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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.

Planner To Eye Space Created By Artery Work

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 10/07/1999

After haggling for years over what to do with 27 acres created when the Central Artery is put underground, government and community officials yesterday agreed to accept a Turnpike Authority proposal to hire a master planner.

With the $10.8 billion project just six years from completion, planning for a wide belt of reclaimed land had been stalled. There were no blueprints for what the land under the old elevated Central Artery would look like.

Turnpike chairman James J. Kerasiotes, whose authority manages the Big Dig, attempted to kick-start the process last month by proposing that a nationally known master planner be hired to offer a vision for the land.

At a meeting of the Central Artery Environmental Oversight Committee yesterday, parties representing Boston, the state Office of Environmental Affairs, the Legislature's Transportation Committee, the transportation group MoveMass, and the Artery Business Committee agreed it was a good idea.

They also endorsed a legislative proposal to create a commission to deal with sticky issues regarding the open space, including who will own it, who will decide what is built where, and who will pay the millions of dollars a year to maintain it.

The acreage runs from south of the Dewey Square Tunnel to the Charles River in a narrow strip. The Big Dig's original plan designated three-quarters of the 27 acres as open space and one-quarter for low-rise development.

Formerly owned by Boston, the land was transferred to the Turnpike Authority in 1997 by the same law that put the authority in charge of building the Big Dig.

Even with the broad agreement yesterday concerning a master plan and a controlling panel, huge issues remain undecided. Some are afraid the process has shut out neighborhood residents, and may not produce a result they are happy with.

For example, a committee to interview and choose a master planner, although it hasn't met, already has been formed. On the committee are representatives from the city; the Turnpike Authority; Environmental Affairs; the Greenspace Alliance, an environmental group; and the Artery Business Committee, a Chamber of Commerce offshoot that helps oversee the Big Dig.

A second committee, to guide development of the land, represents a similar group of interests. The creation of the committee was proposed in legislation that Representative Joseph C. Sullivan, a Braintree Democrat, said he hoped would be passed on Beacon Hill in the next five weeks.

Robert B. O'Brien, representing MoveMass, praised the commission idea but said there are other local and regional groups that should have a say in the outcome.

``Clearly there are interests all along the corridor that need to be represented,'' he said. Striking an optimistic note, O'Brien said the ``hiatus'' that had occurred in the planning process actually has had beneficial effects by allowing local groups to develop smaller-scale plans for their portions of the Central Artery corridor.

Those local plans, including one in the Dewey Square area, must now be reconciled with any overarching vision developed by a master planner.

Robert Tuchmann, chairman of the Artery oversight committee, which has coordinated discussion about the future of downtown, estimated that there was agreement on about 95 percent of the issues discussed yesterday.

But one that is likely to be contentious is whether the state's commitment to 75 percent open space should be reduced.

``I think the commission has to revisit that issue, quite frankly,'' said Sullivan, the Legislature's Transportation Committee cochairman. Some fear that developing only a quarter of the new land may not produce enough revenue to turn the rest into parks and other public space.

Kerasiotes surprised the 120 or so participants and observers yesterday by defending the parks. ``I've never been one who has been considered antidevelopment in any way, shape, or form,'' he said. ``That was a commitment made; it has to be a commitment kept.''

Whatever the agreements or differences, it appears that a planner may have a proposal by next spring, when the Legislature could approve it, public hearings could be held, and detailed designs begun.

Betsy Shure Gross, who does community preservation in the Environmental Affairs office, called for development of ``a vision of Olmstedian proportions. . . . This is an opportunity unlike any in the world.''

As is often the case, the representative from City Hall agreed with everyone. James Rooney, formerly of the Turnpike Authority and now Mayor Thomas M. Menino's chief of staff, restated Menino's position that the city would like to control the new land but can't afford it.

Rooney said he did not object to ``thinking outside the box'' on such issues as increasing the amount of development on the new land. But he quickly followed by saying his boss would disagree, and would join those who object to any change in the formula calling for 25 percent open space.

``Which way,'' Sullivan asked Rooney, ``are you going to go?''

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