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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.

Panel Vies To Guide Surface Artery

Legislators See A Stronger Role

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 10/19/2000

The new Legislative Commission on the Surface Artery held only its second meeting yesterday, but already members have conflicting ideas about their mission.

Two of the commission's 12 members made it clear that they are not going to be limited to deciding matters of ownership and maintenance of the 30 acres that will open up when the Central Artery goes underground.

Instead, Representative Joseph C. Sullivan, Democrat of Braintree, and Senator Robert A. Havern III, Democrat of Arlington, said the commission will also be involved in architectural and landscaping issues.

"The scope of this committee is grander than a minimalist would want it to be," Havern said.

Asked whether the commission would be stepping on the toes of those involved in a separate Turnpike Authority planning process that has been underway since last spring, Havern said: "Absolutely. We're all walking around here barefoot; everybody's toes are going to get stepped on."

That could complicate the already difficult process of reconciling competing visions of what a new downtown Boston should look like.

Last year, with Big Dig construction steaming along but the Surface Artery planning process stalled, Turnpike Authority officials jump-started it by hiring a team of urban architects and consultants. The consultants have held a series of well-attended public meetings and produced general ideas for the open and public space that will replace the rusting elevated Central Artery.

But the separate commission, created by the Legislature at about the same time, was given broad powers concerning the space.

Many observers had hoped the commission would limit itself to dealing with complicated ownership and maintenance issues, and leave the architecture and landscaping to the master planners and the public.

One commission member, Turnpike Authority Chairman Andrew Natsios, said yesterday that he believes there will not be much overlap. Asked whether the commission would get into development and open-space issues, Natsios said, "I don't think it's going to."

Despite legislation that permits the commission broad latitude, Natsios said he believes the panel will restrict itself to "finance, maintenance, governance."

The commission is expected to propose legislation that will ensure that the Surface Artery isn't allowed to deteriorate after construction is complete.

However, Sullivan and Havern, who are cochairmen of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, said after yesterday's two-hour meeting that the design for the 30 acres cannot be separated from the tough issues of who will look after it for years to come.

"I think we have a responsibility," Sullivan said. "I don't think you can separate the cost from what the theme will be."

However, he added, "I don't think we're going to be specifying what fountain goes here, what tree goes here."

Havern said uncertainty about a major feature of the Surface Artery, a Massachusetts Horticultural Society building and adjoining gardens, has convinced him that the Surface Artery Commission must be involved in actual planning.

"They are never going to raise $50 million," said Havern. The commission will have to help find a partner for the society if the proposed complex near Dewey Square is to be built, he said.

A spokesman for the Horticultural Society said it is in the process of coming up with a plan to fund the project.

Natsios and members of the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel planning staff yesterday released what is by far the most detailed information on the space so far.

"This will make Boston the grandest city in the United States," Natsios said flatly. "Boston is smaller than Paris or Rome, but there will be the feel of a grand city."

Natsios has informally suggested creation of a "Greco-Roman style" performing-arts space, as well as a presidents' park, which would honor the four Massachusetts residents who were elected president.

The master planning team, SMWM of San Francisco and the Cecil Group and Halforson Co. from the Boston area, are scheduled to unveil their most specific proposals yet for the Surface Artery space Tuesday night at Faneuil Hall.

Natsios said the land will amount to as much as 48 acres, if all sidewalks and sliver parcels downtown are included.

Environmental Secretary Robert Durand said yesterday that the previously agreed-on 75-25 ratio of open space to development should be maintained.

Natsios acknowledged that some people in the business community want more buildings than are planned. But he said there is disagreement on "relatively few" of the 36 new land parcels.

Natsios proposed that the new downtown land be considered a 21st-century continuation of Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace of parks, "a great legacy of the 19th century."

"Once in a century these opportunities come along," Natsios said.

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