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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.


The Surface Debate


Faneuil Hall has witnessed boisterous debate for 26 decades, and this evening will likely be no exception. The team of master planners assigned to restart planning for the surface above the depressed Central Artery will hear plenty of conflicting testimony at its first public meeting tonight.

Two issues stand out. One is the question of who will build and maintain the 27 surface acres revealed when the Artery comes down in five or six years. Some mix of city, state, and private interests would be sensible, as long as the city's need to connect the new parcels with adjoining neighborhoods is a prime consideration.

Also in contention is the basic philosophy of the plan. Should the parcels contain buildings that blend with their surroundings and make the new space disappear? Or should the corridor be seen as an opportunity to develop a unique urban space that would be a hallmark of the city for generations?

State officials chose the second option nine years ago when they decreed that 75 percent of the new land be open space. Critics say the 27 acres -- the size of the Public Garden -- is too much; they warn of underused, dusty lots and say more buildings should go up. But Valerie Burns, president of the Boston Natural Areas Fund, points out that much of the land is already dedicated to streets, ramps, and sidewalks. The actual space being debated, she says, may be as little as four acres.

If "open space" is defined broadly to include cafes, small shops, a skating rink, a museum, or similar activities, the space should thrive.

Karen B. Alschuler, the lead planner, said last week she hopes tonight's hearing will be "a celebratory event." Certainly the prospect of a magnificent mile-long corridor filled with lively activities, linking the city back together both physically and spiritually, is a vision to celebrate. But with key elements still in contention, no one should expect -- or want -- unalloyed conviviality yet.

Boston will be served well if tonight's participants celebrate with the kind of passionate and even boisterous debate that has bound the city and its people together for centuries.

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