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.
Menino urges tax to fund Artery landBy Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 3/6/2002
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday proposed a permanent real estate surtax on downtown businesses to fund management and maintenance of precious Surface Artery open space being reclaimed by the Big Dig.
Ending a lengthy tug of war between city and state officials, Menino said that, with the support of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, he also will propose legislation for a Surface Artery governing body controlled by the governor, the Legislature, and the city.
If passed, a law creating a funding source and governing structure would end two years of wrangling over who will control most of the valuable 30 acres of land that will emerge from under the shadow of the elevated Central Artery.
"There is no greater challenge than planning the Central Artery," Menino told business leaders yesterday in a speech before the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime."
Although no final answer on ownership of the land has been reached, Finneran and Menino have apparently ended an impasse on governance of the land by agreeing on a solution that eluded a legislative commission that met for months late in 2000 and early 2001.
Although reaction to a proposed new tax was mixed, public officials weary of years of debate over control of the land praised the proposal by Menino, who was joined at yesterday's lunch by Finneran. Menino's proposed surtax, in the form of a home-rule petition, would have to be passed by the City Council and the Legislature, then signed by the governor.
"This is the start of something big," said Representative Joseph Sullivan, Democrat of Braintree, cochairman of the Transportation Committee. "The focus has been on building the project, but now the vision needs to be incorporated." Sullivan said the inclusion of a small board of trustees to oversee the land and ensure efficient management was a key to getting the city and state to agree on a nonprofit governing structure. City and state officials tangled last year over who would dominate the organization that controlled the open space.
Under Menino's proposal, the five trustees would be appointed by the mayor of Boston, the governor of the Commonwealth, the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate. Menino offered few details, but Mark Maloney, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said the governor would probably appoint two of the five trustees.
That group would oversee a 13-member board of directors that would run the day-to-day operations of the parks, facilities, and other open space that will occupy the area, over the buried lanes of Interstate 93. The directors would be appointed by the same four public officials who appoint the trustees, Maloney said.
Menino also called for an advisory panel including representatives of business, environmental, and community groups.
But the boldest part of Menino's proposed solution to the lengthy debate and uncertainty over the Surface Artery is a tax on the broad section of downtown that is expected to reap most of its benefits.
So-called business improvement districts are employed in some cities to raise money for parks from neighboring businesses. Menino's proposal, however, would require all businesses from North Station to South Station and from the waterfront west to City Hall to contribute to the long-term maintenance of the land.
Residents of the downtown area would be exempt.
Maloney, who called the proposal a "park improvement district," said the dollar figures had not been worked out but the tax would be a surcharge on each business's property tax.
The money would be used only for maintenance and operation of the new open space, Menino said. Money up front to create the parks and facilities should come from the city and state, he said, supplementing about $30 million that has already been pledged by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Richard Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, praised Menino for working with the state to create "a single-purpose entity" to oversee the Surface Artery land.
Committee research showed that, depending on how many businesses are taxed, a charge of 10 to 20 cents per square foot of building space might be required.
The strip of land along the Central Artery contains about a half-dozen parcels designated for development, but another dozen or so are reserved by law for open space.
No firm plans for the open space have been proposed, although government and community groups have been kicking ideas around for a decade. A master plan, containing general ideas for the blocks from Causeway Street to Kneeland Street, was completed last year.
Three final design contracts are supposed to be awarded this year, with construction to begin before Central Artery construction is completed in 2005.
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he was surprised Menino would tap businesses alone for an Artery upkeep fund.
"It seems unfair to ask the business community to bear the full burden of what is very much a city and state resource," Widmer said. "We don't even have a plan for the site, and we already have a proposed new tax on business to pay for it."
Neither Acting Governor Jane M. Swift nor Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham could be reached to comment on Menino's plan.
Maloney said Menino's plan would spread the financial responsibility beyond businesses that are located on the corridor and will benefit the most. "The mayor made it broad enough," he said, to include "people who work on Milk Street who walk down to the Central Artery and enjoy the benefits."
Finneran said he had not worked out all of the details on the tax with Menino, but that it would be fair, with businesses directly adjacent to the new parks paying somewhat more than those further away.
Menino also said the city is working with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which will occupy three prime parcels near South Station if it can raise the money to build a new facility there.
The mayor proposed that an international topiary exhibition be invited to Boston for 2004 to occupy some of the Mass. Horticultural space temporarily.
Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe staff reporter Sarah Schewitzer contributed to this report.