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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.

City Plans Artistic Artery

Nautical Images, Seating May Fill Open Public Space By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., and Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 12/06/1999

Amid the political free-for-all over the future of the post-Big Dig Surface Artery land downtown -- over who's in charge, who isn't, and who will pay -- a plan exists.

It's not a sweeping, complete, detailed outline for the 27 acres that will be reclaimed when the corroded, old elevated Central Artery is finally tucked underground. But it does contain elements that could turn out to be among the most enduring symbols of the new strip of downtown land -- the art.

On a colorful, elongated, Big Dig-generated map that depicts the mostly empty template for development and public space that is to come, there are six detailed proposals for public art, mostly unknown to the public until today.

Although, stories of Boston city officials and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority's recent squabbling over who has responsibility for designing Boston's new slice of downtown have been numerous, this story is, instead, one of cooperation.

For six years, the city, state, and Turnpike have quietly and diligently been dreaming up ideas for key portions of the real estate. The results of their efforts are shown on computer-generated maps, residing at the headquarters of the $10.8 billion Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel at 185 Kneeland St.

The fully developed status of the six "art installations," are in contrast to the still ill-defined state of the 12 large lots designated for public or open space, and the 13 smaller pieces slated for development.

Big Dig officials, responsible for constructing what goes on much of the surface land, took the lead on choosing and developing the art, so that the surface land was properly prepared for what might come, and so contractors would know what was expected of them. But they were joined all along the way by Boston and community representatives in conceiving, selecting, and reviewing the art work, and introducing the public art to select neighborhood groups for their input.

The Big Dig has nearly used up its $7 million Artery arts budget on planning and designing the six downtown art pieces, as well as six others in outlying parts of the project like East Boston. Officials say $8 million more has been spent developing artistic treatments unrelated to specific art works, such as tile facades along tunnel walls, and images of the old West End in the Leverett Circle area.

"The project wanted to make a gift to the city," said Fred Yalouris, manager of architecture and urban design for the Big Dig.

Along with the six pieces of art work, placed mostly in between and on the edges of parcels designated for open space, trees have been tentatively sited.

Big Dig officials emphasize that these proposals are not set in stone. They are subject to review both by the public and by a downtown master planner that officials hope to have on board by early next year.

The Surface Artery template as it exists does not specify what will reside on the 7 acres slated for medium-height development. It does not even suggest what will go on the 20 acres or so of reclaimed land that is designated for public space -- a loose term that could mean anything from grass and shrubs to a Faneuil Hall-like commercial public space.

After years of delay, the land stretching from Causeway Street in the north to Kneeland Street in the south will presumably be hammered out over the next couple of years in a public process, with the assistance of a master planner.

Mike Lewis, deputy project director, says the plan to enhance the land with art was the result of a building process. First, in the early-1990s, the streets, curbs, and sidewalks were laid out. The environmental spirit prevailed, and the outcome was one in which four surface lanes of traffic were chosen over six, and sidewalks were wider rather than narrower.

But it said nothing about the land between the lanes.

"We knew the interior parcels would require a separate effort," Lewis said last week. "We weren't prepared and wouldn't think it was appropriate to talk about the interior parcels at that time."

The art project moved rapidly forward -- rapid, at any rate, for any endeavor in which so many people have strong opinions. Despite scores of meetings, endless talk, and the best of intentions, the land planning effort stalled.

Alex Krieger, an architect and urban planner at Chan, Krieger Associates in Cambridge, who was hired by the city 10 years ago to take one of the first comprehensive looks at surface restoration, said the art work can play a role in stitching the urban fabric back together but should not deflect attention from the larger picture.

"What you don't want is just a new version of the highway, a new barrier, albeit a largely green one," Krieger said.

The art that was promised by the project needed to be included in surface-restoration contracts that were being drawn up, so -- even without consensus on how the land will be filled and used -- officials moved forward.

They selected artists and solicited proposals that would enhance the walkways and perimeters of the various parcels, without interfering with any future designs for open-space or development plots.

Four of the six downtown art installations were designed by Minneapolis artist Andrew Leicester. The six art installations selected are, from north to south:

Leicester's Italianate arcaded "bridge" at Hanover Street. Originally called Mill Bridge Street, Hanover crossed over a creek adjacent to a canal and mill. The pedestrian bridge will span what was Mill Creek, with brick pergolas providing shade and seating on either side of the street.

Leicester's nautical images at North Street. Four 24-foot-high, fin-shaped forms, that are sail-like, rising out of the ground. They are designed to recall Boston's connection to the ocean. Patterns on the pavement depict a vessel's wake.

A 41-foot-high half of a cod fish will be fixed on the pavement at Walk to the Sea. Also designed by Leicester, it is, according to Big Dig descriptions, "a dramatic and whimsical reference to Boston's fishing industry which will greet pedestrians along this passage from Quincy Market to the waterfront."

Public seating along the image of a historic ship hulk at State Street. The fourth of Leicester's pieces, and perhaps the most unusual, the installation along this waterfront area depicts the ribs of a derelict ship, a maritime skeleton emerging from pavement. Boston's great wharves were sometimes built of worn-out, scuttled ships, which were then the repository of timber, stone, and rubble.

A 120-foot-tall stainless steel conical tower on a pedestrian plaza at Dewey Square. Designed by Wellington "Duke" Reiter of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the tower is designed to be wired with fiber optic lighting cable, which will change color and patterns in response to temperature, wind, and light conditions.

A patterned pavement in front of the Chinatown Gateway. This circle with a square, designed by California artist May Sun, is to symbolize heaven and earth in Chinese cultural terms, and the tiled area contains a rectangular strip inlayed with a map of Boston's Chinatown, South Station, and Fort Point Channel.

Central Artery project officials said the projects have been discussed at more than 100 public meetings over the last six years.

Though the projects have been analyzed and commented on and altered, and at least one is still undergoing change, the process of selecting art for the Artery is hardly over, Yalouris said.

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