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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.



Two groups touting ambitious plans for new space

Envision museum, cultural center on site created by Artery removal

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 2/4/2003

One group seeks to give historic Boston something it has never had -- a museum of history. The other envisions a center focusing on the cultures and peoples of the region, how they differed and eventually collaborated to create the Boston of today. Both groups have their eyes on the same prize -- the swath of open space being created by removal of the elevated Central Artery.

While top landscape designers have weighed in with their aesthetic visions for the open space, proponents of the museum and cultural center hope to be chosen from among those who would add structures to the strip of green that will replace most of the Central Artery.

On display at the Boston Public Library, beginning tonight, will be the concepts of 13 professional teams of designers for the open space between North and South stations. The forum focuses broadly on parks and public space.

But little attention has been paid to another aspect of the corridor, the ambitious plans for two modern institutions that could turn out to be even more of a magnet for visitors than the open space and parks.

Each of the two groups -- the Boston Museum Project, and a partnership of Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston -- has coveted a specific parcel that will become available when the rusting old highway structure is demolished.

Although the environmental permits issued a dozen years ago for the Big Dig allowed buildings to be built on several parcels, years of strategizing about a museum celebrating the Boston area's rich history and a cultural center have occurred almost entirely behind the scenes.

''Things have come a long way with respect to civil and cultural uses in the corridor,'' said Richard Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, a liaison between the huge highway and urban beautification project and the business community. ''The reason there has been no discussion is we haven't gone into the design phase until now.''

There are other reasons, too.

Both groups need a designation from the Turnpike Authority for a valuable block of land on the reclaimed Surface Artery, and there will be competition for those sites. More important, both want to generate enough public support, and enough money, that they can pull off their respective projects without stumbling. At present, they appear the best positioned of any groups looking to secure space on the corridor.

But they are well aware of the situation the Massachusetts Horticultural Society finds itself in. Designated a decade ago as the recipient, at no cost, of three prime Artery blocks near South Station, it suffered through organizational turmoil and has been unable to raise even a small part of the estimated $60 million or more for the winter garden that it was chosen to create.

The most ambitious project for the Surface Artery is an $80 million-plus Boston History Museum, which would be located on a block known as Parcel 6, adjacent to the MBTA's Haymarket Station. The Boston Museum Project -- a fancy promotional brochure and a website, www.bostonmuseum.org, rolled out last week -- is propelled by $1.5 million in planning funds from 54 groups and individuals, a board with a Who's Who in Boston makeup, and the determination of Anne Emerson, former president of the Bostonian Society.

The museum project has what is considered to be a strong partner in the National Park Service, which tentatively plans to lease space in a five-story, 200,000-square-foot structure (about half the size of the Museum of Science).

The project was born of the same kind of internal division within an old Boston institution as roiled Mass. Horticultural. Originally a goal of the Bostonian Society, which operates the Old State House, under Emerson the museum project took on a life of its own and alienated some members. In a press release announcing the split, the Bostonian Society said it ''has ended its long-standing relationship with the Museum Project,'' which it said ''began to consume resources that we wanted to apply to other programs.''

Emerson, executive director of the project, wants to create ''a full facility on Greater Boston history linking to the contemporary city.''

''I've lived in Boston all my life,'' said Emerson. ''There's no place for residents to come and find their own history. We want this to be a place that reflects the voices of Bostonians, and how we all came to be in this place.''

The Boston History Museum would be a ''front door,'' she said, for those pursuing the past. Four themes have been identified: how the Boston area has changed physically and environmentally; ''People of the Bay,'' focusing on immigrants; innovation right up to the cellphone era; and political events from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony through the abolitionist movement and up to the Big Dig.

The National Park Service is interested in collaborating with the museum project as a means of improving its visitors' center and promoting its 18 park sites.

''People would come to the museum to get oriented and go back into the neighborhoods and places where history really happened,'' said Sarah Peskin, chief of planning for the Park Service's Northeast region.

As cultural and multicultural subjects increase in popularity, some in Boston's Jewish community want to contribute to the Surface Artery mix, too. Although it started as an idea for a Jewish cultural center, the concept now being discussed by Boston businessman Norman Levanthal and others is broader.

''The 92nd Street Y in New York represents a great effort at outreach, consensus building, and comparative cultures,'' said Ed Sidman, chairman of the Beacon Companies and an executive committee member of the Artery Business Committee. ''The Jewish community is interested in sponsoring one of these institutions that we think could be a real contribution.''

''Bridging differences in cultures through arts and communication'' would be the theme of a center that Sidman said the groups would like to see on Parcel 17, which is between High Street and East India Row.

Though as much of an insider as anyone, Sidman said he knows his plan or any other will have to come up with its own funds and prove it is the best proposal for the coveted locations along Boston's new urban space. ''There's no free lunch here,'' said Sidman. ''I know we're going to have to come up with concepts that are strong and beat out the competition.''

A forum, ''Celebrating Boston: Design Visions for the Rose Kennedy Greenway,'' sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, will be held from 6 to 8 tonight at Boston Public Library. The designs will be displayed through the end of the month.




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