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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.

No Endgame For Big Dig's Open Space Turf War

Stalls Plans For Surface Over Artery

By Anthony Flint and Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 11/22/1999

The year is 2020, and tourists are scurrying across the surface of the submerged Central Artery, avoiding cars and checking maps to get from Faneuil Hall to the Aquarium. Mothers with strollers are leaning into a gusty wind, passing through a barren park where no one lingers.

The mayor, frustrated that more was not done with the space when the elevated Central Artery was torn down in 2005, has just set up a special commission to redesign the open space on the 27-acre ribbon where the highway used to be, just as Mayor Thomas M. Menino tried to fix the mistakes of City Hall Plaza two decades before.

That gloomy scenario may be an exaggeration, but business and civic leaders say it is possible if planning for the artery surface continues to be bogged down in a classic Boston turf war.

After budgeting $11 billion to put Interstate 93 underground, city and state officials cannot agree on what to put over it. There is no consensus on who will pay for it or how it will be maintained. At the close of the legislative session last week, lawmakers could not even agree on the composition of a committee to plan the project.

Though the open space created by the Big Dig is widely viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape Boston's downtown landscape, several government agencies remain locked in a competition over who gets credit, and who takes responsibility, for the snaking corridor now occupied by the unsightly barrier of the elevated highway.

Planning for the strip began 10 years ago. The underlying idea of submerging the Central Artery, after all, was not just to improve traffic flow but to mend the fabric of a downtown ripped apart by a 1950s-era highway.

Before the first hole was dug, environmentalists had won assurances that the Big Dig would create open space; shortly afterward, the city initiated the Boston 2000 planning process to spell out what would go on the individual parcels, from Dewey Square to North Station.

The report produced in 1998 by Boston 2000, a broadly representative group of government and community leaders, made general suggestions and called for a separate authority to oversee design and maintenance. But then nothing much happened, and the project known dryly as "surface restoration" faded from public discussion.

Enter James J. Kerasiotes, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and head of the Big Dig, who wondered aloud why the city was not doing more to plan for the corridor. City officials grumbled that Kerasiotes, who suggested hiring a master planner earlier this year, was grandstanding.

"It's our responsibility to facilitate this process," Kerasiotes said, referring to up to $60 million expected to be spent for surface restoration. "That in no way diminishes the authority or the responsibility of the city or anyone else."

At the same time, a special commission under Representative Joseph C. Sullivan, a Braintree Democrat, chairman of the Transportation Committee at the State House, was proposed to oversee surface restoration, a commission agreed upon by city and state leaders. But in the closing days of the legislative session, the composition of the panel was tinkered with, effectively giving Kerasiotes and state legislators more influence. Menino said the latest version suggested by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran was unacceptable.

James E. Rooney, Menino's chief of staff, who is well-versed in the subject because he used to work for Kerasiotes, said "we have weighed in on the changes and expressed our disagreement." He said the Menino administration hopes the original Sullivan commission proposal, which satisfied almost everyone, can be restored in informal legislative sessions before the end of the year and that issues of finance and governance can be tackled by early next year.

As for the master planner, Rooney said the city supports the idea and wants to establish parameters for what the master planner will study. At a meeting last week, Michael Lewis, assistant project director for the Big Dig, said the five-person committee that will choose a master planner is determining what its scope should be.

The master planner was originally charged with planning the eight parcels designated for open space. But Lewis and Rooney agree the planner should consider the entire 27 acres, including land north and south of the strip, as well as development projects on the surface.

Robert O'Brien, who was active in Boston 2000 and represents the transportation group MOVEMass, called for the planner to expand the scope to areas in Charlestown north of Causeway Street and south of Kneeland Street, toward Massachusetts Avenue.

Rooney said the emphasis should be on how the parks and other attractions - botanical gardens, skating rinks, cafes -- would encourage pedestrian activity across the corridor at specific points, rather than "a linear strip that has all the same characteristics from Kneeland to Causeway. . . . We need to look at Bulfinch Triangle, the North End, Dewey Square, and a master planner should come on board and put those pieces together."

Although a detailed vision for the surface has been missing, Rooney said planning for the surface has been done largely behind the scenes and that it was "insulting" to suggest nothing was being done.

"On the idea of a master planner, city people, turnpike people, and business people had been talking about that, up to the point that chairman Kerasiotes went out on his own and announced it," Rooney said. But "one can't get agitated about that. We know where we can play an effective role. . . . It wouldn't be productive to say we're not going to play."

Yet state officials and some business leaders said privately that the city should be doing more than just participating in a planning process organized by others. They ask why the city did not produce a master plan itself already, similar to the planning document published for the South Boston Waterfront, the other frontier that will be Menino's legacy.

The surface, in the heart of a booming downtown, is sufficiently important to Boston that the city should come forward with funding for improvements as well, some said.

Instead, much of what has come out of City Hall has been an insistence that funding for the design and maintenance of the surface has to be someone else's, someone with deeper pockets.

At the same time, city officials are sensitive about the prospect that yet another large piece of Boston will be controlled by the state or the federal government. Examples of that scenario abound, including City Hall Plaza, the federal courthouse on Fan Pier, the air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston, and the Esplanade, run by the Metropolitan District Commission.

City Hall officials said they want to keep control of the land and come up with creative financing mechanisms. "The city has stated it is willing to put money on the table," Rooney said. "But there are a lot of abutters, a lot of property values going up, and we need to talk about public-private partnerships and the extent of state involvement."

One such partnership is already underway, for a proposal to redesign Dewey Square, including a botanical garden by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Timothy D. Love, vice president at Machado & Silvetti architects, said the Dewey Square project could serve as a model for the rest of the surface ribbon, all the way to North Station.

In terms of the way those parcels fit together, "it's more urban design than master planning at this stage. The process doesn't necessarily need more pictures of what it could be; it needs implementation," Love said.

James Aloisi, a lawyer at Hill & Barlow who is counsel for the Turnpike Authority, which has put up $500,000 for the planning process, agreed that fine-tuning the design of the surface was needed but that "the process has to begin. Nature abhors a vacuum. That's why the turnpike is saying someone's got to drive this bus and get it moving."

Said Rooney: "It's hard for me to imagine that anyone really thinks that in 1999 we're just starting this. This has been going on for 10 years. We need to work out more details. I guess maybe the city hasn't done a good job packaging the work that's been done, but in terms of substance there's a lot to show. It's not at a point where we feel a need to panic."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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