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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.


Finding solutions at the edges

By Herbert Gleason, 8/26/2002

So far no one has come up with a design for the surface of the Big Dig that stirs people to exclaim, "Hey! That's it!" Probably no single idea is going to leap out of the tangle of new construction and old Artery. Neither are we going to find the model in other cities. They provide plenty of ideas, but Boston must find its own answer.

Maybe instead of wondering what to put in the middle, we should look at the edges, as Vienna did when it replaced its circular medieval wall with the Ringstrasse. But Vienna had empty land on the outside, which it filled with monumental buildings -- museums, the Parliament, City Hall, the university.

Boston already has its edges. They are enormously varied. There are dramatic finished portions, as between South Station and State Street. But there are also scars and backsides of buildings never supposed to be seen in public, as next to the Chinatown Gate, the State Street Block, the Mercantile Block, and its neighbors on Commercial Street, even the south side of the Marriott Hotel.

What should be the transition between the artery and the waterfront park, and how should we address the crumple of one-story buildings on both sides of the artery and at Hanover Street? And what is going to become of the Haymarket?

There are a number of empty lots, such as at the entrance to the Callahan Tunnel and the four huge blocks slated for development between Haymarket Square and the North Station. There are also many small, intersecting triangular lots, as in the South End.

Any plan for the greenway must deal with the scars and the gaps, refinishing, filling or extending them, whatever their logic dictates. When the framework is understood, it will suggest how the surface should be treated.

The space is enormously wide, in many places 200 to 300 feet. It will take a lot of ingenuity to make it whole. It is tempting to fill it up with trees, like the Champs Elysees in Paris, or Commonwealth Avenue, which is 200 feet wide. Those avenues are beautiful, but they are not hospitable or energetic.

Nothing should be put in the space between Congress Street and State Street that would obstruct the soaring skyscrapers or Rowes Wharf and the Grain Exchange. On the other hand, plenty of trees should conceal the Harbor Towers and Quincy Market garages.

There will be lots of space in the middle for monuments, sculpture, ornamental paving, benches, pools, and fountains.

Transportation also demands attention. Automobile traffic must be limited, but some sort of public transit should be considered. In Vienna, trolley cars travel in reserved space on both sides of the Ringstrasse. That would be too much here. But lightweight vehicles making frequent stops should connect North Station and Chinatown along Commercial Street, merging with the greenway at State Street. They would fill the underserved needs of the waterfront and the North End and connect North and South stations.

We need a world-class solution to the artery challenge. We do not need a bunch of egotistical abstractions. Boston's framework is powerful and admirable. It should inform whatever is placed within it.

Herbert Gleason was corporation counsel of the City of Boston from 1968 to 1979. He recently visited Vienna.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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