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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.


A family plan for Central Artery

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 9/1/2002

An idiotic proposal came from a Boston city councilor last week. It's a proposal for the so-called Artery land, the strip of open space in downtown Boston that will be revealed when the Central Artery comes down. The proposal proves, once again, that we don't have a process for deciding what should happen to this critical chunk of the future of Boston.

Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy, the Globe reported, called for ''two to three acres to be set aside for an 18th-century-style street that would take visitors back to Revolutionary-era Boston.'' Something on the order of Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg.

Just what we need: Let's convert our real Boston into a phony, stage-set Bostonland.

Ideas like that are cheap. Hey, why not turn the Artery into Venetian canals? How about a bullfight arena? Maybe a giant balloon launcher for tourists? The problem isn't dreaming up ideas. The problem is that there's nobody in charge of sifting those ideas and figuring out what will really work, what will really make a better city.

Who should be doing that? Here's a suggestion. What we need to oversee the Artery land is a bickering, loving political family, a family whose members sometimes get impatient with one another, but who are sufficiently bonded emotionally so that they keep talking.

It's no dream. We have successful examples. Two that come to mind are the PruPac, the citizens group that's overseen the development of the Prudential Center for many years, and the study committee that, two years ago, created the excellent ''Civic Vision for Turnpike Air Rights,'' a set of guidelines for future development above the Mass. Pike in the Back Bay and South End.

This kind of group is what is missing from the debate so far. Its members would represent all the constituencies of the Artery open space.

Note the word ''represent.'' What we have now is a populist free-for-all, in which anyone (such as a city councilor) can jump into the discussion and fire off comments at any moment. What we need is old-fashioned representative democracy: trusted citizen representatives who serve long-term.

The Air Rights committee is a good model. It worked in close collaboration with Boston's city planners, it was chaired by the noted architect and urbanist David Lee, it was advised by one of Boston's best urban designers, David Dixon, and its members represented every possible interest and viewpoint.

At first, as expected, the members disagreed about a lot. But they hung in over time, they learned from one another, they bonded socially, and eventually they reached a consensus. An equally good example is PruPac, whose members in some cases have been involved for years, and whose minds are made wise by that experience.

I don't see any other way of deciding what should happen on the Artery open space. Parks are no simple matter. They are harder to design well than buildings. A recent example is the less-than-great redesign of Union Square in San Francisco, a park that resulted from a national design competition.

Who would create my ideal loving, bickering family? I'd be perfectly happy to see it done by the city. But for whatever reason, it's clear the state isn't going to give up all its control.

There's probably going to be some kind of city/state authority, maybe a so-called ''trust'' that will manage the process of designing, building, and maintaining the Artery land. That's OK, so long as the trustees aren't hack political appointees.

The trustees should understand three things: They need a vision for the future of the land and what will happen on it; they are not the ones to create such a vision; and hired designers are also not the ones to create it.

Instead, the trust should immediately create my family of advisers and put it to work.

The issue isn't only what to build. Equally, it's what kinds of activities we are going to sponsor. We can't leave those decisions up to the architects and landscape designers who, at this very moment, are somehow supposed to be responding to requests for proposals. A designer needs a client with a clear vision of what's wanted.

In the case of the Artery land, that vision must be democratically arrived at. Without it, we may well end up with a string of architecture displays that represent no serious thought about Boston's needs. City Hall Plaza was designed by excellent architects, and it remains a model of what not to do.

My argumentative family should also think not only about the Artery land itself, but also about the scarred edges of that land, the buildings and empty lots that lie across the street from the new parkland.

You can't solve one side of the street without thinking about the other. Any plan for the Artery land needs to be integrated with the adjacent properties.

The new trust, when and if it's created, can go ahead and hire architects if it wants to, but it should think of itself as doing just that, hiring architects as opposed to buying designs. There needs to be a lot of careful, detailed planning before anyone moves on to design.

My bickering family will do that planning, and when it has agreed on a vision, or maybe two or three alternative visions, of course it must go public with them and respond to comments. But the family would be the one responsible body, and everyone would know whose job it was to come up with a consensus.

I don't think anybody now involved realizes quite how hard it's going to be to get a truly superb result on the Artery land. We should take all the time that's needed.

Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

This story ran on page L3 of the Boston Globe on 9/1/2002.
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