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.
The heart of the new parkland
By Eugenie Beal, 6/10/2002
he Legislature gave a name to the Central Artery parks in the heart of downtown Boston: the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The master planning consultants gave a mantra: common ground. They wrote: ''Parks and places play an integral role in the outdoor life of the downtown -- for neighborhoods as a green oasis; in the city as places of civic importance and celebration and symbols of the Commonwealth's commitment to all its citizens.''
The 24 parcels between Causeway Street near the new Zakim Bridge and Dewey Square have long been planned to serve varied uses: Nine have been slated for development; three are so encumbered by ramps that they pose difficulty in design and construction. Twelve parcels (of which three were allocated to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society) are intended to be open spaces.
It's the nine green parcels that inspire visions of a new and more livable downtown. Residents of the North End and Chinatown are participating in the design of the parks in their respective neighborhoods. The five parcels in the Wharf District, totaling 4 1/2 acres, arouse the widest interest. Surrounded by office buildings, residential towers, and historic sites, they comprise the longest connecting green spaces in the entire corridor, though divided from one another by cross streets. They offer the greatest opportunity to create a memorable park. The public wants, expects, deserves such a park.
These five parcels are zoned to include cafes, children's activities, perhaps a carousel, and in information kiosk, with no building taller than 35 feet and covering not more than 15 percent of its lot area. The New England Aquarium is proposing a major interactive water feature. There could even be a skating rink, with a small outdoor performance space in summer.
Buildings in parks serve park users by providing information, restrooms, and food and drink. Studies have shown that the most popular activity in parks is eating. There could be a park modeled on Leventhal Park in Post Office Square on the two small parcels flanking Broad Street Extension. Recently a wonderful opportunity came into view here: Below grade, above the roadway, is raw space of at least 40,000 square feet. Prompt exploration of the feasibility of a museum, say, accessed by headhouses in the park, should be made. What an opportunity -- Boston can have it all!
One of the biggest dilemmas is how to treat the ramp parcel south of the two-level parcel just described. The plan of a decade ago called for an "urban arboretum," surely an oxymoron. Even some park advocates have come to think that this is one concept that is misplaced. Its elevated site and huge ramps seem better suited to being covered by a building. A cultural building could include reminders of the history of Fort Hill, now the site of International Place but once a fortification, then a circular garden, and later a site of immigrant settlement and slum clearance.
Still further south are three parcels long-planned to be allocated to Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It is good news that the Japan Society is interested in creating a garden on the parcel closest to Dewey Space.
The financial condition of the Hort and its Garden Under Glass are uncertain, but Boston should not give up on a great attraction to residents and visitors like the promised botanical garden.
Tiny Portal Park near the Zakim Bridge and North Station has already been designed to show a glimpse of the history of transportation in the area. Could a unifying theme of Boston's history be developed in the corridor segments between the North End, with its evidences of colonial settlement; the Wharf District, with evidences of maritime history and topographic history; and Chinatown, where immigration history can be shown in the new long narrow park? This is the oldest and historically the most richly concentrated in the whole city. It's time we displayed it to our own residents and exploited it to visitors in a more sophisticated way.
Portal Park and the park in Chinatown have in common that their future maintenance has already been arranged by the BRA and the Turnpike Authority respectively. In each case a nearby office building has been induced to provide future maintenance.
The two parks in the North End and the five in the Wharf district do not yet have an assured future. The Legislative Commission dutifully met and filed a report that failed to answer questions still before us all.
If they are City of Boston parks, where will their maintenance money come from? Who will contribute, as abutters' property values increase? If governance of the parks is a partnership, what is the appropriate role for each side? How does the public sector assure that the public realm is not "privatized"?
The Turnpike Authority is in charge until some other long-term owner is agreed upon. Happily, the Authority appears to have a collaborative relationship with the City of Boston.
"Follow the money" is a reliable old adage. When a maintenance funding of the Central Artery corridor parks becomes agreed upon, the governance and control of the parks will quickly become agreed upon as well. Another adage is "He who pays the piper calls the tune." We need to be watchful and wary as agreements are made.
Eugenie Beal is chairman of the Boston Natural Areas Network.