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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.


Agreeing to be green

By Steve Bailey, Globe Staff, 08/17/2001

Here's a man-bites-dog story for you: Boston's build-'em-high business community is quietly circulating a plan for the heart of the Central Artery corridor and it doesn't include a single four-star hotel or shopping gallery for the rich.

Instead, the Artery Business Committee, long the voice of Boston's business establishment on all Big Dig matters, is developing a proposal that emphasizes open space and civic uses such as a museum, arts space and a visitors' center for the artery corridor between Christopher Columbus Park to the north and International Place to the south.

What's going on here? For starters, of course, the artery corridor is public space, not private. And open-space advocates are already lining up against the business community's vision, which runs counter to their own of a series of small parks that flow largely without interruption from South Station to North Station.

But in a town where we constantly carp about the lack of leadership, it is not a bad thing at all to have the business community wade in a serious way into Boston's once-in-a-lifetime debate over what will become of 30 acres in the heart of the city when the Central Artery comes down in 2004. And, besides, the ideas are intriguing -- if for no other reason than they are not the usual privatize-the-world you too often get from this crowd. The point, for once, is to bring us in, not shut us out.

In Boston, we can disagree on almost anything, and there is indeed much at stake as we try to repair the wound of the Central Artery. But after a decade of talking about what comes next, I'd like to offer a slightly radical observation: We actually agree on far more than we disagree.

No one, for instance, is talking about rebuilding the city atop the Central Artery; you can make a reasonable case for just that, and some brave souls have tried. But it is not going to happen. Instead, we are committed to a greenbelt of small parks, most the size of the popular Post Office Square park. The big question: If we build it, will we come?

The Artery Business Committee proposals, developed with Boston architect and planner Hubert Murray, offer a middle ground between green-space advocates who want open space bounded by more open space and those who would have restored the city where it once was. The central idea is hardly new: program cultural activities to support the open areas and draw people to the downtown civic space.

Specifically, the business committee proposals divide the so-called Wharf District into five small parks. At the northern end, near Quincy Market, the plan calls for a visitors' center, oriented to the harbor, cafes and restrooms. At the other end of the Wharf District, the plan calls for a museum where an exit ramp onto the Massachusetts Turnpike has always made park space problematic. In between, near Rowes Wharf, the plan suggests an underground visual and performing arts center, and a small above-ground community gallery. Add in the long-discussed botanical garden near South Station -- I'm not holding my breath -- and there would be a lot going on.

There are all kinds of questions to be asked. Such as how are we going to pay to build it, much less maintain it? Is the business community willing to put its money where its ideas are? And then: Who's going to go? Is this just another place for the tourists or is there something to keep the rest of us coming back, too?

Tough questions all. But as we sort through them, we should not lose sight of how far we've come and on how much we agree already.

Steve Bailey can be reached at 617-929-2092 or by e-mail at bailey@globe.com.

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