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Beyond The Big Dig
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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.

Righting past wrongs?

Chinatown, split by highways decades ago, prepares to reconnect after the Big Dig

By Ric Kahn, Globe Staff, 12/29/2002

Forty-eight Hudson St., second floor. That's where Caroline Chang grew up. That's where she played kick the can; yapped on her stoop about boys and baseball; watched the noodle man knead his dough with a bamboo stick; greeted neighbors with the traditional Toisanese "Have you eaten?" -- which really meant, "Are you well?"

Then Chang's world fell silent. She had to leave the block.

The rowhouses and storefronts on the even side of Hudson Street were demolished, leveled to make way for the westbound ramp of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension. Instead of seeing friendly faces across the way, those remaining on Hudson Street were left to stare at an ugly wall.

Now, in the spirit of displaced residents like Chang, 62, and her late mother, who did piece work sewing skirts, Chinatown activists are hoping to stitch back together the eastern tip of the neighborhood that was severed 40 years ago by the state highway.

To do so, they are eyeing about an acre of land known as Parcel 24, which sits on the lost end of Hudson Street. It is scheduled to be freed up by late 2004, provided the Central Artery is finally dismantled and diverted underground.

"Reparations!" was the rallying cry at one recent Chinatown meeting. To some, the message was clear: Rebuild the rowhouses! Repatriate the exiles! Regenerate the community!

The activists, who say that 300 Chinatown families lost their homes to Central Artery and Mass. Pike construction in the '50s and '60s, now want the state to pony up Parcel 24 to the community -- for affordable housing and perhaps a library and even latter-day mom-and-pop shops. They said it would make up for lost compensation and the loss of a neighborhood.

After all, they said, their grass-roots desire for one tiny plot in Chinatown just south of the central corridor blends into the grand scheme laid out for the more than 25 downtown acres that will bloom atop the Artery, a parade of parks, plazas, and development parcels expected to take a city bisected by elevated ramps and roadways and reconnect it, from core to shore.

However, the state, just as it did 40 years ago, may have other plans for that land.

Return to Hudson Street

Caroline Chang said she returns to Chinatown often from her house in Dorchester: to eat the bitter-melon-and-chicken rice plate at the Chinatown Cafe; to shop for brown bean sauce at the 88 Supermarket; to attend board meetings of the Asian Community Development Corp. Sometimes, she said, she feels like an interloper, and would be keen on returning to a remade Hudson Street.

"The community I connect with is still in Chinatown," said Chang. "It's not going to be the same community, but it will be a community."

State officials said they generally support housing for Parcel 24, with some of it deemed affordable. However, they grow mum when the talk turns specific, mindful that there are pressures to maximize the revenue from development parcels to offset the price of the Big Dig, currently pegged at $14.6 billion.

Though talks are now beginning with state officials, Chinatown activists said they are prepared to fight for the return of Parcel 24 in the same way they clamped onto Harrison Avenue's Parcel C, where ground was broken for housing and community space last summer after the community first opposed New England Medical Center's plans for a parking garage there in the '80s.

"As long as it takes" is the Hudson Street timeline proffered by Sam Yoon, 32, a housing and real estate staffer at the Asian Community Development Corp., codeveloper of Parcel C, which is now spearheading the Parcel 24 campaign.

For years, many people assumed an Oz-like city within a city would instantaneously rise once the Central Artery was submerged. However, more than a decade after the basic blueprints for reusing the Artery land were first drawn up, most of the nitty-gritty details remain undecided, according to interviews with project participants. Production of ready-to-go designs and even the fate of valuable land like Parcel 24 have been put off by Big Dig construction delays, more pressing neighborhood concerns, the still-unresolved question over who will control and care for the hallowed green space, the need for development flexibility, and the inevitable procrastination wedded to an end date that once seemed a zillion years away.

Now, with the planning protaganists of the Central Artery saga poised to liberate more than 20 parcels, there's a deadline rush to add texture to the general guidelines, which call for a series of major parks with distinct identities linked by a tree-lined boulevard that will cut a two-mile swath from North Station to Chinatown. This fulfills the basic promise that 75 percent of the land remain open space, with residential, commercial, and civic uses filling the rest.

Building on earlier design concepts, fleshier visions about the future park space are still being debated in the North End, for example, ranging from images of a place buzzing with people ordering gelato from a kiosk to a contemplative spot beside a grove of trees.

Artists are still brainstorming about how to jazzily fill the open spaces. One light-bulbed suggestion unveiled earlier this month: "Promote planned serendipity." Another was more technological than philosophical: Create a light sculpture triggered by the energy flow of cars crossing the Zakim Bridge.

Even one of the proposals that seemed most defined in early plans -- the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's quest to create a botanical garden complex -- is dependent on raising $70 million in a rough economy.

'This train is leaving'

While the essential greening of the corridor is covered under the Big Dig's budget, project participants acknowledge that creating more elaborate accoutrements may require private funding. (Though greenbacks may be an issue, the infant corridor's open spaces won't lack for a politically potent name, having already been christened the Rose Kennedy Greenway.)

With consensus expected to emerge only after design plans make it through a gantlet of state officials, city officials, and community representatives, some project participants say it may take years -- five to 10 by one daunting estimate -- before the corridor's full makeover is complete.

"Do we have a magic marker that we make all these designs right now, and put this model away somewhere, and as soon as the Artery's done we take it out and put it in place?" said Nancy Caruso, a North End resident who serves on Mayor Tom Menino's Central Artery Completion Task Force. "People change. Finances change. ... The political arena changes. ... We want something with class. . . . Give it time."

During a public hearing in October, state Senator Robert A. Havern (D-Arlington), co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation, conveyed the sense of urgency gnawing at him over the corridor's creeping metamorphosis.

"This train is leaving," he said. "You don't have much time."

Appearing before him was Douglas Ling, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp., who'd come to talk about the future of Parcel 24.

Havern: "Whether the master designers are happy ... is not the concern of this committee. This committee's major concern is obviously not having gravel and rubble when we finish the Central Artery, but also to make sure that the neighborhoods that abut these properties not only feel like they've had a voice in this but that the result ends up enhancing their lives -- not doing what the construction did in hurting their lives. ... What do you want? ... Has the community come to a conclusion as to what it would like on that development parcel? Like housing? What does it want?"

Ling: "[The community development corporation] has started a process of community outreach and a visioning kind of process to define that more clearly for the committee."

Havern: "My message today, Oct. 10, is you don't have till another October to make that decision. So the community has to step up the process a little bit. It's been a decade since we've known this was going to happen now. So you have to give us some indication what it is you want, and I can guarantee you this committee will advocate for that. This is your community. That road separated it, cut it in half, or at least cut a third of it off, so we can help you. But you need to tell us what it is."

The payback: housing

Now, one of the answers seems to be bouncing throughout Chinatown. It drifted out of the Asian Community Development Corp.'s annual meeting last month, where the majority of attendees participating in an unofficial survey chose affordable rental housing as their preference for Parcel 24. It floated out of the city's early blueprint for the corridor, post-Big Dig, which called for new housing to mitigate previous hardships: "Create up to 1,000 units of new housing, including affordable housing in the North End, Chinatown, and Bulfinch Triangle. . . . Boston's downtown neighborhoods . . . will be the most severely impacted, physically and economically, by the Artery/Tunnel project. These are also the neighborhoods that experienced the most upheaval as a result of the original artery project."

That answer darted out of the office of state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, (D-Lower Roxbury), earlier this month, in the form of a bill calling for a "community-focused real estate development" for Parcel 24, one that restores a "community-friendly residential character to the Hudson Street community and to the Chinatown neighborhood."

The bill also would make the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority sell or lease the property to a "community-based development entity" for a nominal amount.

Fred Yalouris, the Central Artery's director of architecture and urban design, said the state was committed to seeing housing at that site. However, when asked whether the state would sell Parcel 24 for a dollar, he replied: "No comment."

The proposed legislation troubled some who attended the Dec. 19 meeting of the Mayor's Central Artery Completion Task Force. In public statements and interviews, concerns were raised -- not about the goal of building housing at Parcel 24, but the potential route taken to get there: Would a planning and disposition process that has involved a cast of thousands devolve into every man for himself? Although the Wilkerson bill seeks a community-based developer, would it set a bad precedent -- with for-profit real estate interests seeking their legislators' help in divvying up parcels? While the bill does not name a developer, does the proposed legislation essentially funnel the land to the Asian Community Development Corp.?

"We're not looking for a sweetheart deal," said Yoon of the Asian Community Development Corp.

He and others in the group said theirs is not the only nonprofit around, and that Wilkerson's bill is filled with safeguards, from layering in community input to having the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority pick the final development team.

$1 buys a lot

The purpose of a $1 deal, Yoon and others said, is to better ensure that affordable housing is built on Parcel 24 by removing hefty land acquisition costs from the equation so that developers won't have to recoup their investment through higher rents or sale prices.

Chinatown activists said they know that one man's notion of affordable housing is another man's Liberty Place, the proposed high-rise of mostly market-rate apartments that has caused upheaval in the community.

Though Liberty Place will be built, opponents won major concessions: an increase in the number of affordable flats; a promise from the city to allow a group of residents to review future development proposals.

That forum could play a role in the future calling of Parcel 24.

Lee Soo Hoo said he has faith that the new generation of Chinatown activists like those who fought Liberty Place will help mend the Hudson Street hurt.

"They don't take any baloney" said Soo Hoo, 69, who splits his time between a home in Natick and the family's rowhouse on Hudson Street.

When the other side of the avenue was torn down and friends were dispersed, he said, Hudson Street became a darker place: a haven for hookers; an area where thousands of cars on the highway left residents with dust on their windowsills and the drone of engines in their ears.

Soo Hoo said he'd like to see the resurrection of Hudson Street and a pilgrimage back to Chinatown.

"If we get back some of the land, and build a building, people would move in," he said.

Some in Chinatown said that if the state does not help them patch together Hudson Street with Parcel 24, it would be like having their futures bulldozed a second time.

Doris Tow said she'd still be living on Hudson Street if she hadn't lost her home to the highway. From the modern kitchen of a house in West Roxbury where she now resides with relatives, Tow said she'd like to resettle on the east side of Hudson Street, but time is precious.

"Let's say it's being built in another year -- I'll go back," said Tow, now 80 years old. "If it takes another 10 years, I'll be too old."

Ric Kahn can be reached at rkahn@globe.com.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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