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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.


Pride of space

By Robert Turner, 4/28/2002

SAN FRANCISCO -- IT IS POSSIBLE for a city to create thriving open spaces that become common ground for all neighborhoods, but they don't occur naturally: Bold vision and perseverence are needed.

San Francisco has already taken down an elevated highway along its Embarcadero -- the waterfront on the northeast corner of the city -- and it has several lively urban parks, all of which offer lessons for Boston as demolition of the Central Artery nears.

But these are lessons, not models. As Mayor Willie Brown is quick to admit, the scope of the Big Dig is unparalleled. Projects in his city are "real minor by comparison," he said in an interview. In fact, the opening of the Embarcadero, the RinCon Park being build as part of it, the new Yerba Buena Park next to the Moscone Convention Center, and the century-old South Park all stimulate planners.

The Embarcadero, for instance, now makes a clean sweep along the bay front and is popular with joggers and walkers, but it is not as animated as its prime location would indicate. Boris Dramov, a lead designer, suggests this will change when the enormous, 660-foot-long Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, is converted into a major food market and restaurant destination and as abutting buildings gradually turn their front doors toward the water. "Urban design is the art of the unfinished," Dramov says.

RinCon Park -- about the size of the largest Central Artery parcels -- will add greenery in the form of a large lawn sweeping toward the water and two medium-sized restaurants clustered at one end. Yerba Buena Park is alive with people relaxing on its rolling lawns on a warm afternoon. But how could it not succeed, being an oasis surrounded by thousands of residential units and hotel rooms, some of the city's major art institutions, and a convention center?

Most of the agencies involved in these projects are city-controlled, including the Yerba Buena redevelopment agency and the Port Authority. The city welcomes philanthropy but likes to keep things public. The Gap clothing company, for instance, is paying $3 million to construct RinCon Park opposite its headquarters, but it will be a public park.

To make such spaces attractive to all San Franciscans, Mayor Brown says, "you need to put the neighborhoods behind the projects." This means scores of meetings. The Embarcadero project was defeated twice in public referendums before moving forward.

This may be the most important suggestion for the Central Artery: Including all of Boston's neighborhoods in the planning and programming will give it a chance of becoming the common ground so heartily desired.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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