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Changing the channel


THE MENINO administration is determined to introduce some public enjoyment into the mix of uses on the South Boston Waterfront. Yesterday it unveiled an ambitious ''watersheet activation plan'' for Fort Point Channel that includes dozens of entertainment and educational opportunities ranging from performance barges to bike trails that would extend from Roxbury to the Fan Pier.

The 58-page plan required high levels of cooperation among city planners, harbor activists, area businesses, and residents, many with competing visions. The Gillette Co., for example, views the harbor as an industrial asset. The advocacy group Save the Harbor/Save the Bay sees the area more for recreational boaters, fishermen, and schoolchildren. Another member of the working group, the Boston Harbor Association, looks askance at permanent changes to the official ''harbor line,'' which defines the limits of piers and floats in the channel.

But all parties deserve credit for agreeing that public access to the edge of the waterway, as well as the waterway itself, must be vastly improved. Currently the only public access to the 50-acre channel is by way of a marine services dock adjacent to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge.

Multiple activities are planned along three distinct sections of the channel. Floating classrooms, public landings, and harbor tours will mark what planners describe as ''the hub of the channel'' extending from Boston Harbor to the Summer Street Bridge. Canoe, kayak and paddle boat rentals, along with floating art displays, are slated for the Seawall Basin extending from Summer Street to a new Dorchester Avenue Bridge. Planners also hope to build floating docks and a water trail for small boats along the industrial area of the channel from Dorchester Avenue to the West Fourth Street Bridge.

There is some concern among members of the working group that the channel will be cluttered with activity if every plan is put into action. But the three-year implementation schedule seems measured and responsible.

As for the old Northern Avenue Bridge, the plan vaguely calls for ''creative solutions'' to accommodate both pedestrians above and water transportation below. Boat clearance for the bridge is just 7 feet at mean high water. In 1999 Menino proposed demolition of the bridge as part of a wider commercial development. Yesterday he wisely reversed that stance. Now he is exploring engineering plans that would use ramps to raise clearance to the same height as the Evelyn Moakley Bridge, allowing greater ease for boaters while protecting a vital pedestrian link between the South Boston Waterfront and downtown. Federal funds may also become available if planners find a way to open the bridge to auto traffic, at least during rush hours.

The old Northern Avenue Bridge is an important connection to both the emerging waterfront and the city's industrial past. It deserves a prominent place in any plan.

The most powerful element of the plan is its ability to connect with current construction and design projects. The developer of a hotel and office complex at 500 Atlantic Ave., for example, has committed to building a water transportation facility. And mitigation from the Central Artery project will yield major improvements to the seawalls as well as new public parks near the Children's Museum and the South Bay Industrial Area.

The neighborhoods also get their due. Menino said he envisions public housing tenants from East Boston arriving by water shuttle while Roxbury residents link up to the area via the MBTA's new Silver Line.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority and the dozens of abutters and working group members who crafted the plan have articulated strong links, by land and sea, to what should be an imaginative destination.

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 5/29/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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