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Inner Belt: I


The State Department of Public Works took the easy way out last Friday. It selected the Brookline-Elm St. route over the alternate Portland-Albany location for the eight-lane Inner Belt highway. There was no surprise in the announcement; the DPW has long favored Brookline-Elm. Construction will be cheaper and easier -- had the alternate route been chosen, the department would have had to make extra efforts to stabilize the highway in the shifty subsoil of the Charles River Basin. The DPW would also have had to admit to the federal government (which pays 90 per cent of the highway's costs) that it was wrong more than a year ago when it first chose the Brookline-Elm route; the DPW was not to be moved easily from its initial endorsement just because Gov. John A. Volpe -- in the midst of a campaign for reelection -- had ordered a restudy of the highway.

So the DPW opted for convenience. It acknowledged, but ignored. the serious consequences a large expressway along Brookline and Elm Streets will have for Cambridge. The highway will now run through the heart of the Central Square business district and the densely populated residential neighborhoods on either side of Mass. Ave.

To the DPW, this only means that 1669 families in Cambridge and Somerville will be displaced and that businesses with 2715 jobs will be destroyed. These figures are staggering. But when the DPW compares them with the costs of the alternate Portland-Albany route -- the department's estimates put these at 656 families and 7131 jobs -- it concludes that Brookline-Elm is the best bet. The DPW's calculations are probably inflated, but on paper the decision has the semblance of rationality.

The real situation is far more complex, and the DPW's choice has more significance than the numbers suggest. The eastern end of Cambridge faces the prospect of long term industrial expansion. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is building a $60 million research laboratory next to M.I.T. The presence of the NASA complex will add to Cambridge's attractiveness as a home for electronics, engineering, and research-oriented companies. The possible influx of such firms is not an unpleasant prospect; it will mean new jobs for Cambridge and provide permanent stability for the City's tax base. But the influence of this new sector should not be allowed to dominate the City.

The Inner Belt, in essence, will form a barrier to which industrial-educational developments will eventually expand. The DPW faced the following choice: it could put the Belt along Brookline-Elm, through the heart of residential and commercial districts, and allow extra growing room for the businesses who will want to be close to NASA and M.I.T.; or, it could select Portland-Albany, closer to the current boundaries of the commercial and residential areas, and permit these sectors -- in which there is both good and bad housing, prospering and shaky businesses -- to work out their own future.

A plausible case can be made for either alternative, but the DPW's decision should at least be recognized for what it is. The department says that the Inner Belt will cost Cambridge the homes of only 1235 families. This is true only in the literal sense: the bulldozers clearing a path for the highway will destroy the homes of these families. But after the Belt is constructed, the homes of the thousands of people between the Belt and the expanding area of industry will be vulnerable. The Belt will have taken away many of the reasons for remaining -- it will have displaced many of the residents' neighbors, disrupted existing social cohesiveness, and isolated them from other residential areas. Their homes eventually will be destroyed by the Inner Belt, but the Department of Public Works will have escaped formal responsibility.

Edward J. Ribbs, the DPW's commissioner, and Gov. John A. Volpe said very little about these considerations at Friday's press conference announcing the Belt route. Either they never considered them or, more likely, they implicitly decided that "the orderly development of the industrial-educational area" (as the DPW report put it) should have preference.

"The location, design and construction of modern highways," the DPW explained in its recommendation, "require the skills of competent professionals. Involved in the process are not the sole efforts of any one profession, but rather the blending and combined efforts of the planner, the architect, the sociologist, and the highway planner to name a few." Almost everything in its report contradicts the logic of this rhetoric; the criteria the DPW relied upon are almost exclusively those of the highway engineer.

It is a limited approach, flawed in many places. Unfortunately, Cambridge will have to live with its consequences.

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