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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.

Planners debate what to put on top of the Big Dig

By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, 10/12/2000

BOSTON -- Billions of dollars and hundreds of traffic headaches later, planners of the massive Big Dig highway project are now facing what could be the toughest challenge of all: deciding what to put on top.

Officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project -- which will bury Interstate 93 beneath downtown Boston -- the Big Dig will leave a 30-acre swath of open land cutting through the heart of the city when its completed in 2004.

A green belt of trees and parks in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace is one option. So is a 4-acre "Garden Under Glass" -- a multistory horticultural complex with an Asian-themed garden and glass conservatory filled with tropical plants.

Virtually everyone who has worked on the $14.1 billion project -- considered the most expensive highway undertaking in the nation -- or navigated its Byzantine traffic patterns, has come up with an idea.

"This is the jewel in Boston's crown. It's the newest edition to the Emerald Necklace," said Big Dig Chief Andrew Natsios, citing Boston's famed network of parks.

When construction began in 1991, designers had already come up with a general plan setting aside 75 percent of the new land for open space and 25 percent for commercial development.

But in a city with a keen sense of its own history, a project on the scale of the Big Dig is not something to be taken lightly.

Part of that sensitivity stems from Boston's troubled history of urban planning, including the demolition of the old West End in the 1950s to make way for the Charles River Park development -- a decision now generally condemned by urban planners and historians.

There have also been some planning triumphs. In the latter half of the 1800s, the city filled in a marshy swamp to create the fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, one of its most visionary projects.

Planners aspire to make the Big Dig equally successful.

"We hope the final design will work to re-stitch the urban fabric of the city that was torn apart by the highway," said Richard Dimino of the Artery Business Committee. "We are looking for a design that will bring people to the water's edge and connect the downtown to the waterfront."

Critics disagree with the emphasis on open space.

Open space only works in an urban environment if it is a thriving, bustling place with people milling about day and night, said Alex Krieger, chairman of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

Those designing the 30 acres must make sure the space doesn't turn into a little-used parkway, Krieger said, pointing to the wind-swept, and largely vacant City Hall Plaza.

"In a city, there can be such a thing as too much open space," he said.

But supporters paint a different picture, one with sidewalk cafes and shops opening up onto the parkway.

"We're not talking about a concrete wasteland," said Jay Wickersham, assistant secretary of environmental affairs for Massachusetts.

Even this late in the planning, new ideas are being added to the mix. Natsios has proposed one: an open-air classical amphitheater.

The most ambitious proposal -- a 4-acre, three-building, glass-enclosed conservatory -- is the brainchild of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. The group already has pitched the idea to city and state leaders and is working to raise the $50 million needed to build the "Garden Under Glass."

"This is a place where people could go in the middle of the city and get lost in the greenery," society spokesman Stephen Sattler said.

Beleaguered North End business owners have their own suggestion.

"We'd like to see plenty of parking here. That's the most important thing for the businesses," said Joe Mafale, 58, who works at an Italian grocery on the front lines of the dig.

The Big Dig has had its fair share of problems. The cost has skyrocketed to $14.1 billion from the original estimate of $5.8 billion, and the project's first chief was fired. The FBI has opened a criminal investigation and investigators were looking into possible fraud and corruption, as well as administrative violations.

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