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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.

After the Big Dig, the big question: Where's the vision?

Opportunity of the century: 25 acres of new open land atop Boston's depressed Central Artery

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 5/26/2002

(Illustration by Keith A. Webb, The Boston Globe)

A lot of bright and good people are trying to figure out what do with 25-plus acres of new Boston land. So far, they've gotten nowhere. The land in question now lies beneath the overhead Central Artery, Boston's other Green Monster. It will emerge into the sunlight when the Artery finally comes down in 2004, to be replaced by the tunnel of the Big Dig.

Twenty-five acres isn't a lot. Imagine the Public Garden stretched out long and thin, to almost a mile in length. But you don't need a lot of land to make great city places. Think of New York's Rockefeller Center, with its magical skating rink. Or your favorite cafe on your favorite European piazza. The Artery land is important because it's in a critical location, running through the middle of downtown a block or so from the harbor. It presents the greatest opportunity we've had in decades to make Boston a better, more livable place. If -- and it's a big if -- we can ever agree on what it should become.

What should the Artery land be? Does it tell us something about ourselves as a society that, so far, no one has been able to come up with a vision that inspires consensus? Should the land be a miniature Olmsted park, a little brother to the Emerald Necklace? Should it be a busy cosmopolitan precinct, with cafe life and cultural attractions? Should it, somewhere, offer a lesson in the history of the harbor? Should there be musical and dramatic performances and places for young and old to play? Maybe some apartments, whose occupants could fill the park space and keep it safe on evenings and weekends? All of the above? Or, as some people think, should this land be mostly built on, to sew the city back together over the gash that was cut long ago by the Artery?

There's nothing wrong with debate. There were decades of debate and many design proposals before what we know as the Back Bay emerged in the mid-19th century. But something seems to be wrong this time around. Neither the people who govern us nor, probably, we the people ourselves have a clear idea what the public space of the 21st century should be. Maybe we should all give up and accept the dictum of famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who tells us that in the contemporary world, the only remaining public space that matters is shopping space, the mall or the shop-filled airport. The city, he says, will consist increasingly of private space. Doomed is the public realm, the space we all share, the space where we come together as citizens of one community for some better purpose than buying things out of boredom. Can that be true? Maybe Boston will be the city that finds out. Maybe we'll invent the new public realm. I don't see why we shouldn't.

All of this will be discussed on Thursday at a televised town meeting, "Beyond the Big Dig," to be held at Faneuil Hall. The meeting will be the culmination of several months of effort by MIT, the Globe, and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) to reach out to the public and suggest fresh ideas for the Artery land.

Why do we find ourselves dealing with the Artery so late in the game? Start with government. Our leaders can't even decide who's in charge. The Artery land is owned by the state, administered by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and coveted by the City of Boston. Somebody is going to have to take responsibility for coming up with a vision, creating and implementing a design, and maintaining it into the future. Probably that somebody will be a newly created governing entity, perhaps including a partnership with private owners. In recent weeks, under the enormous pressure of having to come up with some kind of plan or look like complete fools, the politicians have at least begun talking to one another. But as of this writing, after many months of waiting, we still don't have a solution. All we know is that secret backroom negotiations are in progress. For the time being, the Turnpike Authority is in charge, more or less by default. The authority is now looking for designers for the open space. But if there is one thing a good designer needs, it's a client with a vision and a purpose. Stay tuned.

Part of the problem, of course, is money. Making the Artery land into a great public space will cost money. No branch of government wants to spend money. Beyond that, though, there's the great Boston tradition of distrust between city and state. At any given moment, there are many pending issues and disagreements between the two.

A concern like the Artery land is held hostage in the larger political struggle. It becomes a bargaining chip or a trading card in the everlasting city-state game of politics. Think Israel and Palestine. Neither side wants a solution without some kind of quid pro quo upfront. The result, predictably, has been stalemate.

My view? The land should be turned over to the city, along with enough state money to create and implement a good design. The land is part of Boston, and the city should take responsibility for it. The city should propose a vision for the land. Maybe, as many suggest, there should be a design competition to come up with one. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has long ignored the whole problem, perhaps because the land wasn't in a residential neighborhood where his voters are. But recently he has showed signs of understanding that the Artery land can be his greatest legacy as mayor.

If the performance of the politicians has been pretty horrendous, the designers haven't done much better. This in a town that is rich with architects, urban designers, landscape architects, preservationists, talents of all kinds. They're all trained to think about cities. You'd think they'd share some creative opinions, but they don't. Nearly every proposal so far has been a cliche.

The players are numberless. The Boston GreenSpace Alliance believes that as much of the surface as possible should be green parkland, a "lung for the city," in the metaphor of Frederick Law Olmsted. Architects tend to think metaphorically of sewing the city back together over this incision, rather than memorializing it by means of an uninterrupted linear park. (But you can't build much, in any case. The tunnel isn't structured to bear the weight of large buildings. Where the tunnel is nearest the surface, you could build maybe two stories, and where it's deepest, maybe six or eight.) The Artery Business Committee, representing owners and other business interests in the area, would like to see cultural uses introduced to activate the space, perhaps including museums or a branch library. The Horticultural Society would like to build a glazed winter garden but may not have the money to do so. The North End neighborhood at one end and the Chinese community at the other end have their own agendas.

(Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe, photo-illustration by Keith A. Webb/The Boston Globe)

These groups, as they discuss the Artery land, are like the six blind men touching the elephant and telling you what it looks like. Each has a different impression. Not complicated enough for you? How about the fact that the state Legislature, in a virtually secret move, determined that the Artery land will be officially known as "The Rose Kennedy Greenway," and that US Senator Edward M. Kennedy has discussed the design with his nephew by marriage, who is a designer of museum installations? It's nice to honor the matriarch of the Kennedy clan. But the decision immediately shortcuts the democratic process and undermines those who worry, with some evidence, that an all-green surface will become an underused haven for homeless people and drug dealers -- another kind of green monster, in fact, that will be a barrier between the city and its harbor.

I've only scratched the surface. There are numberless other ad hoc, usually self-appointed, groups. All are well-meaning, all are competent. But something else is needed. What is needed is a commanding idea that everyone can get behind. A civic vision. I don't think that's so impossible. In recent months, I've visited San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris, and Rotterdam. They've all got new public spaces that are filled with invention and verve, places where all kinds of people mix for all kinds of purposes. These spaces are surrounded by housing and other uses, so that there are plenty of people to occupy them and keep them safe. Often they're fun, as with the hidden cameras in the Shouwburgplein -- "Performance Square" -- in Rotterdam that project your picture on a wall as you walk unsuspectingly through the square. Or they're dramatic, like the half-hidden, chapellike gardens in the Parc Citroen in Paris, ideal places for trysting. Or they mix the remnants of the old city with new ideas, like the shops and park made from an abandoned overhead rail line in Paris.

One caveat, though. It's a mistake to imitate the successes of others too glibly. It's well to recall that City Hall Plaza, a disaster of a public space if there ever was one, is modeled on the great Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. The shape and size of the two are similar, but the purposes and surroundings are very different. Siena's plaza is filled with life, and Boston's is a desert.

How did we get here? Let's back up a little. Not everyone realizes that most of the key decisions about the Artery land were made more than a decade ago, in the closing days of the Dukakis administration. They were made, in large part, by an environmentalist, John DeVillars, who as the state's secretary of environmental affairs had the right to approve or disapprove the Big Dig. He did issue an environmental permit. But as an environmentalist, he loaded his approval with many gifts to the advocates of green space. Chief among these was a rule that 75 percent of the Artery land must be "public open space," a rule later enacted into a city zoning law. The zoning law dictates what can and can't be done to the Artery land, parcel by parcel. These rules can be legally changed, but the process is cumbersome. The 75 percent rule may or may not be a good idea. The problem is that it was never properly debated. Nor was it considered in the light of any actual designs for the land. It was just a statistic.

I like to think I'm an environmentalist, but I don't think cities should be designed by environmentalists without the input of all kinds of other experts, such as urban designers. Nor do I believe in urban design by mathematical statistic. Someone should have had a vision for the land first. It should have been designed as carefully as the tunnel beneath it, and at the same time. The tunnel could then have been constructed to support the surface design. (Today, by contrast, there are places where the tunnel comes so close to the surface that you wouldn't be able to plant a tree there.) The amount of open space could then have been based on a design concept, rather than an arbitrary statistic.

OK, fast forward. Last year, the Turnpike Authority -- which, remember, still controls the land -- sponsored a million-dollar study, led by San Francisco architect Karen Alshuler. The goal was to create a master plan for the open space of the Artery land. It would be a set of guidelines under which landscape architects, yet to be selected, would develop designs for the various parcels. The Alshuler study chose not to challenge -- or was instructed not to challenge -- the rigid rules laid down by the environmental permit and zoning law. The authors of the study talked to everyone in the vain hope of discovering consensus. Finding none, and constrained by the rules, they created a shallow, least-common-denominator document that failed to ignite any enthusiasm. Many of the parcels are proposed to be simply grass plots with artfully angled paths. Can't we do better than that?

Maybe the problem is that we've simply become too pluralistic. Back in the 1950s, when the Central Artery was built, nobody had to worry much about citizen reaction. Planning decisions were made from the top down, and ordinary people simply had to live with them. Thousands were displaced without a struggle. Then came the 1960s and the rise of advocacy groups of all kinds. Today, decisions are made, to a great extent, from the bottom up. It's a better world but a less organized one. We are still trying to figure out how to make bold decisions in a pluralistic world.

Or maybe the problem is that nobody, in the early days, quite believed that the Big Dig would really happen, so they didn't bother to think about what the surface should be. But the Big Dig did happen, and it's important to realize what a fantastic accomplishment it is.

Understandably, we're a bit blase about the project today, after so many years. We forget what an utterly utopian idea it seemed back in the 1970s when it first surfaced. What if we demolish the Central Artery, we said, and put it in a tunnel underground? With the barrier of the expressway gone, we said, we'll be able to reconnect the city with its harbor, in an era when waterfronts are becoming sites for recreation rather than for shipping and industry. We'll improve traffic flow by erasing the Artery's notoriously dangerous lane changes. We'll be able to run a branch of the new tunnel out to the airport. We'll increase the value of downtown real estate. And anyway, we noted, the Artery is aging and rusting. From time to time, a chunk of concrete falls out, landing like a meteorite from the sky.

Some were skeptical. Then-state representative Barney Frank is credited with the comment: "Depress the Artery? It might be cheaper to raise the city." His words sound prescient today, as cost projections climb toward the $15 billion mark. Press and politicians are quick to speak of "cost overruns." No doubt there's been some mismanagement. There always is in a project this big. Frederick P. Salvucci, the acknowledged godfather of the Big Dig, thinks the state's recent Republican governors, believing strongly in the private sector, failed to provide public supervision. Maybe. But the important fact is that, whatever the cost, the Big Dig is a bargain. In any East Asian or European city, it would attract little notice. Osaka and Hong Kong have recently created artificial islands in the ocean on which they've built new international airports.

Only in the United States is it considered odd to make large public investments in the quality of urban life. Fifteen billion dollars works out to about one movie ticket per American per year over the life of the Big Dig. It's worth it. And, anyway, the "overruns" are largely fictions, because the initial estimates were fictions. It is not possible to know in advance what a project like this will cost. A feasibility study for the Big Dig would be like a feasibility study for a war. You can begin a war, but you can't know where it will end. Nobody foresaw, nobody could have foreseen, the problems that the Big Dig would encounter in slithering an underground highway through a maze of subways and utilities, under buildings and across waterways, while keeping all the surface roads open and rail lines running. The initial estimates were, at best, politically savvy guesses.

We should be proud of how far we've come. No other American city has recently accomplished anything like the Big Dig. In a way, it's a Boston tradition. This is the city that filled the Back Bay by running a trainful of earth from Needham every 45 minutes for 30 years. The Big Dig is a comparable effort, and it would be a tragedy if we didn't finish the job by creating, on the new Artery land, a great public amenity for the 21st century.

I can't say what that amenity should be. The vision will have to emerge from the democratic process, it is hoped, with the help of designers who can fire our imaginations. Whatever happens, the Artery land should be designed as a whole, not regarded as a series of independent parcels like so many miniature golf courses. It should be designed with close attention to the context of the city around it.

There's hope that all of this will happen. People in the different and sometimes warring camps are now talking to one another. They're beginning to search for consensus. They're looking for common ground -- which, of course, is exactly what the Artery land should become.

Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic.

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