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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.


Reality on the Artery


EVERY DAY, thousands of pedestrians and motorists are witnessing the steady erection of a big square structure with a curved roofline smack in the middle of the Big Dig construction work just south of Congress Street.

Many have been surprised, and with good reason. The building is not large compared with the Federal Reserve Bank nearby, but to people who thought the surface of the Central Artery was destined to become mostly parkland -- the Rose Kennedy Greenway -- it looms incongruously. Seventy feet high and 114 by 76 feet on the ground, it is certainly not going to be a toolshed for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which has been designated to develop the parcel, as well as the next two parcels to the north.

There is an explanation, but it only underlines the lack of coordinated planning that still plagues this project and threatens to turn this generation's most promising city-building effort in Boston into a tangle of missed opportunities.

The structure is an air intake building needed to blow fresh air into the underground Central Artery. From the first, Hubert Murray and other architects worked with the Horticultural Society to design a building that would fit as well as possible with the society's plans. The problem is that those plans, like the ones for all the park parcels, are changing all the time while the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has had to move forward with its work.

When the air intake building was designed, one plan for the parcel called for a large winter garden that would conceal much of the building. A subsequent idea was a more modest seasonally enclosed garden. The latest idea is for an open gateway garden, featuring Japanese plantings, that would be harder to harmonize with the intake building. Mike Lewis, director of the Artery-tunnel project, puts the problem succinctly: "As each day goes by, more and more becomes fixed."

Park planning is moving forward under the direction of the Turnpike Authority but may be diverted if legislation supported by Mayor Menino and most of the leaders on Beacon Hill is approved. Still, that legislation failed in July and has no guarantee of passage next year. Meanwhile, the Turnpike Authority and the Boston Redevelopment Authority are negotiating an agreement for joint management, but again there has been no movement.

Little is certain except for the cold steel going up near Congress Street.

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