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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.

Artery Corridor Plan Is Caught In Traffic

An Agreement Is Lacking On Some Major Recommendations

By Richard Kindleberger, Globe Staff, 11/22/1998

A year ago the sense of urgency was intense. A mountain of work needed to be done if Boston were to realize its dream of creating a corridor of parkland and buildings to replace the elevated Central Artery downtown when it is demolished in 2004.

The need for immediate action, particularly in designating or creating an agency to implement the plan and in nailing down the financing, was stressed repeatedly in a report issued in draft form last November by the so-called Boston 2000 working group.

Now that it's November 1998, that must mean we are a year down the road toward realizing that vision, right? Wrong. In fact, the burst of activity that led up to the Boston 2000 report appears to have evaporated or gone underground since the report was published in January. Consider:

  • The differences between the city and state that surfaced publicly a year ago over what entity should carry the plan forward have yet to be bridged. The report had called for the ``immediate'' creation of such an entity.

  • Agreement remains elusive on how much the state should spend on landscaping the 27-acre surface after it installs roads and sidewalks. Estimates of the landscaping costs have ranged from $20 million to $40 million.

  • Regular meetings that brought dozens of high-powered volunteers together for central planning sessions through most of 1997 were discontinued after the report came out.

So... has the Central Artery restoration effort stalled and the participants gone home in frustration? Wrong again. Despite the lack of agreement on major issues, low-key planning focused on separate sections of the 1 1/2-mile arc, containing 31 parcels stretching from Chinatown to North Station, goes forward.

And if major players in the drama are fed up, they are keeping their emotions under wraps. ``I'm not frustrated,'' said Andrea d'Amato, city transportation commissioner and chief of environmental services. ``And I'm hopeful we will be able to reach resolution soon and start a process where we can sit down and look at the corridor from end to end.''

Behind-the-scenes discussions -- one observer went so far as to describe them as ``secret'' -- are under way between state and city officials over the issue of a governance structure.

Meanwhile, d'Amato is preparing an application for a $2 million federal grant to provide technical assistance in planning the corridor, as well as possibly other open space to be freed up by the $10.8 billion Big Dig project.

The bid has the support of all the major parties in the planning process, including those that don't see eye to eye on other issues.

Everyone acknowledges the focus on the corridor plan has slipped a little this year. That may have been unavoidable. Despite the report's note of urgency and the volume of work ahead, 2004 is still five years away. This year there were more immediate development issues preoccupying both city and state, such as plans for the emerging Seaport District in South Boston and the controversy over development over the Massachusetts Turnpike. Besides, 1998 was an election year, adding to the difficulty of reaching political compromise.

``Now I think people are returning their attention to the corridor,'' commented Robert O'Brien, cochairman of the Boston 2000 planning process that produced the January report. Without getting specific, he said he expects efforts now in progress to lead to ``some definite recommendation'' on the contested issues ``as we come to the end of 1998.''

O'Brien noted the district planning efforts now under way on four separate sections of the corridor: Dewey Square, outside South Station, which is envisioned as a gateway to the new Seaport District as well as a transportation hub; the Financial District-waterfront area; the North End; and the Downtown North area near North Station.

The idea is to address design and programming issues in some detail. The volunteer participants have been thinking what kind of building, park, or other amenity should go on a particular parcel and how that piece of the corridor should relate to the neighborhood it is part of.

The Dewey Square and Financial District-waterfront efforts, organized by the Artery Business Committee, have been underwritten largely by private businesses in those areas. William McDonough, a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston executive, is chairman for the Dewey Square piece while the other is led by Jerry Schubel, president of the New England Aquarium.

``In these district-oriented efforts much more attention is being given to the cross connections'' than to how individual elements fit into the length of the right of way, O'Brien said.

For Nancy Caruso, a retired Northeastern professor and a leader of the North End effort, that means planning for difficult sites such as Parcel 6, which encompasses ramps in and out of the underground artery. A charter school or a visitor center for the Park Service might be ideal, she said.

``We've started to put solutions to these problem parcels,'' she said. ``We're picking up steam. We're excited about this possibility.''

On the more ominous side, Caruso has a couple of worries. She fears the state may tilt heavily toward commercial development in hopes of recouping some of its artery restoration costs. That concern has been somewhat allayed by the state's decision, under community pressure, to build the walls of the tunnels so that no more than five stories can be built overhead.

Another, almost paradoxical fear is that budget constraints will leave the city Parks and Recreation Department unable to provide decent care for parcels designated as parkland or ignored by developers because of a slumping economy. ``Why do we want them if there's no money and they're going to be left scraggly, and so forth?'' she queried.

Adequate funds for maintenance are widely seen as a key to the success of the restoration effort. They should approximate 10 percent of the capital budget if the job is to be done right, according to the planners. But the state, after paying for most of the capital investment, wants to avoid being saddled with ongoing maintenance expenses. And the Parks Department wants to avoid diverting limited citywide funds to the project.

Robert M. Ruzzo, the Massachusett Turnpike Authority's real estate chief, said the state plans to spend $30 million on surface restoration, including basic landscaping as well as streets and sidewalks. It has budgeted an additional $15 million for further improvements but wants to use that for leverage to coax parallel private contributions.

City and community representatives can be expected to push for more from the state. Bringing surface artery parks to the level of Leventhal Park in Post Office Square would cost a lot more, closer to $40 million for parks alone, planners say. Many believe that may be unrealistic. ``It makes no sense to design a Taj Mahal of a park if we can't maintain it,'' noted Ruzzo.

In any case, the state's $15 million pledge is ``a very, very encouraging sign,'' Robert O'Brien said.

If the gap is narrowing on the funding issue, it appears to remain wide on the question of the operating entity. A bid early this year to have the Legislature create ``a single-purpose entity'' to run the effort was blocked, apparently by the Turnpike Authority, according to sources.

An agency devoted solely to the surface corridor could bring more ``flexibility and entrepreneurship'' to the endeavor than is likely to be found in an existing authority or public agency, said Richard Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee and cochairman with O'Brien of Boston 2000.

Ruzzo disagreed. ``We continue to believe that a new entity is not a magic solution,'' he said. He stressed the importance of having all the players involved -- the city, the state, the business abuttors, and the community.

A second approach tried in the Legislature this year, creating a study commission to weigh the alternatives, failed when legislation it was attached to died when the session ended. Ruzzo suggested that idea might be revived early in the 1999 legislative session.

Attorney Lawrence DiCara, a leader in the Boston 2000 effort, suggested that in the end Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Gov. Paul Cellucci may have to sit down and hash out a solution.

``I think if either of them is looking for the kind of legacy that people in public life rarely get, this is it,'' DiCara said. ``This is our generation's opportunity to do something no future generation may be able to do.''

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