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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.


What we foresaw in 1991

By John P. DeVillars, 4/20/2002

As the commonwealth's secretary of environmental affairs in 1991, I had the opportunity to review and issue final environmental approvals for the Central Artery Project. The development of these environmental requirements was the collaborative effort of a remarkable team of environmental, economic, and transportation professionals under the leadership of then Governor Michael Dukakis. The standards and values established by that team and articulated as a matter of law in the certificate of the secretary of environmental affairs are as fundamental and true today as they were more than a decade ago. Moreover, they continue to represent the legally binding obligations of the commonwealth. Here's how we saw it:

"The 27 acres created in downtown Boston by the depression of the Central Artery will reconnect the harbor to its city, the city to its boulevards and its people to both. It is an urban planner's and an urban dweller's dream. At no other time in this generation's history or perhaps in any future generation's history will there be such an opportunity to transform the landscape of our capital city. The ugly green wall of highway that cuts like a scar through the heart of our downtown will be replaced by acres of open space and parkland. And a tree-lined boulevard divided by wide swaths of parks and open space -- a Commonwealth Avenue of tomorrow -- will transform what is now a steel shrouded strip of macadam into a gracious green border between the bustle of downtown and the waters of Boston Harbor.

"The goal of this project should be to minimize macadam and maximize grass. The 75 percent open space component is an essential mitigation measure and must be considered as an established part of the Central Artery project."

There was much debate and public rancor about these environmental standards. Many felt the environmental mitigation package -- then and still the largest in the history of the country -- would sink the project, consuming too many scarce dollars. But we had a different view -- a view that saw this not so much as a highway project but as a quality-of-life project, a project that was as much about parkland, recreational opportunity, design standards, and mass transit as it was about moving cars through the central city at a faster clip. Today's policy makers now embark on achieving that vision.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight and an eye to the future, I offer four ideas for those leaders.

Honor the 75 percent open space requirement. Some have argued in this space that the 75 percent requirement is "too rigid". Frankly, if I had it to do over again, it would be 90 percent. The 27 acres should be about grass and trees and fountains -- lots of them, a celebration of peace and quiet and nature. Think Central Park on the East side, from 59th Street to the zoo, the Public Garden, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Post Office Square Park. We have plenty of buildings but there are too few of these green oases in our midst.

Put the icing on the cake. Important commitments made in 1991 are being ignored. The requirement to restore and light the Longfellow Bridge as a gateway to a cleaner Charles River was dropped altogether. A revitalized Esplanade with an Olympic Pool and skating rink is nowhere in sight. In the name of "value engineering" the decorative design of some vent stacks is being left, at best, for another day. In an effort to save a few million on a $14-plus billion project we are robbing future generations of the full measure of benefits. We should do better for them and ourselves.

Pay for the Winter Garden. With the cash strapped Massachusetts Horticultural Society contemplating the sale of historic manuscripts to make a small down payment on a glass walled botanical jewel we run the risk of losing the opportunity altogether. The 1991 Certificate was unambiguous -- "it will nevertheless be the responsibility of the Commonwealth to finance the capital costs of the Winter Garden". Let's do it.

Don't rush it. It's a shame that we didn't get started on the design of the 27 acres earlier. But simply because we are late to the party doesn't mean we should rush it through. The design decisions made over the next 18 months will be with us for generations. The Globe/MIT/WCVB-led public dialogue this month and next is an important forum for public input. It should continue beyond May 30. these institutions and others should sponsor a design competition for leading urban planning and architectural firms from around the world. Let's put a few dollars on the table to invite the best planners in the world to offer bold and creative ideas.

Our collective hope is that future generations will view this project as enduring evidence of our imagination and vision for a better future and of our capacity to bring it about. Honoring this spirit is as important today as it was in 1991.

John P. DeVillars is executive vice president of Brownfields Recovery Corporation.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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