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.
Keeping parkland promises
By Renata Von Tscharner, 2/10/2003
The long-awaited vehicular link between the Massachusetts Turnpike and Logan Airport is finally in service. But the Big Dig is about more than motorized transportation. With completion of the overall project now in sight we must look back at promises made to ensure the final phases of construction will recognize the needs of walkers and bicyclists as well as cars and trucks.
The parks and pedestrian access routes that assure the Big Dig will become more than just a vehicular system are part of a carefully negotiated mitigation plan. In an agreement made in the early 1990s between the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Central Artery Project, a series of pathways, pedestrian bridges, and parklands were stipulated as compensation to the public for what has become a painfully expensive and disruptive project.
To yield its full value, that agreement must be honored: The Rose Kennedy Greenway must connect to other parks and trails, most notably the Charles River Parklands, Harbor Walk, and Community Trail. Its parks and paths must be seen as part of a metropolitan system, not a disconnected downtown area.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the new dam at the mouth of the Charles, which Charlestown residents cross daily when going downtown. Located in the New Basin beneath the Leonard Zakim-Bunker Hill Bridge, it will become the key connecting point for an expansive network of pathways, all designed to carry pedestrian and bicycle traffic from throughout Greater Boston.
In the New Basin a cluster of parks is under construction. A nearby water ferry enjoys growing patronage. A small park and walkways, designed to serve as a "portal" to the city's other parklands, are on the drawing boards. Planned and budgeted long ago, these connections all fall within the domain of Chief of Commonwealth Development Douglas Foy, whose long commitment to parklands should serve the public well.
The overall issue begs a promise which must be kept: assured access to and from the Kennedy Greenway and what is both the starting point and culmination of another great park system, the Charles River Parklands.
Almost submerged beneath a torrent of bad economic news and state budget cuts, multiple master plans for the renewal of the Charles River Parklands -- Greater Boston's "Central Park" -- are well underway. Key to the plans are a system of continuous pathways along both banks of the Charles through the New Basin and on toward the harbor.
A small network of ramps and pedestrian bridges on both sides of the river is required to negotiate the complex of roadways, railroad tracks, and canals inhabiting the river's mouth. These amenities are contractually obligated, but stand in jeopardy due to delays, cost overruns, and lack of public awareness.
The benefit they represent -- pedestrian and bicycle access to the Kennedy Greenway from the western and northern reaches of the metropolitan area -- is undeniable. Maintaining unbroken links is crucial to overcoming the size and inconvenience of the many obstacles pedestrians must negotiate. Government authorities and oversight groups with responsibility for bringing the Big Dig to a successful conclusion must live up to their obligation to protect the interests of the larger community.
Creating pedestrian and bike linkages makes even more sense in light of planned residential and commercial developments near Kendall Square and around the harbor dam. With thousands soon to be dwelling in what is now largely an industrial area, the beauty of the New Basin parklands will invite a host of attractions. Restaurants, boat landings, a skate park, and other recreational facilities will create a vibrant new district requiring easy access to and from downtown.
By ensuring that the Kennedy Greenway and Charles River Parklands are joined as part of a continuous whole, the promise of the Big Dig will be more fully realized. With linkage to the comprehensive metropolitan park system conceived of by Charles Eliot at the end of the 19th century assured, Greater Boston's endowment of public parklands of unparalleled reach and beauty will be significantly enhanced. This prospect is especially important in light of the proposed liquidation of the MDC and its stewardship over parklands and parkways throughout eastern Massachusetts.
The Democratic National Convention planned for 2004 will soon direct the attention of the world toward Boston. In keeping the promise of an integrated metropolitan park system we will strengthen Greater Boston's reputation as the green hub of an expansive and welcoming universe.
Renata von Tscharner is the president of the Charles River Conservancy, a citizen advocacy group dedicated to the renewal of the Charles River Parklands.