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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.


What's in a name? Regarding Surface Artery, no one's sure

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 4/21/2002

There's no end of talk -- hasn't been for 10 years -- about the wonderful open space that's to be created by the Big Dig from the shadows of the old Central Artery. The new Surface Artery.

In the dead of night, so to speak, it was named the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Obviously, Kennedy supporters were behind that one, but it was done with the full approval of the Weld administration.

There was a certain "I need you, you need me" alliance in the early years of the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel project. In the face of growing project costs and the federal spigot being turned off, Senator Edward Kennedy could get things done.

Governor William Weld and Big Dig officials appreciated that.

The problem with the naming of the new Surface Artery space was that there was no public debate. Few even knew about it until years later, the legislation having been tucked deep into a transportation bill.

Well, the Rose Kennedy Greenway is only part of what will be the new Surface Artery.

There's also some development -- about a half-dozen prime parcels -- in the corridor between Causeway and Kneeland streets. And maybe more, if the Massachusetts Horticultural Society can't get its act together and occupy the three blocks north of Summer Street, as originally envisioned.

An extraordinarily confusing debate is going on about how the downtown land will be governed, controlled, and paid for. The Mayor's Surface Artery Task Force continues to meet and discuss the issues, but at the same time legislation is being drafted -- separately -- by state and city officials, to decide those details.

The major framework was agreed to last month by House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and Acting Governor Jane Swift, who at the time got no public credit. They proposed a nonprofit body to take responsibility for the land, and a tax on downtown businesses to pay the freight on maintenance and improvements.

Many, many details are up in the air.

Said Larry Rosenblum of the Leather District, at last week's task force meeting: "We're grasping in the dark here." He wanted to talk about substance but said, "I don't know what I'm 'substancing.' "

Added the group's patient cochairman, Rob Tuchmann: "We're a little miffed. It would make sense to talk to the 50 people who have been worrying about this for the last 10 years."

Mark Maloney, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the task force's cochairman, seems to be more in the loop on the new bill than anyone else on the task force, none of whom has even seen a draft.

"I'm soliciting your opinion," he said. "I'm getting it." He said he would convey it, and promised proposed legislation would be shown to the task force in advance.

Many of the biggest questions remain: Who will control the Surface Artery commission, or whatever it's called, for example. And whether, if downtown businesses are not made part of the governing structure, they will stand for taxation without representation.

But perhaps the biggest issue for the development and real estate community is who will run the show on the development parcels.

In addition to the land in the corridor, there is considerable space south of Kneeland Street, near the Surface Artery tunnel portals.

Maloney said that the current plan is for the new entity to assume responsibility for those development parcels, as well as for the open space.

That apparently is OK with the turnpike authority, as long as the air-rights and other revenue stay with the authority, in case they are needed to cover further increases in the Big Dig's costs.

"The planning role, we have made it very clear, resides with the BRA," Stephen Hines, development chief for the Pike, said at the task force meeting a couple of weeks ago.

The consensus on the task force was that whatever entity emerges from the Legislature should handle the open space, and perhaps the three dicey-to-develop parcels in which traffic ramps cut gaping holes in the surface.

But otherwise, Tuchmann said, "I don't know why a parks commission should be dealing with five development parcels and [property] south of Kneeland Street."

Have a question about commercial real estate or development in Boston? About what's going up on the corner you walk by? E-mail Lots & Blocks at blocks@globe.com.

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