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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.

Grand Visions, Bleak Realities

By Brian McGrory, Globe Staff, 06/22/1999

Early on, government officials pushing to bury Boston's Central Artery displayed sketches of the lush gardens that would be planted where the road now sits. They talked of ornate fountains rising from carpets of painstakingly manicured grass.

But that grandiose vision for the long-awaited downtown park has given way to the reality of a city that never quite gets it right. Those same government officials now fight among themselves over power and money, their development plans withering like the uninviting field that the land could become.

Nearly $11 billion will be spent on the Central Artery and Third Harbor Tunnel projects, and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Jim Kerasiotes is offering a laughable $15 million to develop the resulting 27 acres of park -- at least $25 million shy of what is needed.

To make matters worse, his archrival, Mayor Thomas Menino, says a city experiencing an unprecedented economic expansion can't afford the annual upkeep of a completed park. While they pass responsibility, in the Massachusetts of 1999, this passes for political leadership.

Keep in mind, this promise of open land was a major reason for the massive and expensive Central Artery depression, the largest highway project in US history. Now, as former city councilor Larry DiCara asks, ``If you have a project that costs $10.8 billion and in the end it doesn't look any better, what's the point?''

Forget the promising sketches of yesteryear that included carousels and reflecting pools. Kerasiotes says that once the tunnel is completed and the highway demolished in 2005, he will pay for grass seed and trees, then give the land to the city.

But his plan, coupled with Menino's antipathy, is a disaster in the making. Urban planners say that a poorly maintained swath of grass and trees, bordered by busy boulevards, could prove as divisive to the downtown as the hulking highway monstrosity.

Those planners talk of an overgrown, little-used park populated by homeless men sleeping off the prior night's binge. And to anyone who believes the government could never spoil a land-use project this important, take a walk across the endless bricks of City Hall Plaza.

In fact, and increasingly, urban experts say the Central Artery planners have made fundamental mistakes in their plans for the property. Currently, about 75 percent of the newly created land will be designated as open space and parks.

Those experts say that an open swath of green will do little in the way of knitting the downtown back together after the 40-year-old gash caused by the highway is removed. Rather, they said, there should be low-scale commercial and residential development on the land to invite everyday use.

Alex Krieger, the chairman of Harvard's Department of Urban Planning and Design, is pushing the idea of developing a series of town squares -- lush open spaces bordered by new buildings, ``like beads on a necklace, rather than a linear open space,'' he says. He cites Copley Square and the highly lauded park in Post Office Square as more in scale with the city around them.

Specifically, Krieger envisions a checkerboard of parks in South Station, in front of the Boston Harbor Hotel, and in Haymarket Square, among others. Between those parks would be small-scale developments, such as stores, a low-rise hotel, and condominiums. ``You don't replicate through open space something as divisive as the highway,'' he says.

His views are echoed by William Porter, a professor of architecture at MIT, who says that different neighborhoods along the Central Artery corridor have different needs, not all of them parkland. ``Along the North End, a park as a strategy for unifying the city is an oxymoron,'' he says.

Politicians blanch at the idea, not because they don't like it, but because of the resulting wrath from environmentalists for violating a commitment to open space. In fact, development could fund and enhance the parks that are built.

But such points of practicality are lost in the bickering. State Representative Joseph Sullivan, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, has emerged as a voice of reason, proposing that a new agency be formed to plan and fund the land. A good idea.

``We promised so much, and now it seems like we're not going to be able to deliver,'' Menino said yesterday.

That's honest, but unacceptable. This land is the legacy of a generation. But with a legacy comes responsibility, and more than ever, our leadership is going to have to take it.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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