MIT grad students see West Lynn with fresh sets of eyes

The roundabout on Western Avenue in Lynn. (Scott Eisen)

LYNN — Fresh perspectives on the challenges facing West Lynn were brought to the city’s residents Thursday night.

The ideas included creating open green spaces to mitigate flooding, building a community commercial kitchen and uncovering Strawberry Brook, which is buried under General Electric.

A group of 12 graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Department of Urban Studies and Planning have spent the last three months studying the western part of the city. The research was split among three specific sections, the western waterfront, the G.E.A.A. Field, and the Western Avenue corridor.

“We think Lynn is a community with a lot of potential,” said Justin Steil, professor of the Land Use Practicum at MIT. “We know there are significant issues here, such as flooding and the need for affordable housing. Our goal is to help residents realize this area’s potential future.”

The group’s focus is on the area along Western Avenue, from the Belden G. Bly Bridge to the traffic circle next to the new Market Basket, with particular focus on the neighborhoods on the western side of the avenue. The students shared their visions for the challenges in each area and opened the room up so residents could ask questions.

“I came here looking for ideas,” said Jim O’Donnell, a longtime Lynner and investor. “I’m looking to see how their ideas incorporate with my investments. One of my properties abuts the Belden Bridge.”

Part of their research included comparing demographic, economic, and housing statistics of areas with similar populations and land sizes in various neighborhoods, cities, and regions. The students explored Lynn on foot, in cars, and on boats, scoping out the city’s access to the Saugus River.

For the western waterfront, their goals were increasing flood resiliency and unlocking the waterfront’s huge potential. Their ideas for doing so were implementing flood mitigation measures such as berming, marshes, and creating a linear park along the Saugus River.

They presented two options, one a resilient mixed-use development with affordable housing and the other a “Lynn Riverfront Park,” with active use fields and a wilderness center.

Stiel and his students recognized the G.E.A.A. Field as a prime location for maximizing recreation spaces as well as increasing housing in the area. Their research showed the area’s biggest challenges were limited mobility, a lack of community path access and waterfront access, and the need for affordable housing.

The students suggested an open space revitalization with added housing or expanding public space, while adding much-needed parking and enhancing recreational opportunities. For flood mitigation, they recommended uncovering Strawberry Brook and creating more green open spaces that could absorb the water.

The last section, the Western Avenue corridor, focused on the neighborhoods surrounding the avenue and Summer Street. The students said it has the most potential to become one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Their goal is to work alongside the community members to create an area that remains welcoming and accessible.

The Western Avenue corridor’s biggest challenges, according to the class’ research, are the unfriendly walking experience, a number of vacant and underused spaces, the need for safety along the corridor, and competition from major retailers.

The class proposed improving the neighborhood’s street life by strengthening the community. Their suggestions included adding a workforce development training center, building vibrant community spaces, such as a community commercial kitchen, and creating flexible spaces.

They commended the neighborhood for having a young, diverse population filled with immigrants. The Western Avenue corridor was also recognized for its relatively affordable properties, great concentration on small businesses, and quality vacant building stock.

“We are grateful for Mayor McGee’s support and welcoming us all to Lynn with open arms,” said Stiel. “We want to hear from Lynn’s residents.”

The ideas proposed before residents at Drewicz Elementary School on Thursday were only the beginning. Stiel and his students will continue to reach West Lynn’s residents and discuss their visions for the city before their final presentation on Dec. 6.

“We believe that development is possible in West Lynn without displacements of current residents,” their mission statement read.


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