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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.

Big Dig Park Plans Backed

Business Leaders See No Interest In Added Development

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 11/24/2000

The open land on the Surface Artery is safe.

Despite publicly expressed fears that developers could grab a larger share of the 30 acres being reclaimed in Boston by the Big Dig, key players - including the business community -- say the current plan works.

That plan, hatched by the city and the Boston Redevelopment Authority and vigorously endorsed by state environmental officials, calls for only six significant land parcels to be developed between Causeway and Kneeland streets.

The 10 remaining larger parcels would be dedicated to the open, or public, space that residents and visitors were promised when the state sought permission to undertake a multi-billion-dollar highway expansion project in the city.

As discussions of what to do with the new acreage have heated up over the last year, defenders of open space have worried that business and real estate interests were trying to undermine the generally accepted 75-25 ratio of open space to development in the new Surface Artery corridor.

But the president of the Artery Business Committee, Richard Dimino, said last week that he knows of no one who wants to seize one of the blocks slated for open space on current Big Dig planning maps and build offices or a hotel or even housing.

"The ABC and its board members have absolutely no interest in seeing commercial development take place on these parcels," Dimino said, adding that he is pushing for possible changes in zoning laws, so that the limited number of structures allowed on open parcels can be consolidated rather than scattered along the corridor.

"We're looking for cultural and civic uses to be housed in those," Dimino said.

Andrew Natsios, the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, has taken a strong interest in the future of the downtown land and says the threat of development of the valuable space is out there.

"I think there are people who want to do it," Natsios said this week. "It's not going to happen. Different people have eyes for different parcels, but it would undermine a peace agreement from 10 years ago."

The closest thing to development he supports is having an organization with deep pockets assist the struggling Massachusetts Horticultural Society in developing its three choice parcels, perhaps adding a museum.

Natsios, a history buff, has mentioned the Society for New England Antiquities. Others have suggested that a modest-sized hotel would be appropriate -- something Natsios rejects.

Article 49 of city zoning regulations specifies that one or more small structures can be built even on the so-called open space parcels. Most of the people involved with Surface Artery planning envision those as cafes, kiosks, recreational spaces, or buildings for use by those to operate and care for the surrounding public land.

State Representative Joseph C. Sullivan, who cochairs a legislative commission on the Surface Artery, agrees. Including a public building, such as a long-sought community center for the North End, would be acceptable, he said.

"Defining open space -- that's the clarification the commission is now working on," he said.

At a recent public meeting organized by the consultants hired by the Turnpike Authority to help decide the fate of the 30 acres, Peter Edwards, an architect, made a strong plea for more buildings.

"What I see here is the potential for successful `open' -- and not a lot of `space'," Edwards said. Taking an unpopular view of the 75-25 ratio of open space to development, he said, "I would flip that."

Edwards suggested installing temporary structures such as street furniture and arcades for now -- and not trying to hammer out a detailed plan in a year's time.

For an architect, "It would appear somewhat self-interested to promote more development," he said. "But I would encourage us to look over the long horizon of time. We have to get rid of the Central Artery, not celebrate it."

Natsios says either offer a specific proposal for the land -- or keep quiet. "Why run around talking that way and upsetting the equilibrium between the business community and the environmental community?"

Three separate panels are currently involved in determining how the Surface Artery is designed, built, paid for, controlled, and maintained over the years. The Turnpike's master-planning consultants, with considerable public involvement, are focusing on the parks and other installations that will cover the land.

A legislative commission of 12 is designated to determine who will own the downtown land, who will contribute to finishing it, and who will permanently control and be responsible for keeping it up.

Finally, a task force appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been meeting for about a year to take public comment and pass it on to the other two planning panels.

But some new players may have different views. Jordan Levy, one of three Turnpike board members, has been more actively involved in Big Dig issues since Natsios replaced James J. Kerasiotes as chairman last spring.

At a recent board meeting, Levy expressed concern about the escalating cost of the now $14 billion project, a good chunk of which is being financed by the Turnpike.

Speaking of the Surface Artery, Levy said, "Quite honestly, it ought to be a `cash cow'."

There appears to be little tolerance for re-opening the "75-25" debate, however.

Three major players in the Surface Artery sweepstakes appeared before a breakfast meeting of the transportation group MoveMass last week. All three - Big Dig architect Fred Yalouris, Menino chief of staff James Rooney, and Curtis Davis, a former Big Dig manager now on the Legislature's Surface Artery commission -- were asked if they were in favor of reopening discussion of development.

All said no, and all included the Massachusetts Horticultural Society land in what they considered off-limits to any kind of commercial development.

"Absolutely not," said Davis. "Good park programming is what we need."

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