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Kevin C. Phelan and Yanni Tsipis

Eliminating Boston's other big blight

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin C. Phelan and Yanni Tsipis
June 14, 2008

BOSTON LEARNED hard lessons about the costs of serving its downtown core with a modern expressway system as the Central Artery and Massachusetts Turnpike Extension sliced through the historic fabric of the city's neighborhoods.

In response, Boston forged a powerful confluence of engineering talent, political will, and federal funding that turned the Central Artery from a blight to a blessing, creating 27 acres of public open space downtown and opening dozens more acres in South Boston to new economic development. Most important, with the car mostly underground, it no longer blights the urban landscape downtown, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway stands as a magnificent exemplar of the kind of 21st-century city building that can occur when the automotive sins of the past are buried. Now Boston must turn its sights on the elimination of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension.

Ever since the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension in the early 1960s, the city has suffered the environmentally blighting influence of the Turnpike corridor. Today, with turnpike air rights parcels 12 through 15 (near the corner of Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue) about to be put out to bid, the time is right to initiate a dialogue about how best to forever erase Boston's greatest urban chasm.

This dialogue must take place in the context of a fundamental economic reality: only by harnessing public coffers can the turnpike's scar be forever healed in a manner that provides for reasonably scaled urban development that enhances the city's tax base and that could create significant new public open space in some of the city's densest neighborhoods. Absent significant public sponsorship, this otherwise sensible vision for civic-minded new development atop the turnpike corridor is simply fiction.

The visionary but costly Columbus Center project highlights this reality. The availability of federal funds to help create the project's underlying infrastructure, while leaving the responsibility for vertical construction to the developer, would generate new tax base and public amenities from which all Bostonians could benefit. Instead, the project had to be put on hold, leaving open the decades-old scar on the neighborhood as we await the re-start of this necessary project.

The concept of public sponsorship for such ambitious projects finds ample historical precedent. The elimination of the original Back Bay, the once fetid tidal flat filled to create hundreds of acres of new land, was developed by private means with outstanding results. More recently, there was the Central Artery/Tunnel project.

Public sponsorship of 21st-century land-making atop the turnpike would allow the otherwise inextricable link between the cost of public improvements and the density of private development required to finance them to be broken.

Eliminating this fundamental "deck-to-density" relationship would allow portions of the made land above the turnpike to be used for nonrevenue-generating uses such as public recreational amenities, while other portions could be engineered to accept development densities consistent with the city's long-term planning initiatives for turnpike air rights.

Public control of these development parcels would also provide an opportunity to achieve specific public policy objectives such as affordable housing, exceptional environmental sustainability, and world-class design through private development.

Such visionary plans to re-knit neighborhoods, expand the city's tax base, create new public amenities, and bury the streams of cars that flow in and out of downtown every day are certainly not without both precedent and challenges in our great city.

History has shown that it takes a unique moment in time - a moment that captures the confluence of a bold vision, multifaceted political will, and a strong urban economy - to see such great plans to fruition.

We in Boston live in such a moment, a moment that can be seized to lay the groundwork for a long-overdue cure to one of the city's most unfortunate physical ills.

Kevin C. Phelan is president of Colliers Meredith & Grew, a Boston-based real estate firm. Yanni Tsipis is senior vice president of Colliers Meredith & Grew and author of "Building the Mass Pike."

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