new developments in green and sustainable urban design and building technology, and examine the conceptual development of the idea of the urban “parkscape” relative to both these trends and the need for increased density in the South Coast communities. Students in the studio will work in groups to do the analytic work, contributing their research to the studio as a whole and then develop urban plans for the Taunton parcels and then work individually todevelop building typologies that address new technology.

The Region Today

The four towns along the new South Coast Rail include Raynham, Fall River, Taunton and New Bedford. These four towns have very different characteristics and significance within the greater regional system. Raynham is a fairly open rural site, Taunton has two sites both within a half mile of the historic town center, Fall River is a terminal site adjacent to its historic urban core, and New Bedford is a terminal stop in a larger community with waterfront transit hub potential. These communities are the most poorly serviced by mass transit in the greater Boston area. The South Coast communities of Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton are the only cities within 50 miles of Boston not served by commuter rail, and a reliable, fast transit connection is needed to connect these cities to the major economic hub of New England—Boston.

The total area affected by the South Coast Rail project comprises 31 cities and towns with a combined population of approximately 740,000. By 2030 the regional population is projected to grow to more than 900,000, making the South Coast one of the fastest-growing regions of the state. The South Coast is a region of tremendous natural assets and relatively affordable housing. The region is known for its seacoast and estuaries, its cranberry bogs and rural landscapes, and the historic towns and cities that played prominent roles in the nation’s economic and cultural history.

 
Information provided by Edward Mitchell and Fred Koetter, from Yale University Post Pro Studio (2010).