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editorial

For site near Faneuil Hall, state should back Boston Museum

The piece of land known as Parcel 9 sits in a unique location about a block from Faneuil Hall, directly on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Its long front stares across the park to the North End. This is a piece of land where Paul Revere once walked, but in recent decades it was hidden behind an elevated highway. Brought back to life by the $14 billion Big Dig, the parcel is ideal for a public building, crowning Boston’s newest open expanse.

But the picture-perfect location is also attractive to builders of luxury apartments and boutique hotels. So when the state Transportation Department, which owns the site, asked for proposals, four finalists emerged: two for commercial and residential buildings; one for a hotel; and one for the Boston Museum, the long-planned gateway to historical Boston and New England.

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Last week, the public presentations concluded. State officials are now preparing to make a designation. Whatever the merits of the proposals for private development, the state would be depriving itself of a bright new attraction if it didn’t designate the site, at least on a contingent basis, to those who are developing the Boston Museum, so they can raise the funds to build it.

The merits of the proposal have never been in question. Compared to similar cities like Philadelphia, Boston lacks a place to tell its story, and a starting point for those who wish to explore its environs. The millions of visitors who come every year, along with millions of Massachusetts residents, experience Boston’s colonial sites and sports and cultural venues without ever learning about the city’s ever-changing religious foundations, its intellectual leadership, its immigrant traditions, and its storied politics.

The five-story glass building contoured to the site would cover all those topics and more. It would also promote historical sites in iconic places like Cambridge, Plymouth, Salem, Gloucester, Lexington, Concord, and Cape Cod, whose attractions are often missed by visitors who aren’t aware of their proximity to Boston. For Bostonians themselves, the 100,000-square-foot museum would host special exhibitions and lectures on Boston life: Its mere presence would be an expression of civic pride.

While these benefits have long been recognized, doubts persist about the ability of museum planners to raise the roughly $75 million necessary to begin construction. The project, which has spent about $7 million so far, was one of three chosen to build on the so-called ramp sites, directly on the Greenway, where the state failed to set aside money to cover concrete ramps leading to and from the highway below. Instead, it was left to the projects themselves to cover the ramps, dramatically inflating the cost of construction. Eventually, the state abandoned plans for all three projects in a frenzy of finger-pointing.

Building on Parcel 9 would be far less expensive. And the architectural proposal, which includes an indoor, all-season market for pushcart vendors, makes far more sense. Still, many officials are skeptical, and would prefer to green-light a private development that might — and that’s a big might — get in the ground quicker.

But let’s be clear: The failure of the ramp sites was one of terrible planning by earlier state administrations, and shouldn’t discredit the creation of new public institutions. Leaders of the Boston Museum — from Linda Whitlock, who raised $109 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs, to Churchill Franklin, who raised $200 million for Middlebury College, to John Fish of Suffolk Construction — believe there is strong donor interest in the museum, but that philanthropists don’t want to set aside funds until they know it’s going to happen. Getting the state designation as developer of Parcel 9 would unlock tens of millions of dollars, museum organizers claim.

The solution, therefore, is obvious: Give the museum the designation for a limited period — say, two years — with a mandate to raise funds. While there’s an immediate need for development along the Greenway, a two-year delay of private projects that aren’t, in themselves, especially distinctive, is a small price to pay for a major public gain. Once the land is given to private developers, it is, for all practical purposes, gone for good.

Governor Patrick and Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, who are known to support the museum in principle, should give it a chance for life now. Generations of visitors will thank them.

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