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Missing links

Born of the Big Dig, three stunning parks along the Charles have a big flaw: They're not tied together. Where'd the $80 million go?

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

It all looked so promising 15 years ago, when $80 million seemed like more money than anyone could possibly spend on bike paths and parklands.

The year was 1993, and to make amends for building a massive bridge across the Charles River, state officials in charge of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project pledged the then-unprecedented sum toward revitalizing the river’s ‘‘lost half-mile,’’ the stretch between Monsignor O’Brien Highway by the Museum of Science and the Charlestown Bridge that had been an industrial dumping ground for decades.

Best of all, a series of intricate pedestrian bridges would link all the parks together, meaning that, for the first time, walkers, joggers, and bikers would be able to travel from the Esplanade to Boston Harbor without ever leaving the riverbank.

"When $80 million was first proposed, everyone thought we died and went to heaven," said Robert O’Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Association - a business-oriented activist group - and a longtime river advocate. "People were saying let's use some of that money to redo the Longfellow Bridge too. Everyone thought there would be more than enough."

But as with nearly all things Big Dig, the budget, it turned out, wasn't nearly enough to pay for what was envisioned.

The Central Artery had the funds to construct three impressive parks along the New Charles River Basin, two in Boston and one in Cambridge. But little else that was promised - the pedestrian bridges linking the parks together, basketball and tennis courts, additional parklands, improvements to historic dam buildings - ever materialized.

In just five weeks, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project will come to an official end, as the administration that guided one of the world's biggest construction jobs will dissolve Dec. 31 into its overseeing body, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Turnpike officials have often pledged that the state will eventually make good on its outstanding Big Dig commitments, but no one can say who will build the remaining river basin parks and paths, when they’ll be built, or where they’ll find the money to pay for them.

It's a reality that’s left most community activists and local officials disgusted, with people wondering aloud how nearly $15 billion can be spent on the Big Dig, yet somehow the state can’t afford another $10 million to finish the river basin’s most basic remaining needs. (About $30-$40 million would be needed to build everything left on the to-do list.)

"When budgets run over to build the tunnel, they seem to find money for it," said Jeff Rosenblum of the nonprofit group Livable Streets. "Then when it comes to bikes and pedestrians and public transit, when all of a sudden more money is needed, for some reason nobody from the state can find it."

The missing pieces will become even more glaring, community activists and local officials say, once the Rose Kennedy Greenway is complete. The river basin’s paths and pedestrian bridges would also have linked the river’s edge to Portal Park off Causeway Street, the first greenway parcel, connecting downtown Boston to the Charles River like never before.

Without the missing links - among them, lengthy pedestrian bridges on the north and south banks of the river looping over North Station’s railroad tracks, and a pedestrian bridge across the river - some of the paths go nowhere, and the parks that have been built are dead ends.

At best, it appears there is enough money left to pay for just one of the bridges, the north bank bridge, which would link Cambridge’s North Point Park to Charlestown's Paul Revere Park.

"Without those bridges, without those connections, this looks like a boondoggle," said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. "Without access to these last half-mile of parks, which are absolutely stunning, nobody will figure out how to get to them. And once you're there, you’re not really certain how you’re going to get out of there."

It's easy to blame Central Artery officials for the collapse of the master plan. But the Artery has spent (or will have spent, within the next few months) a combined $100 million on the river basin, every penny it promised to in 1993, including an additional $20 million for inflation costs.

Meanwhile, not one person interviewed for this story singled out retiring Big Dig project director Michael Lewis as the person to blame for the current situation. To the contrary, community activists and city officials almost uniformly praised Lewis and his staff for having worked with the community to make the missing links a reality.

The blame game
So, what went wrong?

The most obvious glitch was North Point Park’s mildly contaminated soil. The 8.5-acre park, the largest of all the Big Dig’s parks, was built on an industrial wasteland that turned out to be a brownfield, requiring $14 million to be spent on environmental remediation. The cleanup nearly doubled the park's overall price tag, sucking up money that would have been spent elsewhere.

Logistical and technical issues plagued the river basin’s biggest pedestrian bridges. For example, plans called for Nashua Street Park in Boston and North Point Park in Cambridge to be linked by a footbridge across the river. It was originally thought the bridge could be attached to an old MBTA railroad bridge and built for under a million dollars. But the MBTA wouldn’t allow it, saying such a pedestrian bridge, which would have swung up into the air when boats passed below, wouldn’t be safe.

The alternative was for the Central Artery to build a freestanding footbridge for 12 times the cost - about $12 million - said Fred Yalouris, director of architecture and urban design for the Turnpike Authority’s Central Artery project.

The rebirth of the New Charles River Basin was also hampered, many said, by an awkward division of labor. While the Central Artery built and paid for the basin’s parks and paths, a different agency, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (formerly the Metropolitan District Commission), was responsible for designing them. At various times, the two agencies disagreed on the scope of the 1993 agreement - which items were necessary, and which extraneous - with Central Artery officials stressing fiscal constraint and their DCR brethren pressing for better and more beautiful parks and bridges.

North Point Park is the crown jewel of the river basin, and as such it was built with some spectacular elements, foremost being a series of kayak canals around small, carved-out islands linked by footbridges. The canals certainly add to the park’s appeal, but as parks were started and finished one at a time, the canals were built ahead of more necessary basin projects, such as the pedestrian footbridges.

Yalouris said the Central Artery spent between $10 to $12 million on "nonmitigation" items in the basin at the DCR’s request.

"It was really a problem [for us] of being responsible for something but not being able to manage the budget," Yalouris said. "A terrific amount of effort was put in on our part to warn people, both the DCR and the advocates, that we had concerns about the budget being able to cover the whole program. I think there was always a feeling that, you know, further dollars could be found."

Dan Wilson, a volunteer member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the New Charles River Basin since 1995, said it’s been clear for a long time that the budget would run over.

"There's nothing wrong with shooting high and seeing if you can afford it," he said. "But this was a train wreck you could see coming 10 years ago."

Many have come to the DCR’s defense, however, saying it's foolish to criticize the agency for doing its job and fighting for distinctive new parks.

Those defenders also maintain that DCR architects were indeed wary of overspending - a large park house at North Point was axed, and a famously proposed pedestrian bridge that was to resemble whale vertebrae, was, mercifully, not built.

The Central Artery made an implicit agreement - if not a legally binding one - to finish all the basin's parks and pathways, even if there were cost overruns, defenders say.

"Maybe they didn't estimate the costs correctly, but they didn't estimate the cost of the highway correctly, either," said Anne Fanton, former director of the Central Artery Environmental Oversight Committee, noting how the Big Dig was expected to cost just $2 billion - not the current $14.798 billion - when designed in the mid-1980s. "This was the only part of the Artery’s open space projects that had a fixed dollar attached to it."

Last on list, first cut
In the final analysis, the New Charles River Basin is paying the price for being one of the last items on the Central Artery's to-do list, when there just isn't as much money to pay for overruns. Some observers believe there is now pressure to prevent the project’s total price tag from exceeding $15 billion.

Wilson points to the 2006 tunnel collapse, when a Jamaica Plain woman was killed and $54 million spent to repair faulty tunnel ceilings, as a factor. "I think we probably had a good chance of getting some additional money from the Turnpike to finish the basin, but I think that chance evaporated with that accident," he said. "That was a budget-buster."

Even ardent river basin proponents concede that, at this point, compromise is in order to reach some sort of finish line.

In June, leaders of a dozen community groups, including the Charles River Watershed Association, MassBike, the Charles River Conservancy, WalkBoston, and the Conservation Law Foundation, sent a letter to Big Dig officials asking them to agree to a ‘‘priority spending plan’’ for the remaining river basin projects. The list included just six items. Notably, the $12 million crossriver footbridge was not among them. The letter did ask officials to "put in place a mechanism to work with future developers and public agencies to fund the completion" of the basin projects.

They got no response.

Nevertheless, there was a moment of hope this summer. The Central Artery had $28 million (of the $100 million) left in the river basin budget to spend. It was enough money, officials believed, to build arguably the most important remaining pedestrian bridge - a complex, 960-foot passing above the railroad tracks between Cambridge and Charlestown, as well as pay for a dozen other items scattered across the basin - everything from additional parkland to tennis and basketball courts to renovating Beverly Street Extension, which connects the Charles River to the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

The lowest bid from a contractor for the pedestrian bridge, though, came in way over budget - at $15 million, about $9 million more than was anticipated, Yalouris said. The Artery now believes it will cost about $24 million to build the footbridge and basic pathways leading to and from it, plus a few million more for a DCR maintenance facility, leaving almost nothing left over for anything else.

Who’ll pick up the pieces?
When Yalouris broke the news to activists at an Oct. 30 public meeting, the disappointment was palpable.

Cara Seiderman, transportation program manager for the city of Cambridge, was shaken as Yalouris announced that the Turnpike Authority would not be building a $400,000 pedestrian path to link Cambridge's enormous new North Point condominium development and North Point Park.

"We could have done something there, but we were specifically directed by the Central Artery not to," Seiderman told Yalouris. "It's a little bit irresponsible just to have it stopped."

Yalouris said a new contract request will be put out to bid for the pedestrian bridge by Jan. 1. With any luck a lower bid will be submitted, he said, and some of the smaller items can be added back in.

As for the basin properties, the Turnpike Authority is committed to building the north bank bridge and whatever else is included in the Jan. 1 bid, Yalouris said. But, he stressed, the agency is under no obligation to do anything beyond that.

The remaining river basin projects will be reviewed by state officials "in the broader context of what is good for the Commonwealth," Yalouris told meeting attendees last month. "I can't tell you whose responsibility they will be," he added.

And that is the great fear of river basin activists. The revitalization of the lost half-mile was a high priority with the Central Artery; it probably won’t be as important to a different state agency already saddled with hundreds of public improvement projects across Massachusetts.

What more can be done if state officials don’t come through? Potentially, a few things.

O'Brien and Joel Bard, chairman of the New Charles River Basin Citizens Advisory Committee, have sent a letter to the Legislature asking for a one-time appropriation of $10 million to restore the cuts announced at the Oct. 30 meeting. But the Legislature would need to act before Dec. 31, O'Brien said, for the Turnpike Authority to administer the funds.

Wilson said it's possible that an interested party - or even state environmental officials - could file a lawsuit against the Central Artery to enforce the 1993 environmental mitigation requirements, which included the missing pedestrian bridges.

Others say it will be up to private developers to eventually build the missing pieces of the New Charles River Basin.

The role model would be Lovejoy Wharf, whose developer, Ajax Management Partners LLC of Lexington, is spending nearly $10 million on a wide pedestrian veranda along the Charles River that will connect to Central Artery-built basin pieces. Massachusetts General Hospital and other North Station developers could also be asked to pitch in money, to a general basin fund, when ordered by the city of Boston to pay construction mitigation fees.

If Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital is sold in the near future, as some expect it will be, its developer will likely be asked to help pay for the missing south bank pedestrian bridge, expected to cost $15 million to $20 million.

None of those solutions, however, appear imminent. Thanks to the Central Artery and the DCR, the New Charles River Basin is vastly improved over the industrial no-man’s land it had been for decades.

But for the foreseeable future, the river basin’s missing links will remain just that. Missing.

"At this point, I am feeling more pessimistic than I have been in a while," said Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston. "It's sort of slipping from our grasp."

Peter DeMarco can be reached at Demarco@globe.com.

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