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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 prepares to choose designers

About 150 firms express interest

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 4/8/2002

A dozen years after planning began for a renewed Surface Artery corridor liberally sprinkled with parks, the call for final proposals from urban designers who want to remold downtown Boston is expected to go out late this week.

Despite lingering concerns about the process for choosing design teams to create the three major sections of the corridor from Causeway to Kneeland streets, Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew Amorello says the time has come to get something on paper.

"It would be a shame not to be developing the Surface Artery at the same time the roadway is finishing up [underground]," Amorello said in an interview late last week.

The detailed specifications that will be issued to scores of interested design firms late this week, or possibly early next week, include two park parcels in the North End.

The specifications have been virtually complete since last fall, when they were originally scheduled to be advertised. But complaints that the selection process was flawed and political turmoil at the Turnpike Authority caused a delay that some feared would be indefinite, wiping out the chance that the surface portion of the project would be ready for public use close to the planned completion of the underground Central Artery highway early in 2005.

Turnpike and Big Dig officials say that expressions of interest in the project have been received from about 150 design companies worldwide.

They don't know how many actual bids they will get for each of the three Surface Artery segments, but hope to choose three finalists for each one. From those proposals, they hope to uncover specific and creative ideas for the mile-long corridor in the footprint of the Central Artery.

Specifications for the second area, the Wharf District, are expected to go out a month or five weeks after the North End request, Amorello said. And the Turnpike will solicit designers for the third and final piece, near Chinatown, about a month after that.

Despite years of discussion, hundreds of hours of public meetings, and a $600,000 master-planning process, no consensus has emerged on how to deal with Boston's unique opportunity to replace a rusting, disruptive interstate highway with -- whatever residents want.

One of the obstacles to finding a plan for the open, or public, space among roughly 30 acres being reclaimed was the inability of city, state, and Turnpike officials to decide who should own, oversee, and maintain the land.

That barrier was largely eliminated by a recent announcement by Mayor Thomas Menino and House Speaker Thomas Finneran that they had agreed on a governing board and a commission dedicated to the space.

As that agreement is being written into proposed legislation, it appears the Turnpike, which oversees the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel project and has had primary responsibility for planning the surface portion, may be taken out of the process.

According to a memo last week to the Mayor's Central Artery Completion Task Force from its leadership, the commission envisioned by Menino and Finneran "assumes responsibility for the Central Artery Corridor prior to park design."

The commission had better hurry, because it doesn't yet exist. Legislation filling in the details of the Menino-Finneran plan for a nonprofit institution with a small board of trustees and an operational committee must be completed and then passed on Beacon Hill.

Amorello said he has no problem with the idea of turning over the Surface Artery planning process to city and state officials. Although he won't wait for them to act before starting the final design solicitations this week, he said, "Our interest is operating a safe roadway underneath, and not being a park agency."

Once a Surface Artery commission is legally in place, Amorello said, it could take over the designer selection process -- or even start fresh. But, he said, "I don't want to let time pass while we wait, run the risk of having the road open up and not have anything on top."

A wide-ranging discussion at last week's Mayor's Task Force meeting included debate over which responsibilities the commission should have -- even whether it should be involved in disposing of the half-dozen development parcels on the surface.

But Amorello drew the line there. "That's a different issue," he said, sitting in an office that has been held by four people in the last two years, as Big Dig financial turmoil took its political toll. "The development parcels are part of the financing system of the Artery," he said, and the plan to cover multimillion-dollar annual operation costs of the city's new highway tunnel network.

Asked if he would give up control or revenue from those parcels at the northern and southern ends of the corridor, he said, "No."

Amorello's push to get final designers on board for the Surface Artery comes as welcome news to several public interest groups and observers frustrated by past delays. They worry that procrastination only plays into the hands of some who may want to change the rules, for example, eliminating the requirement in the Big Dig's environmental certificate that 75 percent of the new territory be accessible to the public.

"If we continue to delay the design and completion of the parks on the Central Artery surface corridor so they can be completed by the project, we risk losing them," said Anne Fanton, executive director of the Artery Oversight Committee.

Amorello had another piece of news that will please critics of the designer selection process. Some, the Boston Society of Architects in particular, have expressed concern that the actual design concepts submitted by the finalists for the parcels will be seen only by a five-person selection committee, not by the public.

But Amorello said he is leaning toward an open process, entertaining a public discussion on the final proposals before the three designers, or design teams, are chosen.

Although he did not commit himself, he said, "I would look at that. My inclination is they would be made public for everybody to look at."

Given the current timing outlined by Amorello, that could happen on the North End portion as early as September. Design teams will have two months from this week to submit their proposals, he said, and the selection of finalists will also take about 30 days.

The finalists will then be asked to present their ideas, for which they will be paid. The Turnpike will select one final designer but will own the creative work of all of those who competed.

"I'm pleased there is such worldwide interest," said Amorello. "We're sitting in the driver's seat in terms of getting talent."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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