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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.


District has big plans for life after Big Dig

Visualizing 'Downtown North'

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 10/27/2002

It is 11 inches by 17 inches. It has 200 pages, is in full color, and weighs almost four pounds.

It is a new document detailing Boston's North Area Planning Initiative, a "Planning Framework for Future Development of Downtown North." Surely it is one of the most impressive pieces of research associated with a particular section of Boston that has ever been produced.

If every neighborhood that faces a new and uncertain future in the post-Big Dig world that is almost upon us had the initiative, resources, skills, and vision to produce something like this -- well, wouldn't the Surface Artery conundrum be just a nasty memory?

Bissera Antikarov, the project manager who is on the Artery Business Committee staff, called it a modest effort. She and urban design consultant David Neilson presented the findings to the transportation group MoveMass recently.

It's anything but.

You know the North End. Beacon Hill too. Even people who don't work there know roughly where the Financial District is. But the North Area?

It is a large quadrant, Downtown Northwest really, bounded by the Charles River and Cambridge, New Sudbury, and North Washington streets. It contains wildly dissimilar subdistricts: the Mass. General Hospital area, the West End, North Station, the blocks near Government Center -- and a jewel that is to be reconstituted, the Bulfinch Triangle.

In 1808, architect Charles Bulfinch took a look at the old Mill Pond, around which Shawmut Peninsula had grown as it grew into Boston, and envisioned a neighborhood and streets there. The pond was filled in, the streets appeared, and it was developed, bounded by what today are Merrimac, Causeway, and Washington streets. But only to have about a third of it amputated by the Central Artery in the 1950s.

It took two years to produce this historical analysis. Unlike the bland master plan that was done in preparation for Surface Artery development, this work carries some specific visions. Some may be controversial: It suggests there could be as much as 4 million square feet more of development in the North Area.

But the homework appears to have been done. Look at the maps showing building outlines, compare the North Area with the rest of the downtown, and it is apparent that it is thinly settled, less dense.

The plan makes specific recommendations -- mixed use is a must, it says -- and simply catalogues the significant amount of governmental, institutional, and private development that is proposed or likely.

Perhaps the most creative concept lies in the renewed enthusiasm for an old idea that would make much of the North Area the top half of an entertainment district hourglass, the Theater District being the bottom portion.

Streets like Traverse Way would regain their purpose under some of these plans. As the West End was razed in the 1960s for "urban renewal," the Bulfinch Triangle could see housing restored.

"I'm encouraged that it looks like a city," said Neilson, aiming his red laser pointer at one of the "what if" maps of the North Area. "A rational, organized extension of the downtown."

This initiative was put together by something called the North Area Working Group, which lists 144 individuals as members but is mainly a joint effort of the Artery Business Committee, the Downtown North Association, and MoveMass. It was funded by the Mass. Development Finance Agency and lots of interested businesses.

Unfortunately, Bob O'Brien, long a key player in the North Area discussion and an important voice in the larger Surface Artery debate, is moving out of state. The North Area is a part of the city he loves and knew well, and he put extensive work into this project.

What a valuable resource.


  • One Beacon Street, owned by Westbrook Partners and Prudential, was under agreement to be sold, but that's off, and negotiations with another prospective buyer are under way.

  • The sale of One Boston Place, owned by Blackstone, to a large pension fund is expected to close in December.

  • 101 Arch St. is the prime Boston property on the market as part of a large portfolio sale; more than 25 bids were received this month.

    Have a question about development in Boston? E-mail Lots & Blocks at blocks@globe.com.

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