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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.

Open conflict over open space

Delay fuels fighting over 30 Big Dig acres' use

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 1/24/2002

The task of finding world-class designers to create a ribbon of parks through downtown where the rusting old Central Artery exists was scheduled to be underway last fall, but now won't begin until next month at the earliest.

J. Richard Capka, chief executive of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, put the already lagging process on hold last month. He said he wants to wait until the current political mess at the Turnpike Authority is over and a new board is in place.

But neighborhood and community groups say the Artery Business Committee pushed for the delay, throwing another obstacle in the way of efforts to reclaim 30 acres of valuable downtown land -- a process that has been underway for more than a decade.

''The ABC has derailed the process. They've stopped it in its tracks,'' said Shirley Kressel, cofounder of Alliance for Boston Neighborhoods, a coalition of two dozen organizations.

Behind the squabble over timing, though, is a fundamental disagreement between the business committee on the one hand and an array of community and interest groups on the other over the ultimate use of the land.

The Artery Business Committee has consistently sought more cultural facilities and public structures on the land, to enliven the area and attract more residents and visitors, it says.

Others argue that the authority promised a significant amount of open space on top of the depressed artery, and that open space means one thing: green public parks.

A draft plan for the largest portion of the downtown parkland, the Wharf District, presented at a recent public meeting by a group known as the Wharf District Working Group, brought the simmering tensions into public view.

Though made up of representatives of Wharf District organizations such as the New England Aquarium, the group is considered by outsiders to be a creature of the Artery Business Committee, which has provided funding.

And the plan -- which features a museum, a performing arts center, and a ''harbor orientation center'' for the area, between Christopher Columbus Park and High Street -- is an example of what open-space advocates don't want and argue was specifically ruled out in the environmental permits that the state got when it received permission to go ahead with the Central Artery project.

True, the proposed structures are not hotels, office buildings, or condos, which are expressly forbidden by the Big Dig's original environmental permits. But neither do they constitute what most people think of as green or open space.

''It's in your face,'' said Chris Fincham, a resident of Harbor Towers on the waterfront and author of the ''Boston Informer'' newsletter. ''It's everything in front of us that we don't want. They're now marketing it.''

Kressel and others said the intervention of the powerful Artery Business Committee and its president, Richard Dimino, with turnpike chairman David Forsberg had big consequences, delaying the ''requests for qualifications'' that were to go out to perhaps 150 interested design firms around the world.

''We believe that it should happen as quickly as possible,'' said Rob Tuchmann, cochairman of the Mayor's Central Artery Completion Task Force. ''All we are doing is asking the turnpike to go forward with the request that will produce three final designers for the parks.''

''The Artery Business Committee is the only group I know of that is openly trying to delay implementation of the open-space commitments on the corridor,'' added Anne Fanton, executive director of the Central Artery Environmental Oversight Committee.

Tuchmann, who represents the Artery Business Committee on the Central Artery Environmental Oversight Committee, splits with the ABC's Dimino on the design process.

''The public deserves parks pretty close to when the highway opens,'' he said. ''This is the mitigation they are entitled to.''

Dimino said criticism of what the ABC is trying to do is ''a real misperception of what the issues are.''

Businesses and property owners he represents are concerned about the entire process, he said: The makeup of the turnpike's design selection committee, the lack of any decision so far on who will own and maintain the land, and the absence of a map to guide the designers to a final product that everyone will applaud.

''I didn't want to limp through this next phase of what will be one of the most important decisions made in Boston,'' Dimino said. ''You need to go into a design process having some idea of the cost. Those were the reasons why I thought it was premature to initiate the design process at this time.''

Dimino said his organization has presented its proposal for the Wharf District to many public groups and supports a completely open discussion. ''We think our concepts and ideas are actually healthy for the process at the moment,'' he said.

The last few years of working toward a new Surface Artery -- by hundreds of public officials and citizens -- have been fraught with delays, conflicting objectives, and tepid design models that offended few and pleased even fewer.

Now, they worry that powerful behind-the-scenes players will generate a plan, gin up political support, and bypass the official process, which is designed to be highly open.

All involved with perhaps the biggest set of decisions Boston will make in decades say they agree that a robust debate must be held over what should be built - or not built.

Capka said he made the decision to postpone the search for designers strictly as a result of turmoil at the Turnpike Authority.

''It's delayed until we get a new board together,'' he said, denying that he acted solely on the ABC's request. ''We really need to do this with the benefit of having the board in place. I don't see that being any more than one or two months.''

Others view that as just an excuse.

''I am totally unsympathetic,'' Tuchmann said. ''If they can build the other $14 billion, they can build the parks without knowing who is the three-member board at the Pike.''

Like Dimino, Mark Maloney, cochairman of the Mayor's Task Force, wants the designer selection process tightened up and questions about the land's ownership resolved soon. He said he understands Capka's desire to wait for an end to Acting Governor Jane M. Swift's prolonged effort to fire two turnpike board members. But, Maloney said, ''We don't support a delay. We would like the process to move forward.''

Patrice Todisco, executive director of the Boston Greenspace Alliance, said, ''When things are delayed, opportunities are often lost.'' She cited an expectation last year that the turnpike would contribute a sizable endowment to support the Central Artery parks in the future. ''Now, no one's really sure whether that still exists,'' she said, adding, ''The opportunity to capture the public's interest became lost, because we look like we can't agree.''

Dimino and retired Boston developer Norman Leventhal met this month with Douglas Foy, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, which was instrumental in guaranteeing there would be parkland over the new Central Artery tunnel, and which could try to stop any Surface Artery plan that's inconsistent with those guarantees.

Stephen Burrington, the foundation's general counsel, who attended the meeting, said his organization's message to the business community was firm: ''It may be you have an excellent idea from an urban design point of view, but the only way to have it tested and adopted is through an open and inclusive public process.''

The Artery Business Committee has undertaken an effort to stretch the definition of ''open space'' to include cultural facilities and other structures that -- unlike the Public Garden, for example -- could charge entrance fees.

''I think they're trying to reinterpret the original commitment in a way the language won't support,'' Burrington said. ''Before we try any changes, we need to take our very best shot at achieving the original vision.''

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached by e-mail at palmer@globe.com.

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