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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.


A casualty of Artery politics

By Wellington Reiter, 7/24/2002

Observing the painful process of creating a decision-making body to manage the surface artery reminds one of how difficult it is to assemble the essential ingredients of an effective client: (1) a clear vision, (2) a mandate to make reasoned judgments and decisions, and (3) the financial wherewithal to turn those directives into actions.

While the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority certainly did not have the complete package, it featured some important elements.

Should the authority recede into the background regarding the design of the open spaces it has created, we may be surprised by the voids left in its wake.

One of the absences will be readily apparent -- a tall sculptural feature in Dewey Square that was intended not only to give a focal point to this complex interchange but also to recognize the thousands of men and women who have labored to complete what will be one of the most complex civil engineering undertakings, not to mention a pivotal moment in Boston's history. Six years in the planning, this civic-minded project was initiated, designed, and engineered through funds set aside by the Artery Arts Program for precisely such purposes nearly a decade ago. The design was intended to complement the surrounding buildings and a future urban garden, much like that proposed by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. And as one of the last components to be installed as part of the Central Artery construction, the sculpture was to be the symbolic equivalent of the "golden spike" that marked the completion of one of this country's other great transportation infrastructure projects.

Given that the mayor's task force has recently adopted a recommendation that the history of the city be used as a guide in developing the new parks and public spaces when the elevated roadway is removed, such a gesture would seem to be a fitting contribution to the urban landscape and an appropriate salute to an extraordinary achievement.

As the demand for a new administrative body to guide the surface artery planning process has reached consensus, a byproduct has been a need to portray the Turnpike Authority as a self-serving and inappropriate entity for such a task and its modest cultural gestures - however well intentioned and conceived - as unwelcome distractions. While the Turnpike Authority may indeed be an unlikely city planning agency, it has much to be proud of and as recently as March was still touting its well-regarded public art program, including the commemorative monument. But without notice, and surely as a reflection of the lack of support for the civic void that it tried to fill, funding for the Dewey Square commemorative marker was recently pulled and the concrete foundation that was already in place presumably abandoned.

The handling of the Dewey Square monument is a case study in the pitfalls of having a client with conflicting goals and objectives. The Turnpike Authority has forever been in a double bind.

On one hand, it is under immense pressure to demonstrate fiscal responsibility with the federal and state dollars with which it has been entrusted and to focus on its primary mission of highway construction. On the other hand, the Artery must weave its way politically, physically, and, if at all possible, politely through Boston and in the process has been routinely jostled by local interests hoping to jar fragments of the $14 billion loose for civic amenities beneficial to abutters and neighborhoods. Thus, the defensive nature of the Turnpike Authority's posture is completely understandable and, for some, has presented itself as an opportunity to be exploited.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the authority has done a masterful job of keeping the city functioning while stealthily installing one of the modern marvels of civil engineering beneath our streets. In return for the inevitable disruption that the construction has caused, the authority's commitment to a tree-lined boulevard, the Zakim Bridge, and the occasional flourish such as the Dewey Square monument demonstrated its desire to do more than simply shuffle asphalt from one location to another.

Should the Turnpike Authority be removed from the eye of the open-space storm, it will be interesting to see whether it then coolly plays the role of uninterested road builder or is persuaded to restore some of its civic commitments and, in particular, a permanent reminder of what an extraordinary project it has brought to completion.

Wellington Reiter, principal of Urban Instruments Inc., designed the Dewey Square art project and supporting urban plan.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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