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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.



ARCHITECTURE

'Open Space' Dirty Words For Some Bostonians

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 11/09/2000

I promise I won't write again on the topic of open space on the Fan Pier on the South Boston Waterfront. Not for a while, at least. But last week's column inspired another raft of reader responses, and it seems fair to give them a voice.

This is a timely topic. The state secretary of environmental affairs, Robert Durand, is reviewing a proposal for the site by developer Nicholas Pritzker. Durand is asking for fewer buildings and more open space. The Conservation Law Foundation, an open-space advocate, is threatening a lawsuit if it doesn't get its way.

The majority of reader responses, however -- 90 percent, to be exact -- agree with me that a lot of green open space on a north-facing, oceanfront, downtown site isn't such a great idea.

There's also the consideration that we, the taxpayers, aren't going to pay a cent to create or maintain this open space. The Pritzkers are required to do that themselves, which raises a further issue: Will the Pritzkers be allowed to build enough to generate the revenue they'll need in order to do the open space well?

With that intro, here are some excerpts from the week's mail:

"Open spaces near the ocean are raw, awful places about nine months of the year."

"Really, we don't want the Boston waterfront to emulate suburbia in any way. We live in the suburbs and go to Boston for a livelier experience. The last thing we'd do is head for a lawn to sit on. We don't want to picnic with the birds, we want eclectic dining on the waterfront. It's the harbor . . . It's cold out there!"

"The barren, asphalt desert that is the Fan Pier now may be so for many, many years to come. And then we can all give a big hand to the `Conservation' Law Foundation for their fine efforts in preserving a desolate `open space' eyesore."

"The city and its space . . . are about life. You want a lot of things for people to do. You want small shops, winding streets, restaurants, arts events, etc., etc., and all those things that contribute so greatly to the excitement and glamour of city life. Too much open space, in the wrong place, kills this sense of life . . . Let the developer make sufficient money to afford a truly attractive development."

"I have found the prevalence of suburban ideas being transferred by the new residents of the city to be abhorrent."

"Why is all the activity on the waterfront at Rowes Wharf, or the aquarium, and not at the courthouse? Because there is compression and energy and activity, not a bunch of sensitively laid out bushes . . . As the kids say, "Duh?" . . . Are the lessons of Quincy Marketplace or the North End (successes mostly) or Columbus Park (failure) simply lost to our city fathers? The Pritzkers have been more than patient, and could certainly be forgiven if they took their money and commitments elsewhere, to another city that would value their vision. Does such a city exist in America?"

Several readers homed in on Secretary Durand:

"I can only guess that Mr. Durand somehow feels he must appease the vocal minority (not to say anything of certain city councilors who represent districts miles away and have never yet enjoyed what waterfront view[s] there are on Fan Pier in its current form). I call this `lowest common denominator' development, in that only when all the critics are pleased can development proceed. Of course, if you take Mr. Durand's viewpoint to its logical conclusion, we should just leave Fan Pier the way it is. That way, morning commuters will get an unobstructed harbor view on their way to work. That is if they can stand the blustery, unimpeded winds in the winter . . ."

"What really gets me about Mr. Durand's latest revisions is his completely inappropriate and misguided rationale. He is charged with ensuring public access to the waterfront. Can someone please tell me how public access to the waterfront on Fan Pier is now construed to mean that commuters coming out of the new T station to be built across the street from Fan Pier have to have a panoramic view of the waterfront from there?! Preserving public access for the people who are actually on Fan Pier has absolutely nothing to do `water views' for commuters, yet this inane logic was enough for Mr. Durand to simply delete an entire building from the project."

Many readers linked the Fan Pier controversy to another question, namely what should be done with the land over the future depressed Central Artery:

"Vincent Scully, America's preeminent architecture critic and urban historian, used to refer to the many failed urban open spaces of modern architects and planners with a wonderfully trenchant phrase from the writings of author and critic Norman Mailer `Empty landscapes of psychosis.' Perhaps Mailer's phrase is an apt tag line for what we may find on top of Big Dig and on the Fan Pier if reason soon does not prevail."

"There are some people who would argue that the most grievous error in the [Central Artery] plan is the decision to allow for only 25 percent of the land to be used as developable building sites, and I would agree. If more building were permitted, in a carefully ordered way, this would allow the city to `heal' itself and reconnect the urban fabric that was torn up when the Central Artery first went through."

"Yes, yes, a green swath over the artery would be horrible!"

"About the Fan Pier/Waterfront area. I agree with you. Who needs open space? What is needed is an esplanade or promenade. But I don't like the Pritzker proposal either. From what I can detect in the Globe drawings, it seems to me to be nothing more than a group of freestanding large buildings. Boring. Why not fill up the space with low-height, high-density, multiple-use edifices with arcaded sidewalks to protect visitors from the rain, sun, and snow? . . . And the only people to use the street over the Big Dig will be smokers and office workers on lunch break.

Why not plazas (round, octagonal) ringed with buildings every three bocks over the former Artery?"

Some, of course, disagreed with me:

"I think you neglected to acknowledge the services that green open space provides for protecting water quality and consequently the `waterborne life' you mentioned. The number-one source of water pollution in this country is nonpoint-source pollution also known as polluted runoff. During a rainstorm or snowmelt, water washes across paved areas into the harbor carrying along with it any and all motor oil, antifreeze, and other pollutants on the pavement. Vegetated landscape, however, traps precipitation and runoff, and can filter out pollutants as the contaminated water slowly seeps deep below the surface. More green space means a cleaner harbor."

And some raised special concerns:

"I travel this city using my white cane and what is left of my eyesight . . . I've always been saddened by the propensity of planners to fill in any open area with planters, stairs that rise 2 inches for every 3 feet of run, assorted bric-a-brac that ties up one's ability to walk from point A to point B. I used to love walking along Boylston Street's extra-wide sidewalks. They were full of people, yet one could get around with a feeling of open space. Now, alas, they are taken up with 70 percent of the sidewalk fenced off for cafes. The John Hancock tower is now surrounded by planters that jut out and cables supporting trees that one can easily walk into."

Thanks to all who wrote. Bostonians may disagree, but we certainly care about our environment.

Robert Campbell's email address is camglobe@aol.com.




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