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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.


Boston gains without pain

By Thomas J. Piper and Timothy Leland, 6/24/2002

THE CITY OFFICIAL seemed genuinely perplexed. ''Why would we want to submit ourselves to such pain?'' he asked.

The question hung in the air following a formal presentation by MIT and The Boston Globe of plans to convene ''Beyond the Big Dig,'' a project designed to stimulate discussion and promote public understanding of options for the future land above the Central Artery. The question was understandable, given the city's concerns about outside interference with its planning process and the perceived time constraints under which the Central Artery project was operating. But a focus on these concerns had narrowed public involvement in the enormous opportunity at hand.

Following decades of construction on the tunnel below ground, there was little public consensus and no genuine excitement about the greatest single benefit that the $14 billion-plus Central Artery project would bestow -- 27 acres of new land above ground called the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Boston was on a deadline. The eight-lane elevated highway separating the city from its harbor was to be demolished in less than three short years.

It was out of concern for the lack of bold ideas and public buy-in at this critical juncture that a collaboration of major media outlets and a research university was convened to help focus public attention on how to get the best possible design for the Kennedy Greenway.

Entitled ''Beyond the Big Dig,'' the project involved extensive media coverage, community dialogues, and university analysis, culminating on May 30 in a Town Forum at Faneuil Hall broadcast live by WCVB-TV5.

The Town Forum featured recommendations proposed by a distinguished five-member national panel brought together by the project. Their findings and the discussion that followed helped surface solutions to long-standing issues dividing various green-space and development advocates, who were represented on a respondent panel of local experts at the event.

The national panel proposed:

  • That a public-private trust be created to implement the Rose Kennedy Greenway and signed into law no later than Jan. 1, 2003, including creation of a ''Common Ground Task Force'' to produce diverse public events on the Greenway.

  • That a master plan for a year-round ''Garden Under Glass'' be presented no later than Jan. 1, 2004, including proof of funding.

  • That, in addition to the Garden Under Glass, the Greenway feature at least one other major public attraction as a draw for the region.

  • That at least 2,000 units of new housing with 25 percent or more affordable be created at the edge of the parks and in the downtown environs and include at least 1 million square feet of new commercial activity.

  • That the avenues intersecting the Greenway be developed as tree-lined promenades, connecting the downtown to the waterfront.

Beyond the Big Dig was the fourth time that MIT and the Globe have teamed up to examine a major development issue confronting the Boston region, the second time with Channel 5. The late Tom Winship, former Globe editor and a founding partner of the collaboration, knew that ''getting to yes'' in Boston is difficult, given overlapping and confusing governmental jurisdictions, neighborhood hegemony, and bare-knuckle politics. His notion was that the media, working with a research university as the honest broker of ideas, should help catalyze new thinking about city-building, based on better public understanding.

That was the overall objective of Beyond the Big Dig, which was principally sponsored by State Street Corporation and The Boston Foundation.

Over a period of six months, the project conducted a series of case studies to document open space lessons for Boston from places like the Viaduc des Arts in Paris, the Ramblas in Barcelona, and Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. The cases were featured in four special editions of Channel 5's ''Chronicle'' newsmagazine, as well as in articles by the Globe's architecture critic, Robert Campbell. The project also sponsored two community forums in different neighborhoods in conjunction with the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. All of the information -- print coverage, video, case studies, community forum ideas, and the national panel's recommendations -- can be found at the Globe's Web site (www.boston.com/beyond-bigdig), as well as on Channel 5's site (www.thebostonchannel.com/ bigdig).

So what pain did Beyond the Big Dig cause?

Whatever it was, it wasn't apparent to the 500 citizens of Boston who packed Faneuil Hall for the Town Forum. A sense of excitement and collegiality prevailed at that event, as differences seemed to disappear in favor of the larger vision of a transformed downtown.

Boston is entering a new era in its history as the result of the Central Artery project and the new land it creates. Consensus and creativity can evolve when citizens are brought together to elevate the debate and make decisions that will shape their future for generations to come.

Thomas J. Piper, principal research scientist at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Timothy Leland, a retired vice president of The Boston Globe, were project directors of Beyond the Big Dig.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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