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Greenway planners shifting approach

Simplicity, open vistas finding favor, as major building projects fail

Building on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway has proven much more difficult than its architects anticipated. Building on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway has proven much more difficult than its architects anticipated. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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As first envisioned, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway was to be adorned with a series of ultramodern buildings — a garden under glass, museums, and a gleaming YMCA — that would bring crowds to a welcoming open corridor traversing Boston’s core.

But four years later, with none of them yet built, park planners and local leaders are coming to an unexpected realization: The failure to build may prove a blessing. They increasingly believe the Greenway works without bulky new structures, offering expansive views of the city and its waterfront. Even the gleaming ribbon of traffic emerging from the web of cables of the Zakim Bridge only to disappear again beneath the park’s surface is mesmerizing in its way.

“Now that people can walk and experience the Greenway, I’m not sure that putting buildings there is necessarily the best thing to do,’’ said Kairos Shen, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “We have to ask what is the impact of having structures in these critical locations.’’

Shen and others are coming to appreciate a building-free Greenway for another reason: It is much harder and more expensive than they initially thought to get the cultural and community institutions built.

The key problem is the buildings were slated to go over the ramps that bring traffic to and from the submerged highway. That means platforms would have to be built to support them, at much higher cost to the developers.

In 2006, the state set aside $31 million for platforms at three parcels, for the Boston Museum, the New Center for the Arts and Culture, and a new YMCA. But a recent analysis of the Y’s project determined its platform alone would cost $25 million.

“We’re just now learning the full extent of the costs here, and we haven’t come up with a plan to deal with it yet,’’ said Peter O’Connor, head of real estate for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which last year took over responsibility for developing over the ramps from the now-defunct Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

With its budget problems, the state doesn’t have money for these increased construction costs, which have also added to the fund-raising problems of the developers of the buildings. The backers of the New Center have scrapped their project altogether, while the Boston Museum team is exploring a nearby site, off the Greenway. And the YMCA, the only one of the three still in play, has scaled back its proposed building to lower costs.

Despite the new thinking about keeping the Greenway open, YMCA officials said they are still trying to raise about $20 million for a four-story, 75,000-square-foot building over the ramps along North Washington Street. But they are well short of the goal.

“I’m surprised by the lack of interest by the big foundations and corporate Boston in supporting this project,’’ said John Ferrell, president of the YMCA of Greater Boston. He said some of the reluctance may be because of the slow economy, but that there seems to be something else at play: “I guess it’s the legacy of the Big Dig,’’ Ferrell said. “No one wants anything to do with it. I don’t know what other organizations have found, but that’s what we’re finding.’’

For now, state and city officials support the Y. But they are moving in a parallel process to examine whether the Greenway would be better off without any new buildings to clutter it.

O’Connor, for example, said state and city officials should now solicit public input over what to do next: “Do we keep working in this direction or think about another way of covering those ramps?’’

The ramps cannot be left as is. Under the terms of the Big Dig permit, the state is legally obligated to cover them. Moreover, they create gaping holes that disrupt the flow of the Greenway, in places forcing pedestrians to detour around them and showering the park with traffic noise.

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, whose district includes the North End, has filed legislation that would provide public funds to defray the costs of building over the ramps. But even if no buildings get built, he said, the state must find a way to cover the ramps.

“It’s a noise thing and an aesthetics thing for the people of the North End,’’ said Michlewitz.

Some of his constituents are tired of waiting.

“For years I listened to public officials say, ‘If we can’t find developers to build, we’ll cover over the ramps,’’ said Nancy Caruso, chairwoman of the North End Waterfront Central Artery Committee. “So to me, that would be the honorable thing to do. But what’s honor today? Maybe I’m too old-fashioned.’’

Meantime, the nonprofit conservancy that manages the Greenway for the state is exploring its own solutions. For example, on the parcel near Faneuil Hall that was to host the Boston Museum, the conservancy is proposing to plant a half-acre tree nursery, and paint a mural to liven the concrete walls of the ramp there.

The nursery would have more than 150 trees, selected for their ability to thrive in urban environments. Once old enough, the trees would be harvested incrementally and relocated to schools, community gardens and neighborhoods streets around the city. State and Boston officials have indicated early support for the nursery, but would need to give formal approvals.

Conservancy officials are also preparing to plant additional trees and other landscaping in the space between High Street and Seaport Boulevard where the New Center for Arts and Culture was to go.

Those additional plantings, as well as the nursery, are intended to be interim improvements. But conservancy officials said if they prove popular, the parcels could permanently become park space.

“I think people’s reaction to these parcels as open space should inform the question of what should happen to them in the future,’’ said Nancy Brennan, executive director of the conservancy. “This is a time to reframe our vision of the Greenway and what it should be. It’s a chance to get it right.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.