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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 center for all?

By Steve Bailey, Globe Staff, 10/11/2002

There are grand ambitions for the 27 acres in the heart of Boston when the Central Artery finally comes down, but not nearly enough money to make it all happen. Now a new player is about to emerge that combines both the ambition and the resources to do something very special: Some of the biggest hitters in Boston's Jewish community have been working quietly for two years and have raised $1.5 million in seed money to build a center for arts and culture, which could become a signature attraction for the new downtown parkway.

The center, if it ends up on the Artery at all, would be for all of Boston, not just for the Jewish community, say organizers. They have, in fact, dropped the word "Jewish" from the project's name as their thinking has evolved, and are now calling it the New Center for Arts and Culture. Says Norman Leventhal, the prime mover behind Post Office Square Park and a string of landmark Boston buildings: "We want to reach out to the broader community."

Behind the scenes, Leventhal and his colleagues have been getting strong signals from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and others that the center will have to be more nonsectarian if they hope to secure one of the precious Artery sites. "The Artery has to be a common ground," says Rick Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee. "It would be inconsistent with the spirit of the place to just have the space defined as speaking to one group. They understand that."

Besides Leventhal and his son-in-law, Edwin Sidman, the core group behind the project include such prominent Jewish executives and philanthropists as Robert Beal, Steve Belkin, Robert Brustein, Lizbeth Krupp, and Barbara Cole Lee. They have named Shoshana Pakciarz, vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, as executive director, hired a prominent Toronto consulting firm, and started looking for downtown sites, on and off the Artery. The group will unveil its plans in the spring with an ambitious festival in collaboration with the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Afro-American History called "Words on Fire," focusing on the 70th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings.

Those who have been briefed on the plans say the group is most interested in Parcel 17, located on the Artery just in front of the Boston Harbor Hotel, which was built by Leventhal. The center would be underground, where there is as much as 60,000 square feet of space above the roadway. Pakciarz said the center would include three galleries for the visual arts and an auditorium for music, dance, and theater. Above ground, there would be an ornamental "head house," along the lines of the landmark entrance that famed architect I.M. Pei designed for the Louvre in Paris.

The center is one of several proposals for the Artery. More than a decade after being given control of three parcels near South Station, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society has still raised only $1.5 million in seed money for its $75 million "Garden under Glass." Supporters of a Boston museum want to build near the North End, but their recent split with the Bostonian Society and the financial mess there will not help their cause. The Society for New England Antiquities and the National Park Service also have designs on the Artery.

Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan calls the New Center for the Arts and Culture one of the most exciting ideas in the city today. This from the center's mission statement: "Our mission is to build community by exploring Jewish culture and the interconnectedness of all cultures, creating a dynamic setting that celebrates artistic excellence, welcomes diversity, nurtures creativity, and encourages participation in the arts and humanities."

If Leventhal, Sidman, and their group hope to find a home in the heart of the Artery, demolished and rebuilt at a cost of nearly $15 billion, they still have some work to do -- starting with broadening their mission and its membership.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at 617-929-2902 or at bailey@globe.com.

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