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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.



OPINION

Keep The 'Public' In Public Space

By Shirley Kressel, 05/20/2001

After billions of dollars and years of turmoil, Boston awaits the transformation of the Big Dig into a public amenity. The state will retain ownership and build the open spaces of the Central Artery and has discussed a maintenance contribution. but Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino, in a great show of civic pride, has declared these spaces ''city parks'' to be rescued from a state ''grab.''
Yet, while the mayor insists on city control over the parks, he has refused to take proportionate responsibility for maintenance.

The city has declined every opportunity to assume stewardship, pleading lack of money and capability. The real problem, however, is a poverty of civic vision -- a view of public space as a housekeeping burden rather than a community-building opportunity.

During this time of unprecedented prosperity, Parks Department funding is down more than 35 percent from the highs of the late '80s, in both real dollars and budget share. This "strategic deficit" is shifting responsibility for our parks, playgrounds, plazas, and tidelands to abutters, corporate "friends," and developers trading so-called mitigation benefits for excess development.

The city openly favors private management and funding, and department downsizing increases dependence on private support, which is actively sought and proudly announced. The mayor is pursuing a policy of privatizing the public realm.

Accordingly, the emerging Artery plan will turn the prime downtown spaces over to abutting property owners for management.

The corporations of the Artery Business Committee have been quite willing to fill this custodial vacuum through a private trust empowered to raise both private and public money.

These businesses, long eager to become the managing entity, may get somewhat more mandate than they hoped: They may be anointed a Business Improvement District and charged to make their "world-class" front yard largely at their own expense.

Boston has ample experience with public-private partnerships for public spaces. The oft-cited model is Post Office Square Park. This downtown space is a beautiful setting for its owners' adjacent towers and a pleasant workday lunch spot. But pretty is different from public.

The park is privately owned, and despite an enormous (and little known) yearly tax subsidy, civic free speech is forbidden, and in terms of accountability, the business records are closed to public review.

Businesses plan open spaces primarily to enhance property values, not public accommodation. And they invariably recoup costs by tax breaks, extra development rights, or commercialization.

Under corporate management, the Artery parkland, a huge public investment and a great civic opportunity, would inevitably become a real estate accessory, with use (and user) restrictions, logo displays, sales venues, fee-based activities, and exclusive private events.

And when economic downturns shrink profits, more public money -- or development permits on the parkland for "revenue streams" -- will undoubtedly be requested.

To justify the transfer of responsibility for landscape improvements, abutters, whose property values will rise -- rather than the general public, who will enjoy it -- are defined as the park's beneficiaries. Abutter support is requested for "value recapture."

This is flawed logic and misguided public policy. Public infrastructure is built for the whole community; value added to private property can be captured simply through increased tax assessments -- without the privatized control demanded by donors. New Artery-corridor development should expand the city's tax base, and existing upvalued properties should fairly assume more of the general tax burden, to the benefit of all.

The city, through a funding and management agreement with the state, can and should take care of the Artery corridor as an integral piece of our urban fabric, fully in public custody. And we should design an open space we can and are willing to maintain instead of mortgaging our public realm to a corporate protectorate.

If Menino believes public spaces are not desirable community assets, he should say so publicly. For if public officials feel the citizenry doesn't support a decent public -- truly public -- realm, they do profound civic harm by funneling money to corporations to keep up the pretense.

Public space is not merely landscaping and events, to be distributed by private benefactors as suits their needs; it is a social contract, an arena for all to share, created by all of us as a public trust. The public realm is not only a place, but a process, a belief.

Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect.




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