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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.


Still Missing: A Vision For Artery Land

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 05/31/2001

Reading the plan for the Central Artery corridor is like peering through fog. You can make out the dim shapes of some good ideas, but they're obscured by so much soothing eyewash that you'll probably quit out of boredom. Maybe that's the goal of this kind of document: to make your eyes glaze over. You can't get mad at what you can't stand reading.

We're talking, of course, about the acreage that now lies in the shadow of the elevated Central Artery. We'll see it when the Artery comes down in 2004, replaced by the tunnel of the Big Dig.

The plan, which came out last week, is called the Boston Central Artery Corridor Master Plan. It was done for the Turnpike Authority by outside consultants, working with a steering committee whose members were chosen to represent varied viewpoints. Probably they disagreed a lot, because the plan reads like one of those documents that tries to offend nobody by scrupulously avoiding anything exciting. This is lowest-common-denominator planning.

It's a pity, because the corridor is a fantastic opportunity. There will be 30 acres of new downtown land -- 30 football fields of enticing real estate, strung in a milelong snake of space just a block or two from the harbor. Most of the land will be within a few minutes' walk of Beacon Hill, the Common, the North End, the business district, and Chinatown. Removing the Artery will be like lifting a rotten log in the forest. Suddenly, the sun will strike those 30 acres.

What should we do with them? Should we rebuild the city, weaving it back together over the scar of the Artery? Or should we grab the chance for some green space? Should there be playgrounds, running tracks, fountains? Should there be places for concerts, flower shows, art exhibits? Should there be cafes, condos, shops? Should there be stuff we haven't dreamed of yet? It's the biggest urban-design issue in Boston in decades.

After 13 months, at a cost of $860,000, the planners, led by the San Francisco firm of SWMW, have added very little to this debate. If you love Post Office Square Park -- and I certainly do -- you may love a string of seven similar parks.

That, in essence, is what's being proposed. It's like McDonald's: if one park was so great, hey, let's have a whole chain. The parks are passive and predictable. Only a couple of them even offer food service. As a vision of a future Boston, the plan lacks imagination.

The planners, to be fair, didn't have a lot of choice. They were playing in a rigged game, in which somebody else wrote all the rules. The rules go back to 1991. In that year, long before most Bostonians focused on the issue, the city and the state wrote legally enforceable regulations about the future Artery corridor. The state required that it be not less than 75 per cent open space. The city enacted a Central Artery Special District zoning law, which specifies, parcel by parcel, exactly what you can and can't do.

There are arguments about why these decisions were made back then, by players who mostly aren't around any more. But there's no argument about the fact that changing them in any significant way would require a formal appeal, and that's a can of worms the state doesn't want to open.

As if all this weren't enough, the world learned only last week that the corridor is to be called the Rose Kennedy Greenway. That decision was made - again, years ago -- by politicians. The pols were supposedly not involved in the planning, but once you've called the corridor a greenway, you've made a pretty clear planning decision. Many people would like to have seen parts of the corridor filled in with modest, low-rise buildings, thus restoring the continuity of the old city that the Artery so badly ruptured. You don't do that on a greenway.

So what was left for the planners to plan? Not a lot. The whole process was a fiction, a pretense that questions were open and everyone would be listened to (there were zillions of meetings) when in fact the major decisions had already been made.

Further confusion was ensured by the fact that the city, quite reasonably, considered itself a client of the planners too -- after all, the corridor is going to be part of Boston, right? -- even though the state owns the land. So the planners met regularly and separately with a Mayor's Task Force, as well as with the turnpike people. Did these two client groups get together, if for no other reason than to cut the number of meetings? Hey, this is Massachusetts.

Meanwhile yet another group, a state commission, is trying to come up with a plan for financing the corridor and maintaining it once it's done. Looking back at the 10-year history of this planning process, you have to say it's been a mess. The chance for any kind of fresh vision may be gone.

But maybe not. The game isn't over. Both the turnpike and the city say they are still eager to hear further comments and suggestions. And the new Corridor Master Plan is very far from being a final design. It's just a set of hopes, thoughts and suggestions. It's supposed to guide the real designers, who haven't been chosen and who won't start work until early next year. They, too, will be committed to work in a public process. So the discussion will continue.

I'd be happier if the planners had broken out of the straitjacket of rules, rethought the possibilities for this precious land, and proposed a vision that offered some surprise and invention.

Obviously, they were hired on condition they wouldn't do that.

All that said, there's a lot of common sense in the plan, once you penetrate the blankets of stupefying blather. (Sample prose: "Design for today and tomorrow -- using contemporary, timeless materials by designers with a passion for the power, the intricacies, and the delights of this place.")

When it gets down to detail, the plan is hard-headed, informative, and sophisticated. It's essential that the planners' wisdom and experience not be lost. That could happen, because the planners are, as of now, out of a job. They should be retained as watchdogs and monitors when the designers come aboard. (For the record, the planners are Karen Alschuler of SWMW of San Francisco, Boston urban designer Steve Cecil, and landscape architect John Halvorson, the designer of Post Office Square Park.)

As for those new designers, when they arrive next year, they're going to have to be geniuses to make anything great out of this same-old same-old master plan. But who knows, maybe they will be geniuses. Miracles do happen.

And the Artery corridor doesn't have to succeed all at once. It took 600 years for the Piazza San Marco in Venice to find its final form.

Robert Campbell can be reached by e-mail at camglobe@aol.com

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