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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.

Nature Is Key To Plans For Artery, Fan Pier Sites

Botanical Garden Eyed Over Highway

By Anthony Flint and Judith Gaines, Globe Staff, 06/26/1999

An ambitious proposal to redesign Dewey Square that links the Big Dig, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and private property owners is winning kudos as a model for how to develop the open land over the soon-to-be submerged Central Artery, which has been the subject of fierce debate in recent days.

But just as the novel public-private partnership is building momentum, financial uncertainties are coming to light within the horticultural society, sponsor of a $60 million botanical gardens atrium that is seen as a cornerstone for the ambitious project at South Station's front door.

Hopes remain high for the Dewey Square proposal, which has been circulating in draft form among business leaders and city planners but has yet to be formally announced. Private and public organizations have agreed to take responsibility for the design, construction, and maintenance of the new civic space, located where the new highway will go underground.

``The landowners have reached a consensus. We see it as a gateway to the city, and it makes sense to care about how it looks,'' said Cathy Minehan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

State and city officials have been sparring over what gets built on the surface of the submerged Central Artery -- and who pays for it. The plan for Dewey Square is a potential solution because it gives the private sector a leading role, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday.

Backers of the initiative say the redesign plan is a model for Artery surface restoration with or without the horticultural society's involvement. But the botanical gardens are seen as an important civic destination.

A departing society official this month said it was ``surreal'' to think the organization could raise enough funds for the botanical gardens.

The Dewey Square initiative faces other hurdles as well, most notably Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman James J. Kerasiotes, who oversees the Central Artery and Tunnel project. Kerasiotes said this week he is open to the idea but not convinced that private funding will be forthcoming for a more expensive design. The $10.8 billion Central Artery project already has two contracts in place to restore the surface at Dewey Square.

``All I know is this is what I'm prepared to spend. We're prepared to do some very nice things. Anybody who wants to bring forward a proposal on enhancing the corridor, we certainly welcome that. But then we have to talk about who cuts the check,'' Kerasiotes said.

Rick Dimino, head of the Artery Business Committee, a business advocacy group, said it's not yet clear how much more expensive the private Dewey Square initiative would be. The key point is that ``the abutters are committed to being responsible for their front yards'' and for long-term maintenance, he said.

The private interests are also willing to modify the plan ``so it's consistent with the budget that's been set aside already'' by the Central Artery project, he said.

Menino said Big Dig officials ``should sit down with the Dewey Square group, recognize them, work with them. That's the first step. Instead of having a debating society about it . . . They'll adopt that portion of the surface, and that's a great start.''

Dewey Square is at the point where the Artery now becomes elevated, traveling north. It has become the first test case for surface restoration, along with what will be a 27-acre ribbon of newly created open space through downtown.

The Dewey Square Urban Design group is led by William McDonough, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Philip Rogers, managing director of Rose Associates, owners of One Financial Plaza. They represent the biggest properties around the square.

The public-private partnership is a good model because it lends a sense of ownership to smaller segments of the Artery surface, ``rather than thinking of it as one big, long, green snake'' that no one is responsible for, said Timothy D. Love, vice president at Machado & Silvetti, the architectural firm hired by the group to design the new square.

The goal is ``to create a great urban space right at the vestibule to the city -- South Station -- and at a logical place. There's the new high-speed rail going in, and also the center of gravity of Boston is moving south, because of the development of the South Boston waterfront,'' Love said. ``We want to define Dewey Square and give it clear edges, with public institutions and retail and cafes, to make it a great outdoor room where people congregate.''

The botanical gardens would be a key destination spot, he said. But backers of the Dewey Square initiative are watching nervously while the horticultural society works through internal strife.

The society, founded in 1829 and known as ``The Hort,'' has eyed a downtown site for a major new institutional home for years. But the organization has struggled with financial woes. In 1980, it was forced to auction off $750,000 worth of rare books from its world-class library. In 1991, it lost title to its beaux arts building on Massachusetts Avenue, across from Symphony Hall. From 1992 to 1994, 18 of 22 staff members either resigned or were replaced.

Earlier this month, Dwight Leuth, the society's vice president of development and marketing, was the latest to be fired. According to John Bok, chairman of the board, Leuth was fired because his relationship with the society ``hasn't worked out. We have enormous fund-raising need and he hasn't met our need.''

But Leuth believes he was the bearer of news about serious fund-raising problems that the organization's leaders did not want to hear. Only two-dozen people have donated more than $1,000 to the society in the past year, he said.

The idea that this organization could raise an additional $60 million for the Dewey Square project is ``surreal,'' he said.

Without a new fund-raising plan that involves possible corporate underwriting, ``there is the potential for long-term alienation on the part of city officials, who would understandably feel they had been deprived of the opportunity to find an alternative solution to maintaining this site as a major cultural destination point,'' Leuth wrote in a letter to the board about his June 10 dismissal.

Society president John Peterson challenged Leuth's assessment of the feasibility of the botanical gardens initiative. Leuth was not involved in planning for the site and ``didn't have the insights to understand what's going on,'' Peterson said.

Kerasiotes indicated he was not ready to wait much longer, saying that if the society ``can't raise the money, I guess we'll have to find someone else'' to build on that section of the Artery surface.

Menino said he believes the organization will come through. ``When they need the money, they get it. They have a strong constituency,'' he said.

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