It is one of the most vexing urban design challenges facing Boston: How do you cover the three Big Dig highway ramps that scar the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway?
After the failure of a plan to put grand civic buildings over the ramps, city and state officials are launching a new effort to tackle the problem, and this time they are taking the matter straight to the public.
By the end of the year, officials said, they will be holding meetings where architects and members of the public can present their best ideas for adorning the ramps, whether with landscaping, public art, new walkways, or even small structures such as cafes or kiosks.
Any idea, they insist, is worth discussing.
“This is a blank slate in terms of what we’re going to do,’’ said Georgia Murray, chairwoman of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages the park system.
The conservancy will cohost meetings with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discus the options for the three ramps - one near North Washington and New Chardon streets, another opposite Faneuil Hall, and the third near Rowes Wharf.
No matter what solution is devised, cost will likely remain a significant issue. The $31 million that was appropriated years ago for covering the ramps was diverted last year to fill gaps in the state budget. Transportation officials said they will replace half of that money over the next three years, offering about $15 million to help cover or disguise the ramps.
At the completion of the Big Dig, state officials initially approved three buildings over the ramps: a YMCA over the ramp at the northern edge of the Greenway; a Boston Museum devoted to the city and state history at North and Cross streets; and a New Center for Arts and Culture by Rowes Wharf.
After several false starts, state officials last year finally scrapped plans for the buildings after the YMCA became the last project called off because of the high cost of constructing the foundation for its building.
A state engineering study confirmed that the YMCA building alone would have soaked up all of the $31 million previously appropriated for the three ramp parcels.
In the past several months, some officials have suggested publicly that the Greenway works better without large structures interrupting its stretches of openness.
“Given the economic realities we face and the better understanding we now have of how the Greenway functions in the downtown, we are obligated to rethink whether we should divide it into sections’’ by constructing buildings or other visual barriers, said Kairos Shen, chief planner for the BRA.
He suggested it might be simpler and more effective to use landscaping and other embellishments to help shield the ramps from view. That solution already works reasonably well at the ramps near Rowes Wharf, which are hidden by a wall of trees and shrubs.
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Richard Davey pledged to collaborate with city officials and residents to make sure the matter is finally dealt with in all three locations.
“These ramp parcels are important to the continuity and flow of the Greenway,’’ he said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Greenway Conservancy, the City, and would-be developers to create a plan that fulfills the vision to unify the many unique neighborhoods of Boston.’’
But some North End residents remain skeptical that the state’s talk will ever turn into action.
“I’ve given up on it,’’ said Bob Venuti, a lifelong resident who lives near the ramp near North and Cross streets. “A lot of people really pushed for the [Boston] Museum, but the cost overruns were unbelievable. It’s frustrating that it keeps going on like this.’’
The two large ramps adjacent to the North End are the most disruptive to the Greenway. The one near Venuti is surrounded by a large chain-link fence that does nothing to shield it from view; the other, at New Chardon and North Washington streets, creates safety issues for pedestrians who must cross several lanes of traffic to get to the Greenway from the Bulfinch Triangle neighborhood.
Aaron Michlewitz, the state representative for the area, said the one thing residents know they don’t want over the ramps is new housing. They are concerned it would worsen traffic congestion and parking problems.
Other than that, he said, most residents are open to a range of ideas, from public art to better walkways and landscaping to obscure the ramps and improve circulation around them.
“The community has been patient, but it’s frustrating for many people that the ramps haven’t been covered,’’ Michlewitz said. “They are noisy and pollute the air around a lot of homes. It’s not the environment we envisioned.’’Casey Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.