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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.


Design ideas for artery have a long way to go

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 2/4/2003

It's finally time to get serious about what's going to happen on the land beneath the Central Artery. Today, at a forum at the Boston Public Library, the public gets its first peek at the kinds of ideas designers are coming up with. Three teams have now been chosen. Each will design one of the three segments of artery land, one near the North End, another in the central business district (it's called the Wharf District), the third near Chinatown.

Their ideas, along with those of the 10 other finalists who weren't chosen, are all on display through the end of this month. Even the ideas of the losers may be significant: The Turnpike Authority, which is running the project, insists it owns everyone's ideas, winners' and losers', and may choose to implement any of them.

It should be noted right away that none of these designs is final. They are no more than early stabs and first thoughts. The Turnpike Authority has chosen designers, not designs. Still, the designs are important. It's a safe rule in city planning that nothing happens until someone makes a definite proposal. And these are the first proposals we've seen. They're clues to how the designers and their clients - the Turnpike Authority, the state, and the city - are thinking.

The proposals should get us all thinking too. Partly that's because none of them is anywhere near good enough yet.

For starters, all the designs, winners and losers, are based on the Turnpike's Master Plan of 2001, a document that sought to offend nobody by omitting anything that might have been interesting. Not a good start. The least successful of the winners follows the Master Plan closely. Boring and dumb, this is the design for the Wharf District.

The successful team here is headed by a firm of landscape architects called EDAW, from Alexandria, Va. EDAW is partnered with the Copley Wolff Design Group of Boston as well as (among others) a nationally known advocate for sustainable design, William McDonough. All this talent has produced what amounts to little more than a few paths and patches of grass. Other than that, there's the tired cliche of a row of 60-foot-high steel pylons that line the parks on the inland side, doubling as light fixtures and kiosks.

The chief designer, Dennis Carmichael of EDAW, talks about a ''village green'' that will be ''open and democratic,'' a ''common ground'' where many kinds of events can take place, as in the Ramblas in Barcelona. There's nothing wrong with that. But in trying to be democratic, the designers have given up on trying to be memorable. Carmichael talks also about how the park will be ''a showcase of sustainability,'' with a wet meadow to absorb toxins, making the park a lesson in good ecological practice. It's hard to see how that kind of blackboard pedagogy makes sense in a public park.

This is lowest-common-denominator design. It's an empty vessel that simply hopes someone will come along to fill it with life. Looking at it, one yearns for the fresh, daring invention of recent parks in places like Paris, where housing and shops and recreation and inventive landscape are mixed tightly together, to create an urban buzz. You have to hope that EDAW's banal work hasn't closed off more interesting options.

At the North End segment, the winning team is led by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson of Seattle. Gustafson Partners Ltd. is a hot firm at the moment; it was picked recently to do a memorial for Princess Diana in Britain, and it is working with architect Norman Foster on a renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts. Gustafson teamed with Wallace Floyd Design Group of Boston. The plan of her two parks looks like an abandoned game of Pick Up Sticks, with paving, grass, and water colliding at unpredictable angles - another cliche of current design.

But there's more going on. Gustafson and partners have conceived the parks as something to be crossed as you pass between the North End and downtown, and she has taken advantage of the slope of the land to create memorable crossings. It's a design that needs development, but it does embody, as EDAW's doesn't, a genuine design idea.

The final segment lies between Chinatown and the Leather District. The selected team here is headed by Boston's biggest firm of landscape architects, Carol R. Johnson Associates. The Chinatown parcel is small, only an acre or so. Chinatown is starved for space for the festivals and other public events that are part of its culture. There's not a lot of wiggle room for designers, and it's probably appropriate that the Johnson team creates what is essentially one paved plaza, with a few shaded nooks off to the side. There's an attempt to suggest Chinese culture by means of banners and Asian plant materials. Nobody seems to have figured out the automobile traffic patterns. Like Gustafson's, this feels like no more than an OK start.

So what happens now? The three winning teams are supposed to forget all about the designs that helped get them chosen. They'll go out into the com munities and solicit advice. At a series of meetings beginning in March or April, open to everyone, they'll ask what kind of facilities and activities people want. All the designers say they'll be starting from scratch.

Based on those discussions, each team will create three to five new designs, then take them back to the community for further feedback. Eventually a single final design will emerge, perhaps by the end of summer. It's a process that could be great. It also could become democracy run amok. The danger is that the process will create, instead of something bold and memorable, a mere something-for-everyone salad of too many ideas from too many people.

The real design process, in other words, hasn't yet started. The designs on view at the library counted for only 20 percent on the score sheet used by the committee that picked the three winning teams. More important were qualifications, experience in designing urban parks, how members (landscape architects, architects, engineers, and others) seemed to get along, availability of the chief designer, plus things such as insurance and financial stability.

It's obvious too, in looking at the successful teams, that there were other criteria. One was simple familiarity. Designers at Wallace Floyd, Carol Johnson, and Copley Wolff have done a lot of work for the artery project.

You get the sense that the selection committee didn't really want to take chances. And some of the teams seem carefully stacked with politically appealing members - for example Johnson's, where Chinese names figure prominently.

The only purpose of requesting designs in the first place, says Rebecca Barnes, who was the city's representative on the selection panel, was ''to find out how teams that often had never worked together might come together around a design problem.'' But she's probably being coy. The real purpose of getting some designs on the wall, as noted, is to get people thinking more seriously about the future of the artery land. Time is short. The artery comes down in late 2004, and the groundbreaking for the new parks is scheduled for spring 2005.

Tonight's forum, cosponsored by the Boston Society of Architects, is the first of four. Other panels at the Boston Public Library will look at culture and the arts (next Tuesday), the history of the artery site and how to express that in the new design (Feb. 20), and what Barnes calls ''the big idea,'' how the different parks along the corridor, to be designed by three different teams, can create a larger whole (Feb. 25).

Still to come will be discussions of the parts of the artery corridor that will be developed: the so-called Bulfinch Triangle near North Station and the site for a proposed horticultural hall near South Station.

The thing to remember about all this is that design hasn't begun. There's still time for something memorable to emerge -- something that will work for our needs but that will also surprise us, delight us, and challenge us.

Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 2/4/2003.
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