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Designing opposition

It sounds idyllic, the idea of four acres of parkland in the middle of town where once sat a rusting, dilapidated highway. But the vision of the Rose Kennedy Greenway could never be realized without a good fight. And one has arrived, somewhat ahead of schedule.

It pits EDAW, an internationally renowned landscape design firm, which was hired to design the park in the wharf area, against the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has taken a dim view, loudly expressed, of the firm's planning.

The project itself is of huge importance. Part of the promise of the Central Artery project was that it would do wonders for the design of the city. It would, in architect-speak, "knit together" the areas of the city severed by the old highway. This has major opportunity plastered all over it.

The park EDAW is designing is the centerpiece of the greenway, an eight-acre swath divided into three districts. The firm seemed like the people to get the job done. Based in San Francisco, it has won acclaim for projects around the world, including in Atlanta, Miami Beach, and Suzhou, China. It is currently building a major park in London. EDAW has fans in many of the cities where it has worked.

One of them is David Dermer, the mayor of Miami Beach, where the firm is working on its third project.

"I have only good things to say about them," Dermer told me yesterday. "From what I've seen, they've done quite well."

EDAW might be well-received in Florida, but it's getting hammered here, partly for reasons beyond its control.

The city once controlled the area to be developed, but was forced to sell it to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in one of the pieces of legislation creating the Central Artery project. The Menino administration, not surprisingly, is unhappy about ceding oversight of a major project in the middle of town to a state agency. That might have something to do with the vitriol from City Hall, where BRA officials have been upfront with their view that the designers don't know what they're doing.

"I fear their lack of design vision is too big a gap to fill," the city's chief planner, Rebecca Barnes, wrote of EDAW in a memo to the Turnpike Authority in early June. Her criticism was seconded by two design groups, the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects.

The big surprise is that the company has come under so much criticism so early in the process. This park will still be in the design phase for a long time to come -- but that hasn't stopped critics from carping as though they were critiquing a finished product.

In fairness to the city, the Turnpike Authority isn't the first agency you might entrust with designing a string of parks. Barnes said yesterday she believes there is no vision for how the pieces of the finished project should fit together. The greenway is a string of parcels, and each parcel has its own developer. The BRA says this piecemeal approach guarantees a missed opportunity.

EDAW officials are clearly surprised by the criticism. They have scrambled to add people with Boston ties to their design team in the hope of overcoming their reception as out-of-towners who don't seem to get it.

Maybe what they should get used to is the reality that development is a much more bruising process here than in South Beach. It doesn't help when big agencies and the big egos of the people who run them are fighting over your project.

The planners will be back in town today, for meetings at City Hall and with the citizens' advisory panel that is overseeing the project. Maybe they will get a warmer reception than they have been getting, but they probably shouldn't count on it. When designing public spaces in Boston, getting beaten up is a rite of passage.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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