Downtown View

November 30, 2012
By

I’m worried. It’s about a surface parking lot. It seems silly to worry about a parking lot, but that’s the way it is. Maybe it will turn out okay, but things have a way of getting out of hand. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

This parking lot lies on the Esplanade near Charles Circle. That location is enough to worry anyone, since it shouldn’t be there in the first place. But it was created years ago for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary when someone wasn’t thinking straight at the state’s old, always financially-challenged Metropolitan District Commission, which owned the ground on which the lot was built.

MEEI ‘s patients pull directly into the lot from the westbound direction of Storrow Drive. That’s good. They don’t have to drive through Charles Circle.

Nevertheless, many quarters have complained about maintaining a parking lot on what is supposed to be parkland. Others complain that the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the new name for the old MDC, manages its properties poorly.

One could believe DCR should have eliminated the parking lot. But if it wasn’t going to do that, the agency could have let well enough alone until MEEI finished its expansion plans, which include replacing the surface lot with underground parking and returning the top to parkland, a configuration that is not universally supported but is better than the current situation. After all, Boston is expert in burying things and putting nice things on top.

But DCR put the parking lot out to bid. The bids are in. The successful bidder will get a five-year contract. The outcome will be announced on December 3, according to S.J. Port, DCR spokesperson.

The worst outcome of this would mean the surface parking lot stays forever.

MEEI officials say they will bid aggressively. If they are successful, two consequences are likely. They’ll pay more than they do now for the lot, and parking fees for patients will rise, or MEEI will have to spend more to subsidize the rate patients pay or both. The other—and this is good—MEEI can continue planning how to bury that parking lot, and, if that is successful, can proceed in a timely fashion to get the job done.

But what if MEEI is not the successful bidder? The citizens of Boston could be in for bureaucracy and traffic problems. The winning bidder will offer the spaces to MEEI or to the public or both for a higher rate than it costs MEEI now. DCR’s action will have inserted a middleman into a transaction that, while perhaps not producing the highest return for DCR, has been at least offering a public good in a reasonable parking fee for patients.

What if MEEI cannot come to terms with a private winning bidder? Then traffic increases at Charles Circle, Leverett Circle, and on Cambridge Street as drivers pull up to MEEI’s front door and then they or the valet services drivers circle around on city streets to get to another lot. Or MEEI kicks out the residents who park their cars in the MEEI-owned Charles Street Garage so their patients can park. In all scenarios parking becomes harder for patients, and some of their drivers will look for street parking with even more circling around.

And, of course, without control of the lot, MEEI would surely abandon plans to bury it.

MEEI must have parking. So does MEEI then move? They probably don’t know yet whether it would come to that, but downtown Boston residents benefit from having their services nearby. MEEI can’t split research and patient care facilities like Mass General can because most MEEI research is in patient procedures, and that requires patients at hand. MEEI’s research is important to the city’s economy and reputation.

It seems unlikely that the parking lot will disappear, whether it is above ground or buried. Officials of The Esplanade Association, a private group that supports the Esplanade, wrote to DCR about the matter, reiterating that they believe strongly that public parkland should be used as a public park, said Sylvia Salas, TEA’s executive director. They also said they urged DCR to consider the relationship of the vendor to the community when it designates a parking lot operator. “The winning bidder should know the community and care about it,” said Salas. “MEEI is one of these.”

So here’s what we know. Number 1: Patients lose either way at this point. Number 2: Mass Eye and Ear must have a place for patients to park. While office workers and students can take the T, sick people are the one group that should come by car. Number 3: If another bidder besides MEEI is selected, it’s hard to imagine MEEI going forward with plans for an underground garage, so we’re stuck with surface parking lot.

Number 4: DCR will have put a use for its property out to bid, but that step does not fulfill its mission “to protect, promote and enhance our common wealth of natural, cultural and recreational resources.”

That’s why I’m worried.

Karen Cord Taylor is a journalist who founded, edited and published the Beacon Hill Times, The Back Bay Sun and The Charlestown Bridge, now known as the Patriot-Bridge, for many years. She can be reached at karen@bostoncolumn.com. Past columns are posted on www.bostoncolumn.com.

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