Massachusetts didn’t launch the Big Dig as a moneymaking scheme. The Central Artery tunnel project was aimed at streamlining traffic below ground, and repairing the highway-scarred streets above. Project planners considered the short-term costs to be secondary to the long-term benefits that would flow to residents, businesses, and visitors, and that philosophy has guided the development of the parkland and buildings that replaced the elevated Central Artery.
That enlightened era looks endangered now. A group of Boston residents charged with vetting development on one of the last unclaimed Central Artery development parcels believes the state is contemplating making a cash grab along the Artery. A state official has told community members that the state is preparing to offer a key piece of land along the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the highest bidder. Such a move would be short-sighted, and run counter to two years of planning. Even more, by elevating cash considerations above civic ones, the state is potentially turning decades of Artery planning upside-down.
The sliver of real estate known as Parcel 9 isn’t a likely candidate to instigate a knock-down, drag-out development fight. The block-long parcel is small and awkwardly shaped. For a long time, it was best known as the lot where Haymarket produce vendors would toss their used pallets. It sits sandwiched between the North End and Faneuil Hall. It offers a signature new development opportunity across the street from the Blackstone Block, the largest remaining chunk of 17th-century Boston streets.
The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority got control over Parcel 9 because the agency oversaw the Big Dig. The state has been trying to unload the land for four years. The Pike’s first effort at developing Parcel 9 ended in a storm of criticism from the surrounding neighborhoods, and from the Haymarket pushcart vendors. The Pike chose not to name a winning bidder; instead, the state created an advisory committee of local residents, businesspeople, and architects, and asked the committee to put forward a common vision for the redevelopment of Parcel 9.
Transportation officials explicitly told the committee that they wanted to enable a good development, and that the state’s monetary take from the future development would be secondary. The advisory committee told the state it wanted a modestly scaled development that complemented the Blackstone Block, and that deepened the market activity at the Haymarket.
MassDOT recently named two final bidders. One is the Blackstone Market, a proposal by the developers of South Boston’s hot Liberty Wharf complex to construct a ground-level market, three restaurants, 50 apartments, and a rooftop farm; the second proposal is for a hotel.
MassDOT’s community advisory committee has lined up forcefully behind the market because it would significantly deepen the agricultural activity at the Boston Public Market, which is slated to open in a DOT-owned building next door, and at the Haymarket. It also doesn’t loom over the Greenway the way the hotel proposal would. There’s little evidence the surrounding community backs the hotel over the Blackstone market proposal, so if the state goes with the hotel bid, it will be because of the money. In a recent letter to MassDOT, the advisory committee recounted a November meeting at which a DOT executive “suggested that community considerations would have virtually no role,” because “financial considerations would be the decisive criterion in the final analysis.”
MassDOT now says it’s weighing both financial and community concerns, but the agency has not publicly rebutted the advisory committee’s letter, which the agency received two weeks ago. If both projects are financially viable, the community’s preference should win out. That’s because the history of the Big Dig, and of the Greenway development parcels, is one of elevating shared civic purpose. There isn’t one Central Artery parcel that has been sold to the highest bidder, no strings attached. Big Dig ramp parcels were set aside for community and cultural uses. The ground floor of the Parcel 7 garage is being converted to a year-round nonprofit public market. The state once considered filling in the entire space where the elevated Central Artery stood with new buildings; it built a park instead, because the Artery is communal space. These aren’t parcels that get sold off to the highest bidder, because they were created with a shared civic purpose. That civic purpose remains as important as ever.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.