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Beyond The Big Dig
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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.

Surface Artery designs debated

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 2/5/2003

Five urban design specialists called for bolder ideas last night from the design teams picked to create the parks that Boston area residents have awaited during 11 years of Big Dig construction.

An overflow crowd of 400 turned out at the Boston Public Library for the first major presentation of the open space proposals to the public. They studied the 13 concepts for the Surface Artery corridor parcels, listened to panelists' interpretations of the work, and asked questions about how the new public space will take shape over the next two to three years.

"The design teams that have been selected here have demonstrated they can do bold things," said Theodore Landsmark, president of the Boston Architectural Center. "They're good. They're also capable of listening."

The audience asked many questions: Is there enough money? Will it be too windy? Will it be safe?

The panelists, chosen by the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, the event sponsors, didn't have all the answers.

But they generally were down on barriers -- such as rows of trees to divide parcels or the corridor from the rest of the city. And they called for sweeping new ideas that, while not expected to please everyone, are aimed at creating a modern Boston rather than just maintaining the city's traditions.

"If Mr. Olmsted were with us today, he would look at this land very differently" than the more expansive Emerald Necklace of parks he created, said Gary Hack, architecture dean at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Perhaps the most unorthodox idea among the proposals by the 13 finalist teams was for a shallow canal system along the four central blocks, known as the Wharf District, bounded on the other side by Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. "Since water is only one block away, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said Hack -- yet the panelists hailed the impertinence of the idea.

They liked the way it linked those five blocks together, and, "It certainly is a commendable example of expansive thinking," said Cheryl Barton, principal of a San Francisco architectural firm and past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Panelists at the two-hour event cautioned that the eight open-space parcels from Causeway to Kneeland streets are too small to accommodate everyone's interests -- such as skateboarding.

They warned against art installations that don't fit in, advised against plaques and memorials, and said the measure of success is whether the greenway will draw residents from all over the city.

But they urged more public airing of the evolving proposals over the next 15 months. "This is people getting together to create something great rather than oppose something," said Hack.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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