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.
Skirmishes To Control Artery Land ContinueBy Thomas C. Palmer Jr., and Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 11/10/1999
The Surface Artery land is up in the air again.
And once again, the issue is how much of a say the city will have in the development of 27 acres of new land created by the Big Dig.
Last week, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran brushed aside the intense work and delicate negotiation over the last couple of years that have gone into determining the composition of a commission that would oversee development and preservation of open space on the valuable land.
Instead, Finneran has proposed a commission that increases the influence of the Legislature and the Turnpike Authority, and reduces the role of the City of Boston by putting the chairman of the Turnpike -- who has continually bumped heads with Mayor Thomas M. Menino -- in charge of the commission.
Observers of the process said this week that Finneran's move could stall the process to create some new body to deal with the Surface Artery. The absence of a commission, they say, would create a void that would continue to be filled by the Turnpike Authority, which is building the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel project and will own the land when it's done.
Business, neighborhood, and other groups have become increasingly anxious that now -- eight years into Central Artery construction and five years before it's done -- there's no game plan for the surface parcels.
A longstanding agreement by all parties that 75 percent of the land will be open space remains in place. But debate on the details continues: What will be built on the remaining 25 percent, what the vaguely defined "open space" will look like -- and even who will decide these issues.
With the City of Boston, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and other interested parties jockeying for position on the commission, Representative Joseph C. Sullivan was the architect of a carefully structured 13-person commission that would have been put in charge of the land.
That group included the two chairmen of the joint Legislative transportation committee and two designees of the mayor of Boston, plus representatives named by the Turnpike Authority chairman, transportation secretary, environmental affairs secretary, the transportation group MoveMass, and the Artery Business Committee.
The proposal was broadly endorsed; it passed the House last year but died in the Senate. It was scheduled to be taken up again this year as part of a larger transportation bond bill -- until last week, when Finneran weighed in. Finneran says he just wanted to increase the influence of the Legislature; after all, the state bought the land from Boston for $44 million back in 1992, as the Big Dig got under way.
However, others say Finneran was prompted to invoke his own solution only after Secretary of Administration and Finance Andrew Natsios jumped in with a proposal giving himself a role on the commission.
Natsios spokesman Joe Landolfi said, "We never submitted anything formal. We had our thoughts on the makeup of the commission."
But Senator Robert A. Havern 3d, cochairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, was surprised to hear that. "What does it mean when they print it up and deliver it to you? They delivered it to everyone here."
Finneran's bill, which is being debated on the House floor this week, gave both the House Speaker and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham three appointees on the commission, and it also included more neighborhood participation in deciding what the land is used for.
"We paid for it," Finneran said. "We have something to say about it."
The other big change: the chairman of the Turnpike, James J. Kerasiotes, would become chairman of the Surface Artery commission under the Finneran proposal.
Asked about that yesterday, Menino said: "No, it's not acceptable to me at all. Nobody talked about this. . . . There seems to be a continual effort not to work with us."
The mayor bristles at the suggestion that Boston has been inactive in determining the fate of the land. "We've been working with the community and planners on this for four years," he said. "Maybe we didn't make the biggest noise."
Under state law, the Turnpike will own the land and has responsiblity for what happens to it, subject to the promises made by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in environmental documents issued in the early days of the project.
In the absence of progress on deciding the fate of the 27 acres, Kerasiotes recently offered a well-received proposal to seek a master planner and get things going. That process continues, though it applies only to seven parcels of so-called open space, not to the entire downtown Surface Artery.