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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.

Legislation near managing Artery corridor

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 7/11/2002

State and city officials have reached broad agreement on a plan to turn over 30 acres of public space created by the demolition of the Central Artery to a nonprofit public trust that would own, operate, and maintain the greenway that will cut through the heart of downtown Boston.

Legislation to enact the plan is in near-final form, according to aides to Acting Governor Jane Swift and legislators, who said that several controversial details on matters such as funding would most likely be resolved today. The legislation is expected to be unveiled at a press conference tomorrow.

The proposed law comes after two years of squabbling over ownership and control of the land, which represents the payoff for a decade of Big Dig construction detours and dust. It would tap downtown businesses to pay all maintenance costs, while giving control of the land to a seven-member board of trustees.

For several years there has been widespread agreement by public officials and advocacy groups that the new surface land is so important that a special-purpose entity with an assured source of funding should be created to oversee it.

The negotiations to create the trust intensified in March, when Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced that he, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Swift had agreed in principle to resolve the differences that continued to slow planning - even basic park design - for the future of the valuable downtown acreage.

According to a copy of the proposed law obtained by the Globe, both the open-space and development parcels along the Central Artery corridor from just north of Causeway Street to below Kneeland Street would be governed by the Massachusetts Millennium Greenway Trust, a nonprofit organization that would hire staff and control a budget estimated at $6 million a year.

The trust's board of directors, who would serve without pay, would be dominated by the state: Three would be chosen by the governor, two by the governor upon recommendations by House and Senate leaders, and two by the mayor of Boston.

One of the mayor's two appointments, according to the 28-page draft, would be a representative of the business community, reflecting the fact that virtually all of the money to run the trust and maintain and oversee the land would come from fees imposed on the business community.

That appears to be one of the draft law's most controversial elements.

''We believe it's unfair that surrounding property owners pay 100 percent of the operation and maintenance expense, with one-seventh of the decision-making,'' said Richard Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, a group that represents the downtown community on issues related to the $14.6 billion Big Dig.

Dimino, like a majority of others who recently testified at a legislative hearing, supports contributions from private and public sectors. ''We hope that between now and the time this legislation is finalized the public sector would find a way to make a contribution,'' he said.

City and state officials had promised a final version of proposed law by yesterday as they rush to pass - by the end of this month - policies concerning the land that have been debated by public-interest groups for a dozen years.

One provision in the proposed law would give the new trust an invitation to assume control over a vast array of other parks created during more than a decade of highway and tunnel construction. The trust is directed to create a plan for ''ownership, use, control, development ... of the non-corridor parcels,'' the draft says.

Some representatives of groups that have been involved in planning for the corridor's future for years expressed concern again yesterday that there would be little time to debate it if a legislative vote is to be taken by the end of the session.

''Unfortunately, people worked on it a year and a half or two years, and it's down to this very small crunch time,'' said Patrice Todisco, executive director of the Boston Greenspace Alliance. ''It's only going to make people happy if it upholds the commitments and allows the public access to all those parcels.''

State Representative Joseph C. Sullivan, a Braintree Democrat and cochairman of the joint transportation committee, said a public hearing would be held before the bill is voted on.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which manages the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel project, has had control over the design and construction of the open space, subject to considerable public participation required by the state environmental permits that authorized construction of the new highway system more than a decade ago. Turnpike officials have said they do not oppose giving up control of the land as long as any revenue from the development parcels is available, if needed, to cover project costs.

The Turnpike Authority recently issued requests for proposals for design of the open space along most of the corridor, but that design and construction process would be assumed in its entirety by the new greenway trust.

The proposed legislation would create a so-called betterment district that includes all land within one-fourth of a mile of the Surface Artery corridor.

Businesses - but not residents - within the district would pay a surcharge based on their property taxes to pay for upkeep and improvements on the Surface Artery. Businesses within 50 yards of the corridor would pay more than those farther away, and the City of Boston would collect the taxes, exempting from the surcharge the first $50,000 of taxes paid by each business.

The total amount collected, estimated at $6 million a year, would cover the cost of a paid executive director and staff that would carry out the policies set by the seven trustees. The draft legislation is generally consistent with the outline Menino offered in March.

Sources in Swift's office and the Legislature said yesterday that certain aspects, perhaps even involving a major issue like funding, have yet to be worked out.

In addition to the creation of a seven-person board of trustees, two larger advisory groups would be named to assist in design, development, and operation.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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