In Boston's Central Artery Corridor, the section that traverses the heart of downtown, an unprecedented 30 acres (12 hectares) of open space will be created, giving urban planners a historic opportunity to shape the future of the city.
"The only word I can use to describe it is 'epic,'" states Fred Yalouris, director of architecture and urban design for the project. A professor of architectural history, Yalouris knows all too well both the excitement and unforgiving nature of projects of this scale.
"When we look at the Hausmanns and the Robert Moses [who built parks and highways in New York]," he says, "they built some great things, but they also did a lot of damage." So, true to the tenor of the times, Yalouris speaks in the polite and deferential syntax of urban planning as "organic," "sensitive," and promoting a "mix of uses."
And while averring that public meetings "can be hell," he adds: "the public process has yielded the most knowledgeable citizenry ever. Where else can you go into a public meeting and start talking about FAR (floor/area ratio), and 60 percent of the people know exactly what you're talking about?"
Yalouris continues: "Their level of understanding and sophistication is extremely high, which means that disasters like the destruction of the West End and Scollay Square [a major urban renewal project in Boston in the 1960s] will never happen again."
The Long Road to Concensus
While the elevated highway was cursed by Bostonians almost since its opening, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the real possibility of razing it began to be explored by city planning officials. World-famous urban designers like Spain's Ricardo Bofill and Harvard University's Alex Krieger were brought in to make recommendations.
In 1991, the seminal document, "Boston 2000," was published. This report put in place what locals call the "magic 75/25" formula, the widely agreed-upon guideline that 75 percent of the Central Artery Corridor would be open space.
But it's not just open public space that will be yielded by the Big Dig. Several major developable sites will emerge, and Yalouris and his colleagues will have the task of sorting through dozens of proposals from developers and architects for these plum pieces of "created" real estate.
The air rights for these parcels are the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which is the agency overseeing the Big Dig. At both the northern and southern points along the Central Artery Corridor new buildings will serve as landmarks and gateways to the newly created urban oases.
"There are many architects who are intimately familiar with the issues along this corridor," Yalouris says. "A lot of their ideas are very conflicting. A lot of them conflict with the public interest, and even a lot of the public interests conflict with each other. We need to facilitate an outcome which isn't going to make everybody happy, but which will allow people to say that the custodians of the public realm did right by us."
The Big Plan
In May, the Big Dig released its long-awaited Central Artery Corridor Master Plan, filled with predictably stupefying governmental planning jargon. An example:
"Can the design accommodate the diverse interests of Boston neighborhoods, cultural groups, and festival sponsors?" Answer: Yes! "The range of programs is responsive to community objectives and concerns and judged to be appropriate for the dimensions and potentials of the spaces themselves."
Okay then, it's settled. Everyone agrees that trees and open space are good, and that elevated highways and anything else blocking the public's access to the harbor are bad. But the master plan then attempts to move beyond this motherhood-and-apple-pie stance.
It divides the corridor — which constitutes only about 20 percent of the total open space that will be generated by the overall Big Dig — into districts, each with its own history, architecture, and constituency. From these broad directives, individual planners and landscape architects will be hired to realize their visions:
The Bulfinch Triangle: Mostly loft-style warehouse buildings in a district laid out by Charles Bulfinch, the spiritual father of all Boston architecture.
The North End: The traditionally Italian, close-in residential neighborhood that was most savaged by the elevated highway's construction in the 1950s.
The Wharf District: The largely tourist and hotel district along the waterfront.
The "Knuckle": A small district defined by two iconic 1980s commercial buildings: Philip Johnson's International Place, a Palladian-windowed, post-modernist extravaganza, and Chicago SOM's Rowes Wharf, with a large arched entryway.
20th Century Downtown: The variety of office towers that compose the city's Financial District.
Dewey Square: An important crossroads of major transportation at South Station and the far reaches of the Financial District.
Chinatown/Leather District: The former, mostly restaurants and Asian-owned businesses; the latter, a burgeoning residential district of warehouses converted into lofts.
Green and Open
After the project is completed, this urban stretch between Causeway and Summer Streets will essentially be a string of parks, collectively named the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (An appropriate moniker considering that the freeway it will replace was named after her father, legendary Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald.)
The city's existing cross streets will be extended across the various sites, in roughly their pre-1950s configuration. North and south boulevards will frame the parks, and at key points, ramps will connect the surface roads to the 8- and 10-lane highway beneath.
"Everyone basically agreed from the outset, 'Let's put Boston back together'" says Don Kindsvatter of Wallace Floyd Design Group, one of the primary urban planning consultants on the project. "The North End was separated from downtown, the waterfront from the rest of the city. Everything we could put back together, we did."
At the southern end of the corridor will be the lone concession to a habitable structure: The Massachusetts Horticultural Society's Garden Under Glass. This building, not yet designed but conceived as largely transparent, will front on Dewey Square, a master plan for which has been prepared by Machado and Silvetti Associates.
The other buildings fronting the square indicate the rich architectural soup that is modern Boston: the Beaux-Arts South Station, 1899, by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge; the high-modernist Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 1977, by Hugh Stubbins; Jung Brannen's One Financial Place from 1983; and the post-modern 125 Summer Street, 1990, by Kohn Pedersen Fox.
Dewey Square will also be the site of one of the commissioned sculptures, part of a modest Big Dig art program with a budget of approximately $5 million.
Like Pericles and Hippodamus in ancient Greece and Vitruvius in ancient Rome, Yalouris and his colleagues at the Big Dig have the gratification of seeing their plans materialize before their eyes: "Every day you can look out the window and see progress."
James McCown is a Boston-based architectural journalist and former director of communications for Moshe Safdie and Associates.