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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.


Coming Soon: The Wharf District


A successful public space above the depressed Central Artery -- alive with activities and people once the elevated highway comes down in five years -- will depend on a thriving partnership between public and private interests.

Right now it is the private sector that is taking the lead, often in admirable fashion.

Provocative recommendations for the corridor's central segment, running from the entrance of the Callahan Tunnel past Christopher Columbus Park, Long Wharf, the New England Aquarium, Harbor Towers, and Rowes Wharf to Oliver Street, leading to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge, have just emerged from an informal but potent working group.

Dubbed the Wharf District by the planners, this will be the key section of the restored streetscape. All 27 acres of the project, stretching like an urban necklace from North Station to Chinatown, must be planned with care. But the 8.6 acres in the Wharf District, Parcels 12 through 18, will be pivotal.

This section runs closest to Boston Harbor, so it must link downtown with the waterfront, mending the scar that the Central Artery viaduct inflicted 45 years ago. At the same time, these parcels must connect with the sections to the north and south to lend continuity.

Most important, each parcel must be designed and programmed to promote lively public interaction. As the Wharf District report says, ``Residential, commercial, retail, [and] recreational uses, all within walking distance of each other, will complement one another and develop vital street activity for a 24 hour-per-day, four-season cycle.''

To accomplish this, planners wisely recommend blurring the lines between the new surface development and the surrounding neighborhoods. For instance, much more retail and commercial activity should be encouraged on the first floors of many existing buildings in the area.

The Wharf District planners also call for more residential units nearby. This is a worthy goal, but suggestions from some participants that part of the Artery surface land itself be used -- perhaps for an eight- or nine-story residential building or hotel on Parcel 18 -- should be approached with caution. Creative planning can make the project stay true to the long-established goal of 75 percent open space while providing a wealth of activities so no one will mistake the Artery space for a giant green serpent of grass plots. Still, no amount of creativity can call eight stories of bricks open space.

The most encouraging part of the Wharf District report is its enthusiasm for ambitious goals. The Aquarium's president, Jerry Schubel, who led the group, says ``no city in modern history has had such an amazing opportunity.''

Joining a large chorus, Schubel's group calls for a decision on what agency will be in charge of the new development. The city, the state, the Legislature, and the Turnpike Authority have dithered for more than a year over plans to make a plan. A proposal for a commission to make a recommendation seems little enough to hope for. Now agreement has been reached on the membership of such a commission, and the Legislature should act.

The optimism of the Wharf District working group cannot be fulfilled unless the public sector catches up with its eager private partners.

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