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Beyond The Big Dig
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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.

Agencies Disagree On Turf Over The Big Dig

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 06/22/1999

With 7 1/2 years of the Big Dig down and 4 1/2 years to go, nobody knows what the reclaimed downtown Boston territory is going to look like.

Urban activists haven't come up with a compelling plan, the state and the Big Dig don't want to get stuck with further costs, and many say the biggest beneficiary -- the city of Boston -- has been more or less AWOL.

``What's been missing for some time is leadership,'' said Bennet Heart, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation. ``The city and the state need to get together and make this happen. It's way too important a corridor of land to let go, and it's high time for a real concrete game plan.''

Colorful brochures and drawings distributed for several years have left the impression with many urban-space activists and the public that the space over the new underground I-93 lanes would be a festival of green.

There were suggestions of sculptures, merry-go-rounds, and fountains. But now the reality has sunk in: Unless someone steps up to write a check, the major surface features will be just trees and grass for a long time to come.

``You need to say, `What is the theme of this place?' '' said Eugenie Beal, president of the Boston Natural Areas Fund, a group pushing for a plan. ``Grass and trees are not enough.''

When the Central Artery Environmental Oversight Committee meets this afternoon, concerns are expected to be expressed over the stalled process of deciding who will decide what goes on top of the Surface Artery. And, as important, who will pay for it.

The state's environmental permits dictate that a quarter of the 27 acres over the new Central Artery tunnels will be low-rise development. Unless that decision is revisited, the other three-quarters of the space from Kneeland Street north to Causeway Street will be ``open space.''

But what is open space?

Among the many groups participating in the Boston 2000 planning process that was supposed to yield a definitive plan for completion of the downtown, some maintain that the state and the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel Project themselves are obligated to undertake expensive enhancements.

They point to early-1990s brochures and documents produced by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department, and to the Big Dig's environmental certificate.

The state, on the other hand, says it is all but busting the bank to build a state-of-the-art metropolitan highway system, and it will not be shoved into spending another $50 million on urban tourist attractions.

James J. Kerasiotes, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversees the Big Dig, has promised $15 million for ``loam and seed.'' About 900 trees will be planted downtown, mostly along the curbs.

And Big Dig officials say the rest is up to the City of Boston and the Surface Artery's neighbors, who, after all, will be beneficiaries when the $10.8 billion project is finished late in 2004.

The Boston 2000 working group estimated the cost of surface amenities in the downtown corridor at between $20 million and $60 million. The cost of maintaining that stretch of mostly open space will be about $5 million a year, which the city long ago said it can't afford.

Under pressure to keep costs from rising further, the Big Dig has eliminated trees and irrigation equipment once envisioned for some grassy areas.

Elaborate lighting and any thought of a structure to signify the ``gateway to the city'' on the south, near the Dewey Square Tunnel, have been dumped.

Without an agreed-upon planning authority, those involved say, neighborhood groups have filled the gap.

Groups in the Waterfront, Chinatown, Leather District, and North End have begun jotting down their hopes for the space near their businesses and homes.

``This is something that has caused a little bit of concern -- that these were led by abutters instead of the city,'' said Betsy Johnson, an executive committee member of the Greenspace Alliance, a coalition of organizations promoting open space.

City involvement, said Johnson, would have assured that a broader group of interests would have been represented.

In fact, because this land was bought from the city, is being improved, and will be donated back to the city, many of those interviewed fault the administration of Mayor Thomas M. Menino for not leading the way.

``That's water over the dam,'' said Johnson, who like others suggested the BRA should have a larger role. ``I would claim as the city's planning agency it is their job. But they didn't choose to have the staff available.''

Andrea d'Amato, Boston's chief of environmental services, acknowledges the process isn't speeding along, but she says the city is actively coordinating the neighborhood groups building their own plans, in the absence of a comprehensive one.

``Early fall, I would imagine, is when we need to get each of the groups together to get some defining principles,'' d'Amato said yesterday. ``We've been doing quite a bit of work over the last year and a half, but it's not organized in a forum like Boston 2000.''

When it became clear last year that Boston 2000 was not going to produce a committee that could take charge of downtown, some supported a commission designated by the Legislature to do the job. That effort failed, but a new bill could pass this year.

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