Columbia Road is the missing link in Olmsted's Emerald Necklace in Boston. The pathway to connecting Franklin Park and Joe Moakely Park might be the found in the thing that brings all people together - food.
Columbia Rd is a priority project for included in the city of Boston's 2030 Initiative. As part of the studio course for the Experience Design Program at Northeastern University in the fall of 2018, students were tasked with investigating the experiences of the street and to identify opportunities to enrich those experiences through design. What follows is the proposal for a design intervention based on interviews, observations, and additional research.
One mile from Franklin Park Zoo and 1.6 miles from Joe Moakley Park along Columbia Road is the intersection of Columbia and Quincy Street. On the northwest corner of the intersection sits the Columbia West Apartments, a block of 54 apartments of different styles advertised by the realtor as being located in, “a welcoming neighborhood setting.” On the northeast corner sits a brick building, the remnants of a waterproofing company that abandoned the lot. Boston Planning and Development Agency has recently approved the construction of a charter conservatory elementary school on the lot that will likely be built in a few years. On the southeast corner is Crown Liquors and Columbia Road Market, the only two businesses in sight. On the southwest corner is the Central Kitchen Facility of Boston Public Schools (BPS). Inside, lunches prepared by Revolution Foods at another site are warehoused and the Departments of Food & Nutrition and Health & Wellness both have offices. Outside, the building presents a 477 ft long face of parking lot and white concrete to Columbia Road and a 303 ft long face of parking lot, red brick, and a loading dock to Quincy Street while the backside of the building sits up against the Fairmount Commuter Line.
The intersection is a complex system of movement. From a transportation perspective, the intersection consists of motor vehicle congestion on Quincy Street, cars driving over 40 mph on the 25 mph Columbia Road, pedestrians walking along the sidewalks, along the crosswalk, or jaywalking, people waiting at bus stops on either side of Columbia, and the extremely rare cyclist. The intersection draws individuals as the location of their work, as a gateway for travel, as a place for commerce, and for some, as a place to meet. It is a location that has seen some investment from the city of Boston with recently improved sidewalks on Quincy Street, but little development from within.
I visited the Upham's Corner Health Center on Columbia Road on a rainy Tuesday in October. Tasked to research the experience along the street, I observantly walked southbound from the health center along the sidewalk, jotting down how I felt and what I noticed. The street is four lanes wide, halved by a thick concrete median to create a vast emptiness in which I felt isolated. The sight of several people waiting at the bus stop outside the BPS Kitchen Facility drew me to the intersection of Columbia and Quincy. I felt a sense of place, but I couldn't identify what the source was.
I decided to continue further down the street where I came across Brothers Barber Shop. Looking to get an additional perspective on the area, I went inside and sat down for a haircut. I expected to learn about the area through conversation, but the barbers didn't speak much English. What I observed though was a strong connection between the barbers and the customers, a love of music as they sang along to the radio, and a respect for the craft of cutting hair that I had never seen before. When I was told they only take cash and all I had on me was my debit card, they trusted me to head up the street to the Columbia Road Market where there was an ATM and come back. At the Columbia Road Market, I saw a playful exchange between school kids and employees and received generous assistance in finding the ATM. When I returned to the barber shop to pay, my barber shook my hand and gave me his business card, hoping to build a relationship.
An hour into spending time in the area, I felt a sense of community that wasn't readily apparent when I first arrived. I wanted to research this further to find where the community is and what might be keeping it seemingly hidden. I decided to investigate online, eventually coming across the Facebook page for Krueger Auto Repair, the business directly adjacent to Brothers Barber Shop. On their page were photos of a Halloween event the auto shop helped host with a local school. I reached out and was able to sit down and chat with one of the managers. In our conversation, he told me that the area was affected by crime, drugs, and a distrust of authority, but underneath was a community of good character. One point he emphasized was that the community needed programs and space for kids.
The need for programming and a space for kids became a theme as I continued research, talking with people along Columbia Road and an employee at Fairmount Greenway who mentioned that events exist but the public awareness of programs tends to be low. A space with high visibility to the public and regular programming for kids appeared to be something that could meet a community need. To meet that need, finding a location to use as a programming space was the next step.
One location that seemed to be underused was the northeastern parking lot of the BPS Central Kitchen Facility where Quincy Street and Columbia Road converge. The lot is currently used by BPS to store vehicles, meaning one of the most visible corners in the area contains minimal activity to engage the community. Meanwhile, inside the building are two departments for Boston Public Schools, each with their own initiatives to engage the public in conversations around health and nutrition. For an organization with an interest in public engagement, there is a clear opportunity to achieve this by converting the northeast parking lot into a space to canvas nutrition and wellness programs. The concept for how such a space could exist, where all members of the community could come together, is Corner Table.
The northeast lot of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Central Kitchen Facility is to be reconsidered as Corner Table, a new community space. The mission is for Corner Table is to be a space with high visibility to the public for community events that center around food, nutrition, and health.
Who's at the Table?
The use of Corner Table will be overseen by a group of Primary Organizers which includes the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Departments of Food & Nutrition and Health and Wellness, the Commonwealth Kitchen, and the Uphams Corner Health Center. Together, these organizations will outline a collective plan to achieve the mission, manage the use of this space, and maintain relationships with additional organizations through a created position or a board.
Several organizations will be considered as Community Partners who will regularly schedule events and programs in this space. These organizations may include the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Fair Foods Inc, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), The Food Project, Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), The Trustees, and Catholic Charities. In addition, Corner Table will make an active effort to incorporate schools into their programming, recognizing that several schools, including Roxbury Prep, Frederick Pilot Middle School, King Elementary School, and the upcoming Conservatory Lab Charter School are all within a half-mile from the space.
Setting the Table
Several design changes have been made to the lot to make it a place of its own that is functional, invites the community, and allows individuals to feel both separate and connected, free and secure.
Trees have been added to the Quincy Street side of the space, the chain-linked fence has been replaced with a wrought iron one, and three spots have been designated for entry and exit with brown archways that invite with the “Corner Table” name. These design elements create a feeling of enclosure, separate an event from distractions of the street while remaining on display for the public, and work to define Corner Table as a space.
Corner Table has several seating options, including picnic tables against the fence alongside Columbia Rd, benches against the fence alongside Quincy St,and colorful moveable furniture pieces. The southwest corner contains a grass area that will remain open for programming that might be suitable for this surface and as an additional place for people to sit to eat during events. Two electrical boxes sit in the area and if conditions permit, they would be relocated. Lights will be installed on the building and low lights will be installed around the perimeter, as well as from the fountain to ensure safety.
The northeast corner provides a wide view of the space for a passerby on foot or by car. The space is designed for activity to be most visible from this corner and a fountain to attract attention and retain movement when the space is unused. Those waiting at the bus stop can feel welcomed to enjoy the space with an electronic display posted to let them know how much time they have to explore the space before the bus comes.
The space furthest back from the street remains open for programming. The space is large enough to allow for food trucks, tents, additional tables, and seating. The northwest wall provides a natural backdrop for a stage to be set up, viewable to the whole space and the street. The lighting along this wall can be adjusted for proper use during a performance.
Corner Table is designed with large programmable space to allow groups to hold events of any size. This is a space for food trucks to set-up for the lunch-hour, for pop-up tents and tables for community cooking events, and for a trailer stage to set-up for an outdoor concert. Organizations can use this space to host the events they currently hold in a location that is more visible to the public and offers more area. Corner Table is where the community can create new events and programs in a location that they feel is theirs.
BPS currently has several initiatives and programs that can be brought to the community at Corner Table. Onesuch initiative, BOSFoodLove, pursues their goal for, “students to love school food,” through meetings between families and staff around the meals offered. At Corner Table, these meetings can become a tasting event that invites input from a larger community.
BPS has shown a willingness to bring chefs, such as Ken Oringer, to lead events with school food service staff. This type of event could be brought to Corner Table in a series of Chef-led classes on how to prepare healthy meals targeted for students and families.
Commonwealth Kitchen, home to over 45 food businesses that can jointly or individually host events or sell their food on a regular schedule here.
Uphams Corner Health Center can bring some of their programs, such as Connecting with Spirituality, out into the public at Corner Table. They can also use the space to hold educational events for topics such as summer outdoor safety and mental health awareness.
Any given day at Corner Table is full of a range of activities that redefine the personality of the space. In the morning, someone strolling by on Quincy St may see the Connecting with Spirituality group from Uphams Corner Health Center engaged in a sunrise yoga session and come watch from a bench. Around noon, an employee for the Department of Health and Wellness may come out to a food truck from Commonwealth Kitchen to grab lunch to enjoy at a picnic table. In the evening, someone getting off the bus from work could see a lot featuring a cooking session led by a local chef, a station set up to discuss school lunches, and a plaza full of people enjoying the space. Maybe tomorrow will be a community potluck or a concert. He can find out by checking a schedule of events posted on the side of the building and online.