If the Summer Games come to Boston, it’ll be because of ideas like Olympic Boulevard, a “pedestrian spine” that would connect the harbor to a temporary stadium tucked between South Boston and the South End.
The Olympic Boulevard concept, shown in the above illustration, would fill in a longstanding gap in the city’s street grid. Fort Point Channel, now a dull industrial waterway, would feature concessions on barges. Spectators could walk toward the stadium from the Seaport and the Financial District, along a part of Dorchester Avenue that’s now closed to public use. Creating these connections would, in the aftermath of the games, pull together fast-growing areas of the city that are now developing separately. For a mere “three-week party,” that would be no small legacy.
After releasing most of their bid documents last month, Boston 2024 organizers took lots of easy hits for proposing a stadium, on property that isn’t theirs, in an area that they alone call “Midtown.” But there’s a reason such a callow rebranding is an option: Right now, the area in question doesn’t even register on many Bostonians’ mental maps of their own city. It’s never received much love from anyone, and it isn’t known for anything.
The proposed stadium site on Widett Circle lies atop the former South Bay, a once-busy waterway that connected to Boston Harbor via today’s Fort Point Channel. Much of today’s Boston used to be underwater at high tide; historian Nancy S. Seasholes’ book “Gaining Ground” chronicles how, over time, residents filled in former tidal flats. She recounts how, as South Bay narrowed, complaints about it multiplied. “Offensive to the eye at all seasons and malodorous to the nose in warm weather,” declared one commentator a century ago.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of what remained of South Bay was filled to accommodate the Southeast Expressway. Over the years, the rest of the former waterway has attracted some commercial activity, but also some gritty uses — a public works depot, road salt storage, a lot for towed vehicles. “It was surrounded by highways and railroad tracks,” Seasholes told me, “and it wasn’t conducive to much else.”
Today, the demand for living space in Boston is so high that, on either side of the proposed Olympic Boulevard area, new apartments and condos are replacing parking lots and low-slung industrial buildings. In the third-densest major city in the country, new neighborhoods are taking form within a mile or two of downtown. It’s like living in a cramped apartment and suddenly discovering entire rooms that you had somehow overlooked. It’s glorious, and “Midtown” — er, the Fort Point-South Bay corridor — could be the hallway that links those rooms together.
An obvious disclaimer: This is just one part of a much larger plan, one whose particulars are subject to change and whose ultimate price tag is difficult to know. The question of whether and how Boston 2024 can acquire the land it needs on Widett Circle is no small detail.
But 21st-century Boston also needs to be capable of thinking in broad strokes. The filling-in of the Back Bay and South Boston waterfront weren’t inevitable; both required a measure of imagination. If cost overruns are the downside of the Boston 2024 bid, the Olympic Boulevard plan shows the dazzling upside — the possibility that a nondescript strip of water and land, a dingy afterthought in Boston’s history, will emerge as a pulsing new artery through the middle of a resurgent city.
Dante Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.