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Beyond The Big Dig
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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.


No will, no way

By Brian McGrory, Globe Staff, 7/30/2002

Let me see if I have this right. New York City loses its two signature towers in the most brazen attack ever on American shores. There are 2,823 people dead. The medical examiner is dealing with 20,000 body parts. The site clean-up took more than eight months.

And already, they have a plan for redevelopment -- six, actually, all carefully packaged and presented to the public at a cutting-edge town meeting that involved more than 5,000 people gathered at the Javits Convention Center. It's called democracy. It involves thoughtfulness. It takes resilience. And it's all a hallmark of cooperation.

Understood, the specific proposals have been widely panned, mostly because the Port Authority, the owner of the site, is demanding the same 11 million square feet of office space that it lost in the attack. But it's a beginning, and you can bet that sooner rather than later, the mayor and governor of New York will figure out a way to change the makeup of the site.

Compare that to what we have going on in Boston with another piece of public land. We have known for the better part of forever that the Central Artery will be torn down and open space will take its place. In case it hasn't occurred to our public officials, that's actually been much of the point. By burying the monstrosity of a highway, we not only improve traffic in and around Boston, but we, in the parlance of urban planners, knit the city back together.

But hold the needles. City and state officials have had the issue in front of them for some 15 years, and here we are, with the first major tunnel scheduled to be open in just five months, and there is no plan for the land above it.

Actually, forget a plan. We don't even have a mechanism to create a plan, nor the money to fund it, nor the will to advocate it, nor the sense to publicly, properly air it. What we have is what we always seem to get here in the sorry state of Massachusetts governance -- a sophomoric mess, unfolding against a loudly ticking clock, all in the pathetic privacy of a politician's back room.

A couple of weeks ago, Jane Swift, Tom Menino, and Tom Finneran stood around a podium at a downtown press conference announcing a tortured proposal, created in secret, to fund and operate the mile-long piece of land. One of them called it a "blueprint for 21st century Boston."

Right. That convoluted blueprint, calling for committees that answer to panels that talk to trustees, was promptly ripped apart by virtually anyone and everyone who's given the possibilities of this park more than two minutes of thought.

The bottom line: Everyone wants to oversee the new land; no one wants to pay for it. So what we have is the possibility of a camel with five legs.

Be clear how this is playing out. Today is July 30. The legislative session ends tomorrow, which means that if action doesn't occur by then, if a vote isn't taken on the blueprint, the matter will be postponed until January.

Knowledgeable people on Beacon Hill (though, at times, that seems an oxymoron) said yesterday that the Joint Transportation Committee will take a vote on it this afternoon. It will then be presented for votes in the House and Senate by tomorrow. But how much careful thought, how much constructive debate, can be dedicated to such a pivotal issue in less than 24 hours? The answer: barely any at all.

In other words, it's business as usual. We have a Legislature that routinely passes budgets seasons late. Every vote of any consequence seems to be taken in the dark of the night against the pressure of expiring time. We have public officials at every level who never step up and inject an ounce of common sense or a drop of passion into the most prominent issues of the day.

And the Central Artery land is no different. So now the public is left with a choice of rushing mediocrity or searching for something better without the luxury of time.

Thank you, elected officials. You've done it all over again.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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