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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.


On The Surface, Central Artery Plans Leave Lot To Be Desired

By Thomas C. Palmer, Globe Staff, 12/25/2000

The shaping of the post-Big Dig Surface Artery Corridor downtown crept onward on two fronts last week.

The boring but important work of hashing out who will own the land, who will coordinate development of the buildable parcels, and who will control, maintain and -- toughest of all -- pay for the open space, continues with a 12-member commission meeting at the State House.

Represented on the panel are the Legislature, the city, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and environmental advocates.

Those tough questions all remain open, though they're supposed to be resolved by the end of January. As time gets shorter, the talk gets tougher. Naturally, all the parties want to control it, and nobody wants to have to pay for it.

The second front is the more visible one, the one more visitors and residents will notice when the work is done. It's the master planning process: simply, what goes where on that exciting new 30 acres that for 45 years have been shadowed by the steel and asphalt of the elevated Central Artery.

We looked in on the latest public presentation of the evolving thinking of the planners last week. They offered slides of what has jelled after more than six months of public input and drawing-table brainstorming. "Concept Design Alternatives," it was called. About 70 people showed up six days before Christmas at the Federal Reserve auditorium to glimpse it all.

Not to diminish the contributions of the professionals and public-spirited citizens, but it was bewildering.

For starters, we've heard some of the most interested players in the city say for months, "We need specifics. Give us something to like or to criticize." The many plans on display Tuesday night were very general. Keeping it general avoids the criticism.

There were three possible design proposals each for the three major sections of the corridor, which runs from Causeway Street to Kneeland Street. Those areas are the North Area, the Waterfront Area, and the China town/Leather District Area.

Now, we have no training in landscape architecture or outdoor aesthetics, and we don't presume to comment professionally on the plans shown. This is just what it looked like to someone who is in Boston everyday, who has high hopes for what will become of this Big Dig jewel, and who -- like almost everybody else -- isn't intimately involved.

In general, there were three proposed layouts for each area, ranging from "harder" to "softer." Harder means there's more concrete or stone, more places for groups to gather. Softer means there's more grass and plantings.

Each of the three areas of the corridor is large enough -- there are about 12 blocks here, after all -- to accommodate multiple separate spaces, even after a few buildings go in at the northern and southern sections.

In the North Area, a meandering walkway affectionately called "the ramble" might connect the spaces. It could.

We heard that word "could" scores and scores of times. This is still very much a work in progress.

And even with all the artistic pieces and the intended links to the waterfront, to the Chinatown Gateway, to Faneuil Hall, and even with all the different kinds of vegetation planned -- it still seems like a lot of, well, just space. Are people going to use it?

Small restaurants and cafes are suggested along the corridor. How many can the space support?

There are some intriguing ideas among the many "what ifs." Next to a ventilation structure, it was suggested, there could be a "venting space" where you could go if you're upset about something.

In the "Sienna Scheme" for the North Area, "If you want to play guitar and have people throw money at you, you'd be here," posited planner Evan Rose.

Because the Big Dig is entering its final four years, we've heard a lot of people say it's getting late. True, for a long time there were almost no ideas being generated.

But this is a big important space. Is there a more valuable 30 acres being designed anywhere in America? Cramming the process into 18 months and assuming there can be architectural drawings by summer that will do justice to Boston for generations -- that may be too much.

One thing the last two Turnpike chairmen agreed on was: It's got to be a grand space.

"There's plenty of time," said Fred Yalouris, the Big Dig's director of architecture. Without criticizing the planners, still, he said, "People are getting a little ahead of themselves."

You asked . . .

Oh, would that we all had this problem.

"I drive the Pike every day, Monday-Friday, and use it on the weekends as well," wrote Sandy. "I am concerned that I have not gotten a statement or a debit to my credit card for over six months. June, to be exact, was the last statement I got."

Sandy, do you know somebody at Fast Lane, or what?

"Not that I am complaining. I am just worried that they might hit me with six months of tolls all at once."

Merry Christmas!

Actually, we think Bob Bliss of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority will be checking this out pronto.

You know, of course, that on Dec. 13 at midnight, the cameras began being turned on systemwide, and you are now being photographed (or your license plate is) if you bust through the Fast Lane without paying.

Here's the scorecard from Mr. Bliss through early Friday:

The automated antiscofflaw system captured 14,423 images for review. Don't forget it wasn't working in all lanes throughout the state at first -- but it is now.

The Transcore staff that runs this operation for the Pike was told to be generous at first, so 3,834 images were tossed out as not being absolutely clear enough to read. Some of that may have been because of snow obscuring plate numbers. (Don't get any ideas here.)

Out-of-state vehicles numbered 1,601. Those are more problematic, because Massachusetts can't order the state of New Jersey, for example, to make people pay up.

Out of the rest, 4,505 are "pending final review," awaiting a match of a plate to a vehicle owner with our own Registry of Motor Vehicles.

And "where the rubber meets the road," as Bliss put it, is that 2,011 images were snapped of people who have Fast Lane accounts but weren't charged. They may not have their transponders with them, or perhaps the devices aren't working properly.

"We'll be getting in touch with them," said Bliss.

Finally, 2,472 letters of either warning or violation -- the fine for nonpayment is $50 -- went out. Everybody gets one warning.

If half the letters were for violations, the Pike generated almost $62,000 in a little over a week. That Big Dig may get paid for, after all.

By the way, Sandy and anyone else, if you're not getting a monthly statement tracking your Pike use, and you want one, call 1-877-627-7745.

A Big Dig First

More people will be able to get a glimpse of what goes on underground at the Big Dig on First Night Day than have taken all the tours put together over the last nine years of construction.

Due to the large expected demand for the 20-minute walk through, hours have been stretched to 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Go to Quincy Market on Sunday and follow the signs. Walk under the old Central Artery, and you'll see more signs to the Fulton Street ramp into the lanes that will eventually carry 300,000 vehicles a day.

"When the project is done, this will be a northbound exit ramp," said Turnpike spokesman Bliss, adding that Big Dig people are excited about letting so many people see their work.

There will probably be a wait to get in, so be prepared. Wear a First Night button, and you'll get priority treatment, we're told.

About 2,500 people at a time can take the 3/4-mile walk up the five northbound lanes and back down the six southbound lanes, Bliss said.

There will be no tour guides, but you'll get a sheet of paper explaining what a "slurry wall" is, and so forth. And about 70 volunteers will keep pedestrian traffic moving.

"The vast expanse is, I think, going to take people's breath away, in terms of what's been done underground," said Bliss.

How many people will be accommodated in that six hours? We're guessing maybe 30,000.

"If we even came close to the equivalent of a sold-out Fenway Park, we'd be in good shape," said Bliss.

Pit stops

The first we've heard in ages about a new exit off I-495 out west was from a colleague who saw the construction, who suspected it might connect to Route 30. "Something like that would mean drivers would not have to go all the way down to Westborough to connect with the Mass. Pike," he said. "If so, that would be a great time-saver."

Doug Cope over at Mass. Highway says he was just getting ready to call us about the new Exit 23C, between the Route 9 and Route 20 interchanges. It's opening on Jan. 2.

It will connect with Crane Meadow Road in Marlborough and lead to a major industrial park there, home of Fidelity Investments, Metropolitan Life, and 3Com.

Cashman Construction did the $13 million piece of work, which includes northbound and southbound I-495 exits and entrances. And, though the roads are narrow, they do lead to Route 30.

Can't get there . . .

For Christmas, the Big Dig gives you no detours all week.

The Ted Williams Tunnel is open to all 24 hours a day until 5 a.m. on Jan. 3.

A new South Boston ramp into the Ted Williams Tunnel opened last week. The tunnel is now accessible from the South Boston Bypass Road (commercial traffic only at all times on that one, remember) and from the West Service Road. The old tunnel entrance, on D Street, will remain open as an alternate route until 8 p.m. on Jan. 3. The new ramp to the tunnel will be accessible from Fargo Street after the old ramp from D Street closes.

We answer as many inquiries each week as space allows. Please, no phone calls. You can reach us on E-mail at starts@globe.com. The column is also on Globe Online at Boston.com, which can be found at http://www.boston.com/globe/metro/startsandstops. Our mailing address is Starts & Stops, P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378.

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