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 Parks May Be ProblemPlanners Seeking Open Space Debate
By Anthony Flint and Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 12/20/1999
After 15 years of planning for the surface of the submerged Central Artery, city and state officials are still grappling with a stubborn problem: that in some places along the 27-acre corridor, parks may end up being as much of a barrier as the elevated highway.
In a segment of the corridor by Rowes Wharf known as Parcel 18, for example, plans call for a park nestled between exit and entrance ramps. But several urban designers and planners said that space would not be very inviting, that it would be tantamount to putting picnic tables on the median of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
In a vivid illustration of how complex -- some would say tortured -- the task of "surface restoration" has become, planners are locked into a commitment that the surface will be 75 percent open space and 25 percent development. So while some modest building on Parcel 18 might be more desirable -- a restaurant, or museum -- such plans could violate the 75-25 rule.
City and state officials are assessing ways to build in more flexibility without reneging on commitments to environmentalists and open-space advocates. One method would be to define the surface corridor more broadly, so that additional development would still occupy 25 percent of the total surface area. Another idea is to define "open space" to include public-oriented structures. A Faneuil Hall-style retail complex would qualify.
"Some of the parcels I would definitely put in the most-work-to-do category," said James E. Rooney, Mayor Thomas M. Menino's chief of staff and the city's point man on surface restoration. "That may mean some reconsideration or rethinking of the overall approach."
Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman James J. Kerasiotes, who as leader of the Big Dig has the responsibility for surface restoration, said the 75-25 rule cannot be changed but that some sections of the corridor need to be re-evaluated.
"That's why we're hiring a master planner. We want to make sure that the uses are compatible with the parcels and the surrounding neighborhoods. The parcels have to be inviting, so we don't have acres of land that people aren't comfortable approaching or spending time on," he said.
"If there are certain parcels that seem more appropriate for development than others, as long as we stay within the 75-25 commitment, we would be willing to facilitate those kinds of accommodations," he said.
Alex Krieger, the Cambridge-based architect hired by the city to redesign City Hall Plaza and author of a surface plan in 1990 that called for a 50-50 development-parks split, said areas like Parcel 18 need modest building, a defining edge to the open space next door.
In addition to the problem of the highway ramps poking up, Parcel 18 is next to the proposed Massachusetts Horticultural Society botanical gardens structure, which would not be at ground level. "You might need to build something terraced up to that north entrance to the botanical gardens," he said.
The Rowes Wharf section of the corridor is an important crossroads, said Richard Garver, a Boston Redevelopment Authority planner who has studied surface restoration for several years. Any kind of barrier, even if that is the unintended consequence of a park, would prevent people from moving from the Financial District across Fort Point Channel to the South Boston Waterfront.
There are two other parcels occupied by exit and entrance ramps to the submerged highway: Parcel 6, at the foot of the Government Center parking garage, and Parcel 12, adjacent to the Dock Square parking garage. But the current surface restoration plan calls for modest development covering those ramps.
Jeremy Crockford, spokesman for the Big Dig, said a solicitation of interest was published this week for Parcel 6 and Parcel 12.
Regarding Parcel 18, Crockford said, "It is right now parkland." However, the "requests for interest" sent out to potential master planners specified that the current park design set for Parcel 18 must be reviewed "in light of the open space design effort."
At the same time, Crockford said, "We are not changing the 75-25." Referring to talk of changing the ratio, he said, "I keep hearing that, but it's not our plan."
The project's reticence is understandable, observers said, because neither state nor city officials want to create the impression that the corridor is for development more than parks.
Major development is not possible over the tunnel box, because tall buildings cannot be supported, officials said. On Parcel 18, a structure six stories tall could be supported.
Anne Fanton, executive director of the Artery Oversight Committee, tasked with tracking environmental commitments, said the so-called "ramp parcels" are all supposed to be covered, though Parcel 18 can be mitigated with landscaping.
There is flexibility if planners reach a consensus that such a parcel should be changed, she said. But environmental documents require a "full public process to define the reasons . . . that may lead to a consensus for a change in the original plans for surface development," Fanton said.
Green space advocates acknowledge that a park surrounded by highway ramps would not be of much use, Rooney said. The real problem, he said, is that Big Dig officials do not want to tinker with the surface plan so much that it triggers delays in the project schedule or increases costs.
"What you have is a highway organization that has a get-it-done approach," Rooney said. "But we're talking about city building here. We're not saying slow down or increase costs, but let's put a different set of lenses on it."
Surface restoration has largely been a process of "tempering" initial proposals, such as making the corridor all development, and it is natural for the planning to continue to evolve, he said. He also said there should not be a rush. But, he said, "If we're still here having this discussion in 2003, we're in trouble."
Kerasiotes said he, too, wants to make sure all surface parcels are functional and enjoyed by the public. But he said unresolved issues such as Parcel 18 need to be resolved quickly.
"Whatever we put in place, it has to stand the test of time. It has to look as good 25 years from now as when we decide it's a spiffy idea. What we do should be timeless. . . . But the windows of opportunity are becoming well-defined. We will either have something in place by 2004, or we won't," Kerasiotes said.