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The vision thing

An outdoor amphitheater and fountain are big ideas for the Central Artery surface corridor. Don’t kill them with little questions.

Four weeks ago, in one of his last acts as the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Andrew Natsios detailed a plan for the surface of the depressed Central Artery to the Boston Chamber of Commerce. The 30 acres, he said, should get an open-air amphitheater and a world-class fountain.

It’s a great idea. A 600-seat theater, of the type Natsios has proposed, would fill a niche in the city’s performance space. There are any number of smaller venues. The Boston Center for the Arts Theater, for example, seats about 142; also at the BCA, the Black Box Theater seats about 90, and the Leland seats 40. And there are handful of larger theaters, such as the Wang (3700), the Shubert (1600), and the Emerson Majestic (976). But Boston has few mid-size theaters. The design proposed by Natsios would be just that. It would include a grassy area above the seats “like Tanglewood,” he says. “There could be an archway. There could also be a restaurant where people could have their meals and have dinner and theater.”

The proposal has already garnered the support of about 20 of the city’s arts organizations, he says, including the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which produces Shakespeare on the Common. There’s no question that such a theater would be the perfect venue for plays, dance performances, and music. As for the fountain, Natsios says it should be a “central focal point for the surface restoration.” Other Northern cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, have magnificent water fountains. The notion of a beautifully sculpted fountain, designed by the “best fountain designers in the country,” as Natsios puts it, is enormously appealing.

It would be easy to kill this idea with niggling questions. Owning, running, and booking a theater is a complex and costly exercise. Who will manage it? The city? The state? Who gets to schedule performances? Who will pay for its ongoing maintenance? Both Natsios and Fred Yalouris, director of architecture and urban design for the Central Artery project, say that members of the Greek-American community in Boston have pledged to pay for the building of the amphitheater. But who will foot the bill for the ongoing costs? Maybe corporate Boston can step up to the plate.

The point is, no one has the answers to these questions right now. Yet even Natsios has become involved in this level of micro-management by insisting that the stage should not become home to “rock groups.” The Phoenix, naturally, disagrees. But that’s a topic for another day. At this stage in the planning process, the city and state should be thinking big for the surface artery. Natsios’s fountain and amphitheater proposals are great ideas. As is the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s idea for a “garden under glass.” BRA director Mark Maloney notes that it’s “very early on” in the design process for the surface artery. “We’re at the point where we should set the stage as richly as we can and then we can be very selective of what we do,” he says.

The plan for the theater has already been sketched into the draft of the master plan for what will eventually be built on the 1.5-mile-long snake of land from North Station to Chinatown. And there are five possible locations for a water feature, such as a fountain, in the plan. The master plan is the result of a year-long open process between the city and the state — with input from the public via a series of open meetings, the last of which was held April 3. It’s tentatively slated to be completed by the end of May. The next phase of the process will involve the design of much more detailed plans — based on the draft of the master plan — by landscape architects, urban planners, and designers.

Natsios’s vision for the fountain and amphitheater would put them on one of the parcels near the New England Aquarium. As the Phoenix has editorialized in the past (see “Protecting a Legacy,” News and Features, May 11, 2000), it’s crucial that this area in particular be rebuilt with eclectic, mixed-use development that will bring the public to the space: skating rinks, museums, cafés. Since other parcels border dense urban neighborhoods such as the North End, it will be comparatively easy to knit those areas of the city back together. The waterfront parcels present more of a challenge. There is no built-in residential base to populate the space, and the last thing the city needs is to re-create the scar of the Central Artery with open, windswept spaces à la City Hall Plaza. Yanni Tsipis, author of Boston’s Central Artery, the latest publication from Arcadia Press’s “Images of America” series, says that if we build streets to reconnect the areas of the city divided by the Central Artery, keeping open space around them is like “building a skeleton but not putting any meat on it.”

In many ways, an amphitheater and fountain would be perfect for these parcels. They’d be sandwiched between Faneuil Hall and the Aquarium, thus providing a link between two attractions that already draw hundreds of Bostonians and tourists each day. The danger, of course, is that an outdoor theater and fountain would be viable only about four months of the year. Natsios points out that there’s an outdoor theater in Quebec that built heating into the seats, which extended the season by about two months. “If they can do it in Canada,” he says, “they can do it in Boston.” True. But clearly this project — and others proposed for the surface artery — must be thought through carefully.

That job belongs to the team of city and state planners working on the massive project. Maloney points out that the surface artery will be “one of the biggest legacies” left to future generations. Natsios’s instinct to build a world-class structure there is dead on. And at this point in the discussion, we should be thinking big instead of nitpicking. Outdoor sculpture, a venue for the arts — these are great ideas that should be encouraged.

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Issue Date: April 12-19, 2001

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