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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.

Surface Artery park proposals draw fire

Task force calls five designs uninspiring

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 4/25/2003

Boston officials and the Mayor's Surface Artery Completion Task force yesterday issued broad criticisms of the five design proposals for the most prominent part of Boston's post-Big Dig downtown parkland, the Wharf District.

View drawings of each of EDAW Inc.'s proposals.

While the task force's criticisms were new and focused on the recently presented designs, city officials targeted the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and its management of the process in the latest and most public expression of differences in a long, contentious relationship over the Surface Artery land.

Although the professional design team for the five-block area has held more than a dozen public meetings, and based its designs on what team members heard, many Boston officials who attended yesterday's Mayor's Surface Artery Completion Task Force meeting at City Hall said the five concepts lacked imagination.

''We were disappointed in the designs,'' said Susanne Lavoie, representing Harbor Towers residences. ''They didn't link the city together and show activity in the particular parcels.''

''What we're hearing is really an expression of concern about design quality and how these parks are going to be used,'' said Rebecca Barnes, the city's chief planner.

City officials aimed their criticism not at the design team, headed by EDAW Inc., but at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which as overseer of the Big Dig has assumed the lead role in managing design of the parks.

''The design for the central park section isn't being tightly managed,'' Boston Redevelopment Authority director Mark Maloney said. The five designs generated so far by EDAW, he said, ''could have been designed for any community in any city.''

Turnpike Authority officials brushed off the criticism, saying the Wharf District design team is listening closely to the community and responding.

''We welcome input, and we have an outstanding history of responding openly to public concerns and criticism,'' said authority spokesman Sean O'Neill.

Dennis B. Carmichael, vice president of EDAW, said the criticism at this stage is understandable. ''Some of the outcomes are not being held in what you might call high regard,'' he said. ''That is part of the process. We know no one of these alternatives is perfect, or the right one.''

City and Turnpike Authority officials have long had a prickly relationship over the Surface Artery corridor, each seeking more control over what is essentially a joint process. City officials said the design work on the two other Surface districts, the North End and Chinatown, was going more smoothly and producing better results than that in the expansive Wharf area.

But, demonstrating the heightened tension between city and authority officials, Big Dig director of architecture Fred Yalouris suggested that city officials have not been clear enough about what kind of activities they want to see in the Wharf District blocks, which extend from Christopher Columbus Park down to High Street.

City officials nevertheless argued yesterday for passage of state legislation that would take control of the land away from the Turnpike and give it to a newly created public trust. Virtually all members of the mayor's own task force oppose the legislation.

Under the proposal, Mayor Thomas M. Menino would appoint some trustees, including the chairman, increasing the city's control over the land as the parks are designed and constructed, and after they are completed. Maloney said the Wharf District designers are having problems because there is no ''client'' for the parks other than the authority, which is busy managing the entire Central Artery project.

A new public trust governing the land is ''a compromise that puts the city in the driver's seat,'' Maloney said.

The legislation supported by the city was proposed in 2001 and broadly criticized before being withdrawn. Now refiled with a few changes, it is still substantially the same and has continued to be opposed by virtually every member of the Surface Artery task force.

The proposal would set up a governing structure for parks and development parcels, and also would create a funding source for future maintenance, based mainly on a $4 million-a-year ''betterment tax'' levied on businesses within one quarter-mile of the corridor.

Carmichael said criticism that the design process is going too fast ''may be valid.'' but the speed was set in response public feeling that the Surface Artery design had already taken too long.

The design process began more than a dozen years ago, but it was not until the last couple of years that professional designers were brought on board and actual drawings of what the Surface land could look like have been available. Carmichael said the five proposals being circulated will be combined with other ideas to come up with a final design by the end of the summer.

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 4/25/2003.
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