The ABC’s of Redefining "Open Space"

For over two years, SAND has asked the Boston Redevelopment Authority to clearly define "open space" in its urban planning documents. Most recently, on 9/26 SAND testified to Environmental Secretary Robert Durand that "open space" was one of the most glaring intentional ambiguities in the BRA Municipal Harbor Plan that had been repeatedly demanded clarification.

The Municipal Harbor Plan allows streets and sidewalks to be included as a fulfillment of "open space requirements" in a developer's plans. In this document, there is no differentiation in the term "open space" between recreational greenspace, commercialized open space (kiosks, etc.), inaccessible open space (tidal pool, fountains). And a body of water (Fort Point Channel) is highlighted as an important "park" because its watersheet presents activation opportunities.

Hilighting the misuse of language, the Boston Globe Editorial Board and Columnist Steve Bailey have put a spotlight on this issue. Bailey recently reported (see below) that Boston's Artery Business Committee has put forward its own legal inquiry to suggest that the word "open space" simply means any development that is open to the public.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 9/22/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

Promises were made

By Steve Bailey, Globe Staff, 9/22/2000

Let's say you get a letter from a guy who says, ''We are not interested in seeing this turn into a legal matter.'' And with the letter the guy includes a 10-page memo from his Downtown lawyer full of therefores and whereases.

It's hard to think he's not saying: We may be seeing you in court, pal.

This is, I am sorry to report this morning, the state of affairs as competing camps crank up the volume in the once-in-a-lifetime debate over what will become of 30 acres in the heart of the city when the Central Artery finally comes down at an unbelievable cost of something like $15 billion.

It is no exaggeration to say that Boston will probably never again have an opportunity to remake such a central part of the Downtown as it does at this moment in the narrow corridor that lies between South Station and the North End. What happens matters a lot, and it should be decided head-on, on the merits, not based on the kind of legalistic gamesmanship our president made so infamous when he questioned the meaning of ''is.''

Now the Artery Business Committee, long the voice of the business community on the Big Dig, is challenging the meaning of ''open space.'' Does open space mean trees and grass and parks, or should ''open'' be read as anything ''open to the public?'' The answer matters, and maybe more than you think.

In making the argument, ABC is reflecting the view of many that the promise, written in stone through successive environmental agreements over the years, to set aside 75 percent of the Artery land for open space was a mistake. The fear is that we are replacing the scar of the Artery with the scar of an empty no man's land in the middle of the city.

Reasonable people can differ. But, so far, no one has been willing to directly challenge the 75 percent open-space commitment because it goes to the very heart of promise that a generation of leaders made to the public to create a great urban space out of an eyesore.

Instead, ABC & Co. have launched a legalistic assault on that promise. In an analysis written for ABC, Hale and Dorr attorney Melvin R. Shuman maintains that the concept of ''open space'' in the regulations governing the Central Artery parcels really means anything that is ''open to the public.''

That means, says Shuman, that public facilities such as a museum or a tennis court could count toward the open space requirement, but so, too, could commercial uses, such as restaurants and retail stores.

''The actual intended uses of the open parcels are diverse,'' he says.

Do I have this right? If we would only think like a lawyer, we could put up a B.J.'s Warehouse on Atlantic Avenue and as long as it has a cheesy ''open to the public'' sign flapping in the Boston Harbor breeze that could be considered ''open space.'' If the South Shore won't bite for the plan to turn the South Weymouth Naval Air Station into the Outlet Capital of New England, maybe the Mills Corp. would be welcomed to build a few million square feet of open space between North and South stations.

Sound ridiculous? You bet it does. The 75 percent commitment to open space should not become a straitjacket.

But now that all those billions of public dollars have been spent, developers should not start with an open slate that will allow them to build anything and everything where so much was expected.

Promises were made, and promises must be kept.

''We are not interested in seeing this turn into a legal matter,'' ABC president Richard A. Dimino wrote to the Conservation Law Foundation last week.

On that, at least, we agree. Send the lawyers home, Rick. Bring in the planners. Time to get on with the work of making this 30 acres something to be proud of for the next 200 years.

You can reach me at (617) 929-2902 or by

e-mail at bailey@globe.com.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 9/22/2000.

© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 9/29/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.



Planners seeking to enliven downtown Boston by creating a thriving street-level corridor when the elevated Central Artery comes down should move quickly to resolve a split in their ranks. Some want a string of parks, with a lot of greenery, while others say development that includes a variety of structures, such as restaurants and a visitors' center, might work better.

The ultimate goal for this project should be an ambitious one: to turn these 27 acres into one of the greatest urban spaces in the world.

Unfortunately there is no blueprint of how to bring this off, especially because Boston's opportunity is unique - a mile-long string of parcels winding from Chinatown to North Station.

But it is clear that the key is human activity. The planners will be able to declare their work a success if, in a few years, the surface artery is bustling with people - an attraction for city-dwellers, commuters, and tourists alike.

Officials decided wisely a decade ago that the best course was to permit development on no more than 25 percent of the land area, requiring that 75 percent be ''open space.'' Those inclined toward more development are not eager to challenge the 75-25 formula, an effort that would be difficult and probably futile. What they are pushing for now is a liberal definition of ''open space.''

A legal opinion obtained this month by Richard Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, concludes that the term should not be interpreted to mean open to the air, but open to the public. It notes that officials have already agreed to count a planned winter garden - green but indoors - as part of the open space.

But the state Department of Environmental Affairs encourages a narrower definition, in which the winter garden is an exception, not an example. Dimino, a member of the task force guiding the planning, says the department's view ''puts blinders on our process.''

But John DeVillars, who as secretary of environmental affairs 10 years ago signed the artery use certificate that is still in force, said yesterday he had in mind ''open air, open space, green space.'' Not everything has to be grass, in DeVillars's view, but ''it should be 100 percent about public benefit.'' An open-air cafe would qualify, in his view, if one didn't have to buy ''a $6 cappuccino to sit there.''

DeVillars's view may be too restrictive to plan a space that will thrive for 12 months a year. A flexible definition of open space should allow a variety of activities. Still, the term should not be so contorted as to encourage a series of built structures, an idea that has long since been rejected.

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 9/29/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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