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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's original Big Dig

By David Kruh, 8/12/2001

The project was conceived out of desperation. Predictions that a construction job on the same site just two decades earlier would result in an unsightly barrier had come true. And though Bostonians agreed on the need to fix the resulting problem, there was doubt whether existing technology could handle such a huge and complex job.
On top of that, there were bitter public arguments over the funding of the project, the impact on the surrounding communities, and on the design of the resulting open space. We are speaking of the Back Bay's original Big Dig.

It began after a dam was constructed in the 1820s across a marshy area between the Common and the Muddy River. Running along the current alignment of Beacon Street, the dam included several mills powered by the tide, from which the businessmen who funded the dam expected to make a profit. Not only did the dam turn out to be a financial failure; by the late 1840s the 580-acre Back Bay became precisely what critics had predicted 20 years earlier: an open cesspool that bubbled with fermenting raw sewage.

The only answer was to fill in the smelly bay.

As with today's Big Dig, the Back Bay fill-in required construction on a scale never before attempted anywhere in America, let alone in a major city. To transport the gravel and dirt from a quarry near the Needham/Newton line to the Back Bay, a relatively new technology -- a railroad -- had to be built from scratch. Three trains of 35 cars each made 16 trips every 24 hours to and from the quarry for 35 years. At the quarry they were loaded with another new invention, the steam shovel. By 1882 the entire area was filled in, and a few years later the Back Bay was completely built upon.

Unlike today's Big Dig, this one was privately financed by a consortium of private businessmen who actually turned a profit! So did the state, which made so much money it was able to provide funding to the Massachusetts School Fund and several museums and colleges, including Tufts and Williams.

The most striking -- and troubling -- difference between the two projects has more to do with plans -- or lack of thereof -- for the new land each has or will create. Though there were many competing proposals for the Back Bay, its design was, for all intents and purposes, decided upon before the first trainload of gravel made its way into Boston.

However, it is only now, just four years before the anticipated removal of the elevated Artery, that the official Central Artery corridor master plan has been made public by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The Globe's architecture critic Robert Campbell recently wrote that the plan is long on salesmanship and short on specifics and reported that speakers were careful to point out that the public was seeing only suggestions and guidelines for the design of the parcels, which is slated to begin next year.

This is consistent with statements by some members of the Artery's surface commission (reported earlier this year in this paper) that a projectwide plan does not need to be formulated because some parcels should be allowed the flexibility to evolve.

This is absolutely the wrong approach, and here is why: Our perennial New England gloom aside, Big Dig construction will eventually end, and all this dust and noise will be a bad memory. What will last -- what will be our legacy to future generations -- is what we do on top of the tunnel.

Look at the Back Bay. Despite the insinuations of chain stores and Starbucks coffee houses, that neighborhood still maintains the elegance, beauty, and dignity it displayed when first built almost 140 years ago. One of the Back Bay's great lessons is the value of creating a detailed, comprehensive, and enforceable set of guidelines that can withstand the pressures that inevitably build when new land in a crowded city is suddenly made available.

With the demolition of the existing Artery within sight, it is critical that the Turnpike Authority protect these 30 acres by doing the same. After all, opportunities like this come around only once every century and a half.

David Kruh is an author and playwright who once worked as a senior writer and spokesperson for the Big Dig.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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