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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.


Planning, Debate Over Use Of Surface Artery Space Pick Up Speed

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 10/09/2000

After years of inaction, there is a flurry of activity surrounding the future of the Surface Artery downtown, the land to be reclaimed when Interstate 93 is shoveled underground.

The planning began, and progress was made early last decade, before construction started. The Boston Redevelopment Authority and others fashioned the Boston 2000 plan, then state and federal environmental permits for the Big Dig reinforced the promise: There would be a lot of open space for us all to enjoy.

But as construction escalated underground, things went into limbo on the planning front. Amid competition from various interests to lay claim to the resulting 30 acres, no one could decide even who should make the decision.

The process was jump-started last year when the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman, James J. Kerasiotes, filled the void by setting up a master-planning process. Consultants were hired and went to work.

The ideas, not to mention the colorful sketches and paintings and computer graphics, have been circulating in recent months, and public meetings on the future of this long strip of land have been well attended.

The Artery Business Committee and Harvard Graduate School of Design held a half-day forum late last month on Central Artery Surface Restoration. Surrounded by two-dimensional visions of what Boston might look like circa 2010, the academics, consultants, planners, and others weighed in.

Though members of the master plan steering committee participated, this seminar was separate from the master-planning process. Its next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 24, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Faneuil Hall. The subject will be "The Draft Master Plan: Community Review."

The seminar is occurring at a time when the jockeying for all-important definitions of terms such as "open space" and "public space" is breaking into the open.

In July, Jay Wickersham, assistant secretary of the executive office of environmental affairs, wrote an 11-page letter to the master planners giving his interpretation of the laws and other regulations that govern the land.

Except for the intended locale near Dewey Square of a Massachusetts Horticultural Society facility and a couple of other little parcels, "the location of any significant structure on any other open space parcel" is prohibited, Wickersham said.

The Artery Business Committee countered with its own interpretation: more buildings are appropriate, open space "is for public use, and natural features should be integrated to some degree with man-made structures," said a letter from lawyers hired by the committee.

At the recent forum, Alex Krieger, chairman of urban planning and design at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, said, "For half a lifetime, we've been saying this is the opportunity of a lifetime." He wants less talk about general concepts such as "75/25" and more concrete proposals. The "75/25" formula refers to an accepted rule that only 25 percent of the reclaimed land will be developed and that 75 percent will be open. But what is the definition of "open"?

Krieger deplores the "tedious, tiresome, even banal conversation about more or less building." He was joined by others who suggested that too much truly open space in one place can be as forbidding as none at all.

Copley Place is nice, most agree. Post Office Square is wonderful. "Would 13 of these together be 13 times better?" Krieger asked.

That was one warning.

Another came from Gary Hilderbrand, adjunct associate professor of landscape architecture at the design school. "Don't believe you can predict urban behavior very far into the future," he said, cautioning against slapping together a plan in the next year that is expected to endure for as long as Olmsted's Emerald Necklace itself.

"Don't be afraid of pavement," he said. But he added: "I'd like to speak in favor of trees, those fixed, immoveable objects the highway department doesn't want there that make a road a remarkable place to drive."

After all, there will be two lanes of traffic plus parking in each direction on either side of the land in question.

Summarizing comments from people like Hilderbrand, James Rooney, a former Big Dig official who is now chief of staff to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the term "open space" should be discarded in favor of "open mind."

Rick Dimino, who organized the discussion, was visibly pleased. Even Wickersham is in favor of debate: "What's going on here matters too much for there not to be controversy," he said.

"No where is it defined in the documents or decisions what is `open space,' " Wickersham said. "We know it when we see it."

You asked . . .

"The Green Line, the E Train, Brigham Circle to the V.A. Hospital" was the subject of Rod's complaint. "The trolley currently stops at Brigham Circle, and there's a shuttle bus to take people up. The problem is the shuttle bus comes only once every 20 minutes and never at the same time as the trolley."

That's not all. "The No. 39 bus does not allow anyone who doesn't pay full fare, who's already had to pay for a token, on." Rod said some drivers are nice, but some are rude about it and will leave you standing there even if you tell them you are late for an appointment at the veterans' hospital.

Said Joe Pesaturo: "The MBTA recently learned that some Route 39 bus operators were unaware of the temporary policy, allowing outbound customers to board for free at Brigham Circle. The policy has now been properly communicated to all of the drivers."

He said the free-fare policy applies only to those who board at the Brigham Circle bus stop.

Pesaturo added that the MBTA will supplement the existing Back Bay to Heath Street shuttle service with additional buses on Route 39. "We appreciate our customers' patience while this critical track work continues," he said.

We had a couple of inquiries, after recent discussion of the MBTA's plans for the new Silver Line, about how in the world officials can keep talking about a "one-seat ride" from Dudley Station to Logan Airport.

The question arises because the buses planned for the western leg of the Silver Line, Dudley to Downtown Crossing, will run on compressed natural gas. But the South Station to World Trade Center piece of the trip is going to be in a tunnel that is not ventilated, requiring electrically powered buses.

Not to mention the fact that a tunnel from Boylston to South Station needs to be built between the two initial Silver Line sections, and it might not accommodate gas-powered buses. Looks like Roxbury riders will be doing some transferring for quite some time.

We asked general manager Bob Prince why he and his pals keep using that phrase, "one-seat ride."

"My people tell me we can do that," he said. "As we develop the tunnel from Boylston to South Station, that will connect with the Transitway Tunnel. Whatever venting will be done will be done in that tunnel. Then it becomes an open-end tunnel when we punch through."

So the buses using the now-unventilated Transitway tunnel to the World Trade Center can be gas-powered? "Yes," he said.

If that happens, it won't be until about 2010.

Pit stops

Wash ington, D.C., Metro riders who receive discounts on transit fares from their employers will now be able to wave Cubic Corp.'s "smart card" and jump right on the train . . . Modern Continental Construction Co. broke ground Friday on the widening and reconstruction of 21 miles of Route 3 from Route 128 to New Hampshire. The roadwork is expected to take 42 months. . . .

You can't get there . . .

Attempting to confirm that speeding trucks on the Central Artery downtown are the source of nighttime vibrations in the North End, the Big Dig and State Police continued their tests one night last week.

And they will continue this week to use message boards, including the radar-equipped kind that say, "Your speed: 70 m.p.h."

That's midnight to 4 a.m.

Parking will continue to be tough as usual at Logan Airport midweek. Allow extra time if you insist on driving, and the Ted Williams Tunnel is open from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The Massachusetts Port Authority has picked A & B Coach Lines to run shuttle buses between the South Station Transportation Center bus station and Logan Airport. Service will start by Thanksgiving.

The service will operate Sundays through Fridays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., picking passengers up at South Station's Gate 25 and on Summer Street. Twenty-seat buses will depart every 15 minutes and will stop at each airport terminal. Fare: $5.

There's a new exit on the northbound Southeast Expressway. It's Exit 19. For drivers wanting to go to the Broadway Bridge, Berkeley Street, and West Fourth Street, you no longer have to get off at Exit 17/18 and take the elevated Frontage Road. About 300 cars an hour are using it at peak, and it can handle more traffic, officials say.

The Central Artery southbound ramp to the Leverett Circle Connector Bridge, Exit 26A, will be closed weeknights through Saturday morning, 9 p.m.-5 a.m. The Storrow Drive ramp to the bridge will be closed the same hours on Thursday and Friday nights.

Storrow Drive eastbound at Leverett Circle, which had been narrowed to five lanes, is six lanes again -- for about five weeks.

The Causeway Street ramp to the Central Artery southbound will be closed tonight through Saturday morning, from 11 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.

Some Central Artery northbound and southbound lanes will be closed Thursday evening, so Big Dig workers can shift the weight of the highway from the old columns to the new underground concrete walls.

Other highway hassles: Route 1 in Revere, one-lane closure northbound or southbound daytime, ending Saturday.

The Ted Williams Tunnel will remain open to all through 5 a.m. tomorrow.

We answer as many inquiries each week as space allows. Please, no phone calls. You can reach us on E-mail at starts@globe.com. The column is also on Globe Online at Boston.com, which can be found at www.boston.com/globe/metro/startsandstops. Our mailing address is Starts & Stops, PO Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378.

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