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Above the Cut
The Big Dig selects landscape teams for three new parks in downtown Boston.
By Allen Freeman

In January the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chose a landscape design team for a new park next to Boston's Chinatown. The announcement came after selections in November and December of two other teams to design parks near the North End and the Wharf District. The parks are significant, if not dominant, in the overall context of the Big Dig, Boston's 7.8-mile system of underground highways, ramps, and bridges that is replacing the gridlock-provoking, six-lane, elevated Southeast Expressway (built in the 1950s) and the highway segments that feed into it. Together, the park designs provide an inkling of what major portions of the new tunnel through downtown, already under construction for a decade, may look like after it is covered over and landscaped sometime in 2005.


Big Dig statistics include a $14.6 billion price tag, making it the most expensive public works program in U.S. history, and creation of an estimated 250 acres of new parks and open space, including an island in Boston Harbor augmented with Big Dig dirt. The new downtown parks will be spotted along a linear path of about 30 acres; the rusting elevated highway that currently occupies the land will be history (see Critic at Large, Landscape Architecture, February). A combination of green space, commercial and residential buildings, and restored surface streets will attempt to reknit and heal the city.

Covering a total area of about eight acres, the three new parks are estimated to cost $26.2 million to design and build. The landscape architecture firms selected include the following:

EDAW of Alexandria, Virginia, and the Copley Wolff Design Group of Boston were selected to lead the design of the Wharf District Parks. Four acres and four blocks long, this is the largest land parcel; the cost estimate is $16 million. The design is driven in part by the need to respond to the changing building scales: high-rises to the west and stouter waterfront buildings, including the Rowe's Wharf mixed-use complex, to the east.

Wallace Floyd Design Group of Boston and Gustafson Partners of Seattle will lead a group to design two parks near City Hall on two contiguous blocks totaling slightly less than three acres. Their design for the North End Parks abstractly expresses the history of that particular spot in the city. The cost is placed at $8 million.

A team that includes Carol R. Johnson Associates of Boston, Turenscape of Beijing, and Communications Arts of Boulder, Colorado, will design the Chinatown Park, located near South Station and Dewey Square. The users will be the residents of Chinatown and other surrounding neighborhoods. The concept for a park of about three-quarters of an acre is flavored by Chinese cultural references. Cost: $2.2 million.

The teams were selected in two stages. The first stage, submittal of qualifications, resulted in a short list of 13 teams, which then were entered in a competition of ideas. The drawings accompanying this article were submitted as one of the means by which the teams were judged on their ability to design. The 13 teams also were evaluated on their ability to perform as teams and apply creative ideas to solve design problems of the particular parks. The designs represented by the drawings are subject to extensive revision, and in fact the final designs may differ considerably from the submitted plans.

At the time this article was written, a period of public input was to begin in February. The Boston Society of Landscape Architects in collaboration with the Boston Society of Architects planned a two-day event during which four panels of landscape architects and architects, plus a moderator, were to tour the three sites and then analyze the designs of all 13 finalists. The clients and selected teams were to attend. The purpose was to identify for consideration the good ideas by designers who were eliminated in the selection process. All the presentation boards were to go on public display at the Boston Public Library during February, and a series of programs open to the public was to examine such issues as parks maintenance, cultural uses and perspectives, and the employment of history in design.

How do the design teams feel about a process with virtually no client input up front and lots of critique after they were selected? Tom Doolittle, ASLA, of Carol R. Johnson Associates found the process a little bittersweet. "We knew we weren't picked to execute the design we provided them," he says, "but frankly, I love the design we did."

Wharf District Parks A series of very large traffic islands in the median of a boulevard, the Wharf District Parks as designed by EDAW and Copley Wolff are unified into a long green space.

Along the west edge of the parks, nearer downtown's concentration of skyscrapers, is a 40-foot-wide paved promenade. A low serpentine wall for seating lines the promenade's eastern flank, and a series of retail kiosks are placed at regular intervals along the walkway. The kiosks are triangular, pointed, glass-front structures 60 feet tall that would also function as lanterns and would visually mediate between the low park and the tall buildings to the west, says Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, of EDAW. Their form was suggested by the towers of a new cable-stay bridge crossing the Charles River, he says.

The two center blocks—on either side of Central Street, which leads to the New England Aquarium to the east—are almost mirror images of each other. About half of each of these two blocks is field edged by a ground plan meant to resemble a wave. Beach grasses would fill out the wave patterns. A pair of tall fountains, in the form of cauldrons or tall goblets, would feature rising and falling water synchronized with the ocean tides.

At the southern end, two blocks are combined into one, with a large fountain placed off-axis; a street that ends at the east flank of the combined block is expressed as a diagonal path that lines up with the heroic west entrance to Rowe's Wharf. Heavy pedestrian use is expected in the park at the north end, near Faneuil Hall to the west and Marine Park to the east. This block contains a big plaza and a fountain that emanates from the pavement so that children can run through. The fountain's shape, Carmichael says, is a counterclockwise spiral inspired by the region's nor'easters.

North End Parks "This land is really a kind of a bridge," says Richard Rabinowitz of the American History Workshop, who advised Wallace Floyd Design Group and Gustafson Partners on the North End Parks. "It is a low place between the hilly part of the North End and what we now call downtown, which once was the South End."

In the nineteenth century, Rabinowitz continues, Boston's old South End ceased to be residential, while the North End increasingly became residential and ethnic as factories moved to the new South End. Boston became a metropolis on the two sides of this divide, he says, with large centers of employment on one side and, on the other, a neighborhood of churches and synagogues and small retail shops and family life.

The design of the North End Parks expresses this historic boundary. Hanover Street, which bisects the site and forms two parks, is detailed as a bridge, with sidewalks abutting low walls and balustrade railings. One park represents the "city" side of the boundary and is designed to encourage group activities such as games and performances. A terrace, a gently sloping lawn, and a play fountain encourage games and performances. The other park suggests the more secluded activities of home, offering places to have intimate conversations, stroll, and sit alone or with a friend. Visually uniting the two parks are shallow pools of water, shaped to appear as a single feature that extends under Hanover Street's symbolic bridge. The water feature's diagonal slash across the ground suggests movement, says Deneen Crosby, ASLA, of Wallace Floyd, tying this place to another function of its historic past, its role as a transportation corridor. First a canal came through, then a railroad, and then the highway.

"We think of the city park as a mixing ground where tourists will come up from the Quincy Market area and enter the North End," Crosby says. "The more intimate park, planted in bulbs and with a small orchard, is closer to a North End neighborhood that has a lot of families, children, and elderly residents." Points of concentrated entry from the surrounding sidewalks discourage people from wandering across the parks, bringing the scale closer to the tight streetscapes of the North End.

"We haven't been able to see the changing relationships of scale very well because the Central Artery has blocked our view," Rabinowitz says. "But now we will." Views from the parks will strongly contrast: up toward the North End, a low-scale, four- or five-story, dense brick village on a hill versus downtown, a bowl of enormous skyscrapers. "This ground will be a twenty-first century version of the adjustment people have always made here," he says. "We want to reacquaint people with that connection."

Chinatown Park The Chinatown Park will be built at the edge of that community on a filled-in off-ramp from I-93 to a tunnel under Dewey Square. As planned by Carol R. Johnson Associates and Turenscape, the long, skinny, slightly curving piece of land will feature a series of Chinese park/garden design elements, including a bridge over a dry stream, a light tower, and a well.

Inclusion of a well is symbolically important to the design, says Tom Doolittle of Johnson Associates, because in China when you move from one community to another, you carry soil from your old home and put it in the well of your new community. In this park, the well becomes a metaphor for landing in a new world and creating a sense of place and belonging in the Chinatown community.

Expected to get heavy use, the park is mostly hardscape. Green elements include portals lined with bamboo as vertical screens, azaleas, and ginkgoes up and down the street. The alignment of the walkways and bridges employs a common Chinese design feature of allowing for multiple views. A visitor will be able to stand at one spot, see one particular vista, turn around, and be presented with a new vista.

Chinatown is an established, dynamic community with such planned events as Tai C'hi exercises, dances, Chinese New Year celebrations, volleyball tournaments, lantern festivals, puppet theater, ice sculpting, art fairs, and markets. "A lot of activities just need a good home because there's really no open space within the community," Doolittle says. "And so our design approach wasn't about concocting programs and coming up with ways to pull people to the site. Rather, we tried to provide a good place for things that already happen."

Wharf District Parks
EDAW, Alexandria, VA; Copley Wolff Design Group, Boston; William McDonough Associates, Charlottesville, VA; Fay Spofford & Thorndike, Burlington, MA; WET Design, Universal City, CA; GPI Models, Somerville, MA; Selbert Perkins Design, Arlington, MA; Schweppe Lighting Design, Concord, MA; Sherry Kafka Wagner, San Antonio, TX; Judith Nitsch Engineering, Boston; Lim Consultants, Cambridge, MA.

North End Parks
Wallace Floyd Design Group, Boston; Gustafson Partners, Seattle; TAMS Consultants, New York; Selbert Perkins Design, Arlington, MA; American History Workshop, New York; CMS Collaborative, Santa Cruz, CA; Ripman Lighting Consultants, Boston; DMC Engineering, Framingham, MA.

Chinatown Park
Carol R. Johnson Associates, Boston; Communications Arts, Boulder, CO; Turenscape, Beijing; Judith Nitsch Engineering, Boston; Lim Consultants, Cambridge, MA; Shekar & Associates, East Weymouth, MA; Ripman Lighting Consultants, Belmont, MA; Chia-Ming Sze Architect, Boston; International Society, Boston; Stull + Lee, Boston.

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