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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.

Imagine ...

As the city's new landscape unfolds, opportunities abound to break the mold. But few observers hold out hope for cutting-edge design.

By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 03/26/2000

Boston is poised to be a truly distinctive metropolis, functional, lively, and interesting to look at -- a real laboratory for architecture and design. But to hear some architects tell it, the city's unadventurous tendencies pose a problem. Design-wise, apparently, Boston is internationally known for having a case of the blahs.

Three major opportunities for city-building are at hand: the South Boston Waterfront, the surface of the soon-to-be-submerged Central Artery, and the long stretch of "air rights" parcels over the Massachusetts Turnpike. There's also the area all around the new Fenway Park, Columbus Park at the harbor's edge in the North End, and City Hall Plaza, all set for redesign. These places could soon be filled in with the things that make up a vital city: new park space, promenades, skating rinks, Haymarket-style retail areas, museums, botanical gardens, and other grand public buildings, all framed and complemented by private development.

But when architects and urban designers around town anticipate what this new landscape might look like, many doubt that Boston will build anything particularly bold or different, or tap into the cutting-edge ideas pulsing through urban architecture today. Faced with the exhilarating task of refurbishing the house, we tend to shop at Ethan Allen, they say. Maybe if we're feeling really adventurous, something from Pottery Barn.

No one is expecting that Frank Gehry's Bilboa Guggenheim Museum would rise up on the Central Artery surface, but if the past is any guide, the process of reshaping the built environment in Boston leans toward the safe and conservative. Some would take it further, and say bland.

To be sure, there are exceptions to that tendency. The Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center and the Boston Public Library addition have panache while fitting in with their surroundings. The park at Post Office Square looks great and gets optimal use. The Big Dig's single-stayed cable bridge over the Charles River has a signature look, and the MBTA and developer Frank McCourt might very well build a distinctive new T station on the New Northern Avenue on the South Boston Waterfront.

But some other opportunities have fallen short. Most were disappointed, though not surprised, that the FleetCenter exterior had the same could-be-anywhere look as the interior. The Evelyn Moakley Bridge is a highway span with afterthought decorations at a spot where something more exuberant could have vaulted Fort Point Channel. Already the warnings have been issued that the surface of the submerged Central Artery could be a bit ho-hum, and that the South Boston Waterfront could turn into a version of Kendall Square in Cambridge: functional, but not very inviting or interesting -- a place that makes the architectural statement of a corporate office park.

How could this happen in Boston of all places, home to so many creative thinkers in architecture, urban planning, and urban design? Why is Boston not the most talked-about metropolis in the design world? One clear factor is the legacy of urban renewal, when architects who said they knew what was best for Boston produced such disappointments as City Hall Plaza; almost 40 years later, the citizenry remains wary of the just-trust-us, this-will-look-great approach. But several other factors are at work.

There's history here. Whether old-line Yankee or newcomer, many Bostonians are fiercely protective of Boston's history and traditions. There is great pride in being one of the oldest and most historic cities in the nation, so radical statements aren't entirely welcome here. The John Hancock tower notwithstanding, red brick and granite are the preferred building materials. The historic preservation movement is also strong in Boston, with good reason; many great buildings have been torn down too readily. But the preservation reflex can rule out interesting new stuff as well. The builders of 33 Arch Street, who proposed a transparent glass building in Downtown Crossing, ran smack into opposition from the historic Old South Meeting House nearby. Anything bold or daring suggested for the Central Artery surface, for example, might run into a similar problem.

European cities, with several additional centuries of history in their midst, have been much more experimental juxtaposing the old and the new. Look no further than I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris.

In Boston, says David Lee of Stull and Lee Inc. and a former president of the Boston Society of Architects, "nobody wants to move beyond the 19th century. Important principles were established then about urban space and the public realm. But in architecture we've been somewhat more conservative than we need to be. I don't think the city needs totally off-the-wall architecture to put this city on the map. But I often use an ancient Asian expression: `Seek not to follow in footsteps of men of old, seek instead what they sought.' That should apply to architecture in Boston -- to try to get the spirit of what was done before, but to try to do it with new clothes."

Consensus means compromise. The process for shaping the public realm in Boston generally emphasizes consensus over bold strokes. With an array of stakeholders at the table -- private developers, city officials, environmentalists, pedestrian advocates -- the planning-by-committee approach tends to rule out the controversial or daring. The master-planning team selected for the Central Artery surface restoration -- Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Morris, the Cecil Group, and respected landscape architect Craig Halvorson -- will doubtless do a fine job. But Big Dig officials didn't choose teams with more radical plans for the 27-acre corridor because there wasn't much appetite for a drawn-out battle, particularly if it meant adjusting the commitment for 75 percent open space.

In another example of how competing constituencies make it hard for interesting design to survive, McCourt's proposed signature Transitway station and "piazza"-style reconfiguration of New Northern Avenue came under fire last week from truckers, who don't want to be hindered getting in and out of the working port to the east.

Indeed, the process inherently produces less -- less physical structure, and thus less controversy. The office tower by Rose Associates at Dewey Square near the Leather District was scaled back, not only in terms of height but some interesting street-level features as well. A consultant for the developers recalls how a neighborhood activist said the scaled-down version of the project "was neither fish nor fowl." But the process all but guaranteed a diluted product.

Douglas I. Foy, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, says such outcomes can be unsatisfying -- but because the planning process doesn't go far enough. Absent a citywide master plan, project-by-project skirmishes seem narrow and stultifying, he says.

"I wouldn't say we were boring or unimaginative, but we seldom plan more broadly," Foy says. "Things are dealt with episodically, project by project, with sidebar negotiations with each developer. So you get bits and pieces of stuff, little micro-parks, and very little in terms of creating great civic spaces.

"You can overdo the Back Bay analogy, but the Back Bay was planned with some care, and that plan was a very sweeping outline of what that neighborhood should look like, including an esplanade, a pedestrian mall, a public library that was a great piece of architecture anchoring it all. All painted in broad brush, which we seem to have difficulty doing now."

The green machine. Environmentalists, pedestrian advocates and some city officials want parks, plain and simple, even when there are good arguments for a more built-up landscape. On Fan Pier, where the Chicago-based Pritzker family has proposed a nine-block, $3.2 billion complex of hotels, residences, and office buildings, local partners Spaulding & Slye Colliers initially proposed a funky tidal pool park meant to look like the rocky New England coast. They also suggested a skating rink on the property, to encourage multiseason activity. Both ideas were greeted with skepticism by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who preferred a more straightforward green space where he and his grandchildren could play ball. The skating rink is now gone; the tidal pool park has been scaled down.

The great expanse of City Hall Plaza is a constant reminder that open space is not always the answer. But even small gestures for more interesting amenities are often ruled out by environmental laws geared toward preserving nature. How about putting a giant movie screen out on the water at Fan Pier? Don't even think about it; there are issues with Chapter 91, the state law restricting construction at tidelands.

In other parts of town, given the choice of radical designs guided by cutting-edge urbanist principles and the traditional Frederick Law Olmsted vision, parks, greenspace, and benches tend to be the fallback position every time. It remains to be seen whether the "D Street delta" at the foot of Fidelity's World Trade Center East office tower will be a truly interesting public space, or whether Columbus Park, next to the Long Wharf Marriott, can be redesigned so that people will actually use it.

Fear of density. Established neighborhoods around downtown are wary of anything that casts shadows or that clogs the city with more people and cars. Many architects are frustrated by this because, they argue, a critical mass of density is actually a good thing for a city.

"We do need to tread lightly in some places, but in other spots there should be significant buildings," says Lee, who helped lead the effort for a citizen-authored master plan for the Mass. Pike air rights through Boston.

The area where the highway crosses under Commonwealth Avenue near the Boston University bridge, for example, "is a place for a significant building, publicly accessible, that opens out onto the street, creating a great outdoor room. Some height is also appropriate at the Massachusetts Avenue juncture, another important crossroads in the city," Lee says.

Lee agrees with Foy that a broader view of the transformations underway in Boston would help.

"I come out of the community process, but at times people are too provincial and protective of their own immediate turf without looking at the form of the city as a whole," he says. "People exercise political muscle to reflect a narrow view, and fail to see how those decisions impact the city as a whole. Creativity is stymied and ultimately everyone is worn down. We need to look at the city as whole cloth, and identify those places where a new paradigm is a good idea."

The good news is, the opportunities for reshaping the public realm in Boston still lie ahead. The process needn't guarantee an unadventurous approach. Boston can still capture the imagination of the design world -- not with an Eiffel Tower or a Sydney Opera House at every corner, but by at least considering something more than a simple park with a handful of benches. If stakeholders agree that cities are inherently the places to be more experimental, the subdued approach can be safely left to the suburbs.

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