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Public praise greets MFA's new plans

The touted glass spine will be lowered, Museum Road will remain open, and a gallery will be built under an existing courtyard. These are just three of the subtle but substantial changes to the Museum of Fine Arts' expansion plan, according to filings with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The MFA revealed the designs for a new three-story wing to display American and contemporary art in February 2002. Since then, the museum has quietly been working to raise money -- officials won't say how much of the $425 million campaign goal has been pledged -- and dealing with the bureaucratic realities of the expansion.

The final environmental impact report, handed in to the BRA in June, addressed concerns raised by neighborhood groups and environmentalists after the original announcement. Yesterday the BRA's deadline for public comment on the new filing passed. Only 11 letters were filed. Some simply praised the MFA for making changes to the proposed expansion that, while unlikely to alter the cost or scope of the project, will please MFA neighbors, according to BRA project manager Keith Craig.

Most dramatically, the crystal spine designed by architect Norman Foster will be lowered from 100 to 70 feet. Locals had raised concerns about shadows that would be cast on the Emerald Necklace behind the MFA. In addition, the museum has agreed to keep Museum Road open. It originally had wanted to close it off. The museum also has promised to make sure school buses park off the road, in a lot. This has been a pet peeve with neighbors.

"They're very responsive," Craig said of the MFA. "And this is why we have this lengthy review process. It's what gets us to a point that everyone is happy: the BRA, community officials, the community, and the MFA."

John Stanley, the MFA's deputy director, said that the alterations will not affect the scope of the project. In addition, space that wasn't in the original plan will be installed underground, creating a slightly larger gallery area in the first phase of the project.

"It was a win-win," said Stanley. "The neighbors got what they wanted, and we maintained what we were looking for."

The letters filed with the BRA came mainly from such community organizations as the Fenway Alliance and the Charles River Watershed Association. There were requests that the museum look closely at how storm water drains from the site, that it consider adding more traffic signs to make the area more pedestrian-friendly, and even that the BRA bring in a third party to look closer at the potential shadows to be cast by the new construction. In one letter, State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez wrote, "My constituents are concerned that while the front doors have opened for visits and tourists, the opportunities within the institution have not."

Now that the deadline has passed, the BRA will look over the responses and ask the museum to address the issues raised. Then, sometime before the end of the year, the BRA will hold a board meeting to vote on the overall project, according to Craig.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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