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.
Panel feels excluded from Surface Artery planningLegislation crafted without input from Mayor's Task Force
By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 4/23/2002
Just as more progress than ever is being made to determine the future of the Surface Artery, frustration is reaching a boiling point among the people who have struggled for a decade to deliver on the Big Dig's promise of extensive parklands.
They feel left out.
At a meeting last week of the Mayor's Surface Artery Task Force, cochairman Rob Tuchmann expressed the unhappiness of many task force members who believe they are being ignored as legislation governing the surface corridor is being crafted on Beacon Hill by city and state officials.
"We can certainly register our extreme upset and dismay at how the process works," Tuchmann said. "That's the way it's done in Boston."
Mayor Thomas M. Menino's task force, which includes several activists who have been mulling the issue since the early 1990s, has met for more than a year trying to find answers to difficult questions of ownership, control, and financing of the 30 acres of land that will emerge from beneath the elevated Central Artery by 2005.
The panel presented a report on its recommendations to Menino late last year. "We've never had the slightest comment" on those suggestions, said Eugenie Beal, chairwoman of the board of the Natural Areas Resources Network and a member of the task force.
Neither the task force's recommendations nor those of a legislative commission that wrestled with the same issues last year could resolve the vast differences among competing interests: city vs. state, business vs. public, prodevelopment vs. environmental.
But a breakthrough occurred last month, when Menino, House Speaker Thomas Finneran, and Acting Governor Jane Swift reached broad agreement on a nonprofit entity to be created to oversee the new space.
Their agreement called for a five-member board of trustees with responsibility for the land, plus a larger board of directors and a larger board of advisers, both with unspecified roles. It also envisioned a surtax on downtown businesses to pay for annual maintenance and periodic improvements.
But the makeup of those bodies, and their specific responsibilities, are vital details that Mayor's Task Force members fear will be determined without their input.
"We're a little dumbstruck by the notion of a board of trustees," Tuchmann said, because it "goes against what we have tried to do over the last several months: create a balanced, representative group."
As for the other two proposed panels, Tuchmann said, "As I understand it, those organizations are fairly powerless in terms of responsibility. But they will exist, and they will occasionally meet."
One member of the Mayor's Task Force who doesn't feel left out of the process is cochairman Mark Maloney, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
He is acting as a liaison between the task force and the officials forging new legislation, which is expected to be ready next month.
Last week, Maloney promised that the proposed law creating an organization to govern the Surface Artery would be shown to task force members. Maloney, the only task force member at last week's meeting to have seen an early draft, offered a few details.
As was previously known, the governor will have two appointees on the five-member board of trustees, the mayor one, the House speaker one, and the Senate president one.
That board could grow to seven members, Maloney said.
Responding to task force members' concerns that Menino apparently will not control the board, Maloney said that in the current draft the mayor would appoint the board's chairman, subject to approval by the governor.
But Maloney last week resisted a call by task force member Patrice Todisco for a vote on the board-of-trustees concept.
Stephen Crosby, Swift's chief of staff, said the new legislation will hew to previous commitments that 75 percent of the land will be kept as open space, and that proceeds from development parcels will be retained to pay for Big Dig costs if necessary.
Other concerns raised by task force members who worry that they may not be included in decisions on the Surface Artery include:
Will the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority be excluded from the process?
"We still have vast differences of opinion on what is going in these open-space parcels," said Anne Fanton, executive director of the group that serves as watchdog for the Big Dig's environmental commitments.
What happens if the Massachusetts Horticultural Society is unable to build a "winter garden" and new headquarters on three prime parcels donated by the state?
For the first time in years of discussion about the society, its weak financial condition is being openly discussed.
Those three blocks near South Station "constitute over 25 percent of the corridor," Tuchmann said at a task force meeting this month. "Over 25 percent of the parcels are not going to be able to perform their function."
Who will pay for operations and maintenance?
The Finneran-Menino plan called for taxing downtown businesses, but Maloney emphasized that this would not be a "business-improvement district," in which the enterprises that pay also control the use of the land.
Artery Business Committee president Richard Dimino expressed concerns about Maloney's comments. "The questions we have range around how the costs and benefits are going to be distributed fairly," he said. "If property owners are going to make a contribution, how will their interests be represented?"
Amid the emerging feud over the future of downtown Boston, there was good news, too.
Many task force members and others were worried that the invitation for design concepts that the Turnpike put out last week would be too narrow.
But Robert Brown, president of the Boston Society of Architects and a task force member, said he was pleased. "We were surprised to see how much of not just the letter but the spirit of this group was included," he told other members at a recent meeting.