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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.

Big Dig's Open-Space Plan Lags

Lack Of Ideas, Consensus Slows Design At Art

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 01/29/2001

For the first time, Big Dig officials say the timetable for creating a comprehensive and attractive design for the open space atop the depressed Central Artery will not be met.

Under a schedule established by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a preliminary design for the Surface Artery is supposed to be completed by spring, with a final plan in place in 2003.

But now, while Central Artery construction progresses more or less on schedule, plans for the 30-acre parcel are hampered by a lack of bold ideas and difficulty in reaching consensus, say officials close to the project.

They are wary of rushing the process and winding up with a plan that many parties find lacking.

As a result, planning of the public and open-space corridor along Atlantic Avenue from Kneeland Street to Causeway Street is likely to continue for several years.

To be sure, when the ribbon is cut for the new depressed highway in 2005, Bostonians won't be looking at vast acres of vacant land. Big Dig officials say parks, trees, pathways, and open areas will be built on the Surface Artery.

It's the final design of the corridor that is still the subject of much discussion and debate, and that will continue.

Planners and residents envision a variety of landscaping devices and gathering spaces, marked by walkways, plazas, and benches set at varying elevations. Among the possible features -- though none seems to have seized the public's imagination -- are fountains and pools, artwork, tourist information kiosks, historical markers, and cafes.

A carousel has been proposed, but even that has its detractors.

Given the enormous size and value of the downtown real estate at stake, coming up with a blueprint that will delight residents, send tourists away in awe, and endure for a half-century or longer is proving difficult.

"Some parcels need to evolve, as other things grow up around it," said state Senator Robert A. Havern III, an Arlington Democrat who is cochairman of the Legislature's Commission on Surface Artery Governance and Finance. "We should have some flexibility. What we're designing for 50 years could change in 15."

City officials acknowledge that a comprehensive blueprint is still far from completion.

"To think that one can have a preliminary design that kind of fixes what is going to go there in the spring -- I think that's very ambitious, given where we're at," said James Rooney, Mayor Thomas M. Menino's chief of staff.

Some design consultants, however, say the entire area should be planned simultaneously, and soon. To wait, they say, is to lose momentum and perhaps consign the land to mediocrity.

But Big Dig officials point out that legal restrictions put in place when the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel project won environmental permits 10 years ago ensure that land designated as open or public space will not be swept up by developers.

And a few more years might also allow resolution of one of the most difficult problems: determining who will pay for maintenance and upkeep.

"I can't visualize it the way some people can," Rooney said after attending several presentations on design options for the land. "It kind of all looks the same to me."

Rooney is one of 12 members of the legislative commission that has held numerous weekly meetings to determine who will operate, maintain, and pay for whatever ultimately materializes.

The commission is charged with coming up with a bill by next month that would create a nonprofit trust, a board of overseers, a community-based advisory panel, and a small administrative staff for the new Surface Artery.

The Turnpike Authority hired a master planner last year to jump-start a design process that had begun a decade ago, but sputtered. The current process has been highly public, as many had hoped. But most agree that no gripping ideas have emerged.

"This is a process that I view continuing over the next decade, in terms of identifying needs and doing the appropriate level of building," said Representative Joseph Sullivan, a Braintree Democrat who with Havern is co-chairman of the commission. "The master planning process is well intentioned and appropriate, but not the final answer."

The plan now being developed is not designed to dictate every detail of the landscape. Big Dig officials describe it as a set of guidelines gleaned from months of public meetings in which residents made suggestions and pored over drawings.

At the meetings, master-planning consultants have shown drawings of various options for the three major areas in the corridor: the North End, the Wharf District, and Chinatown and the Leather District.

Public meetings in the neighborhoods on the Surface Artery's future have sometimes been confusing, as residents struggle to imagine what shape the downtown will take.

One commission member who dissents from the let's-take-our-time view is Patrice Todisco, executive director of the Boston Greenspace Alliance.

"I would hope that by the time we cut the ribbon on the park system, we would have something that people would want to see there in perpetuity," Todisco said. "I think we should be able to get it 98 percent right."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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