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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.


Defining 'open'

PLANNERS SEEKING to enliven downtown Boston by creating a thriving street-level corridor when the elevated Central Artery comes down should move quickly to resolve a split in their ranks. Some want a string of parks, with a lot of greenery, while others say development that includes a variety of structures, such as restaurants and a visitors' center, might work better.

The ultimate goal for this project should be an ambitious one: to turn these 27 acres into one of the greatest urban spaces in the world.

Unfortunately there is no blueprint of how to bring this off, especially because Boston's opportunity is unique -- a mile-long string of parcels winding from Chinatown to North Station.

But it is clear that the key is human activity. The planners will be able to declare their work a success if, in a few years, the surface artery is bustling with people -- an attraction for city-dwellers, commuters, and tourists alike.

Officials decided wisely a decade ago that the best course was to permit development on no more than 25 percent of the land area, requiring that 75 percent be "open space." Those inclined toward more development are not eager to challenge the 75-25 formula, an effort that would be difficult and probably futile. What they are pushing for now is a liberal definition of "open space."

A legal opinion obtained this month by Richard Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, concludes that the term should not be interpreted to mean open to the air, but open to the public. It notes that officials have already agreed to count a planned winter garden -- green but indoors -- as part of the open space.

But the state Department of Environmental Affairs encourages a narrower definition, in which the winter garden is an exception, not an example. Dimino, a member of the task force guiding the planning, says the department's view "puts blinders on our process."

But John DeVillars, who as secretary of environmental affairs 10 years ago signed the artery use certificate that is still in force, said yesterday he had in mind "open air, open space, green space." Not everything has to be grass, in DeVillars's view, but "it should be 100 percent about public benefit." An open-air cafe would qualify, in his view, if one didn't have to buy "a $6 cappuccino to sit there."

DeVillars's view may be too restrictive to plan a space that will thrive for 12 months a year. A flexible definition of open space should allow a variety of activities. Still, the term should not be so contorted as to encourage a series of built structures, an idea that has long since been rejected.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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