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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.


Let's not be dense

By Sam Allis, Globe Staff, 09/09/2001

Boston is smack up against the vision thing. The Central Artery project may not be completed until America's missile defense shield is operational, but that doesn't stop us from wondering in increasing numbers what this place will look like when it's done.

I don't have a clue. Despite -- no because of -- a kaleidoscope of indecipherable maps I've been shown over the years, I can't picture the New Boston. I have no sense of the green space over the depressed highway, the shiny new waterfront.

But then neither does Moshe Safdie, the distinguished architect who has major projects underway from India and Israel to Toronto and San Diego. "The Central Artery is intriguing because we have yet to understand it," he says from his Somerville headquarters. "It's very hard to grasp the whole picture. I can't envision it and I'm in the business."

I love that.

If the New Boston is an abstraction, the current building boom in the city is not. It is here and now and relentless. This tattoo of construction invites the unavoidable question: Is Boston overbuilding?

Is it so deep in the thrall of developers that the very things that draw people here -- the scale and restraint -- are being overwhelmed by forgettable glass-and-steel towers you can find in Calgary and Tulsa? Are we witnessing the unholy logic of capitalism that demands, in the name of a larger tax base, the consumption of every empty lot in town, after which the predators move on to feast elsewhere?

Put another way: Have you ever met a developer who looks into the mirror in the morning and just says no?

"That's an overly sentimental attitude," maintains Safdie, who designed the Cambridge Center and Marriott Hotel complex in Kendall Square among other local projects. "We need to protect and enhance what we have. By and large we're doing that."

That said, he is troubled by the building frenzy. "We're in a mood of satisfying the needs of developers or lose out," he adds. "It's not a healthy atmosphere to be in, and it's not just a Boston problem."

The boom is about more than capitalism. "It is the desire to be in the middle by those who can pay to be there," says Safdie. "The affluent want to be there now. In the '70s, they didn't." (He sighs over his decision in 1978 not to buy a town house on Commonwealth Avenue because of its extravagant $220,000 price tag.)

Overbuilding involves two separate issues -- open space and density. "As the city grows, what action do we take to expand the open space park system of the city and region?" he asks. "Unlike London or New York, we're not well-endowed with major parks. The other question is, how far do you go with density in the downtown area?"

A major park in South Boston would have been wonderful, he notes, but such open space would cost money and political capital that neither city government nor the public appears willing to spend. "The problem in North America is we're in an era of suspicion toward major public intervention," he says. "Neither Central Park nor Golden Gate Park would have happened today. Contrast this with the audacity of Robert Moses."

Safdie is diplomatic on the density issue but clearly swims with the less-is-more school. "I'm not yet alarmed," he says about the situation here, "but in Montreal, Jerusalem, Boston, it's better when you don't go for extreme densification."

Density should always be determined by what's around it. A 30-story structure that fits in the financial district may be a disaster elsewhere. Safdie finds the 18-story Boston University dormitory that looms over Storrow Drive "an affront" for its utter lack of context. (He was critical of the John Hancock Tower when it was built for the same reason.)

He is also troubled by the possibility of a hotel complex built on the tundra of City Hall Plaza: "You can't trivialize that site. It is an important civic space, not a development parcel."

Safdie may be the only other person in the Western Hemisphere besides me who actually likes City Hall. "It still feels vital and relevant despite its shortcomings," he says, citing its interior problems handling light. "It hasn't an ounce of fashionability, and in that sense it's timeless."

"Fashionability" is no compliment coming from him. He won't name names but deplores "a fashion dress parade" of new buildings he is convinced will soon feel "very, very dated."

But he has only accolades for what the Big Dig will do to the city. The money, the delays, the scandals -- they will fade into the shock of the new: "What now separates, it connects." Except the Charles River and the harbor. Granted, there is a modest park system planned with the Central Artery project to extend some green space from the east end of the Esplanade to the North Washington Street Bridge.

But this pales next to Safdie's connective plan when Kevin White was mayor to extend the Esplanade to the harbor, complete with a grand canal skirting North Station and an island where the Nashua Street Jail is now modeled after the Ile St. Louis in Paris. Wow.

Why aren't we thinking that way anymore?

Sam Allis can be reached by e-mail at allis@globe.com

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