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3 towers, rebuilt reflecting pool OK’d at Christian Science campus

Residences, offices, stores envisioned in quest for more vibrant site

A triangular plot at Belvidere and Dalton streets would be the focal point for two new high-rises, possibly including residences. A triangular plot at Belvidere and Dalton streets would be the focal point for two new high-rises, possibly including residences. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / August 18, 2011

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A newly approved plan to redevelop the Christian Science Plaza will alter one of Boston’s most unusual public spaces, adding three modern towers to its edges and reconstructing its famed reflecting pool.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority signed off on the broad outlines of the plan Tuesday night, allowing First Church of Christ, Scientist to solicit developers to build the towers, add green space, and make other updates to the 15-acre property.

The specific plan for reconstructing the reflecting pool is still under discussion and would need approval from the Boston Landmarks Commission, which granted protected status to the pool and plaza earlier this year.

Many of the changes approved Tuesday would occur at the plaza’s outskirts.

The church wants to build two towers on a triangular plot across from the Sheraton and Hilton hotels at the corner of Dalton and Belvidere streets. One building would be 251 feet tall and the other 512 feet, or nearly the same size of the crown-shaped tower nearby at 111 Huntington Ave.

A third building, 291 feet high, would be built along Huntington Avenue next to the church’s Sunday school and behind the Massachusetts Horticultural Hall, which is across Massachusetts Avenue from Symphony Hall.

Specific uses for the towers have not been finalized, although the church said it was considering residences for the Huntington Avenue building and a mix of residences, stores, offices, and a hotel for those at Belvidere and Dalton.

Church officials said yesterday that the project is designed to bring vibrancy to the property, without altering its ambiance.

“We think the new buildings on the site are located in such a way that they will not take away from the beauty and architectural design of the plaza, the church buildings, or the spaces the public loves to use,’’ said Barbara Burley, the church’s senior manager for real estate planning and operations.

Burley said the church is monitoring market conditions and has not decided when it will proceed with the development.

The project is designed to help the church pay the $2 million annual expense of maintaining the massive plaza, which needs extensive repairs. One of the most expensive projects will be reconstruction of the 686-foot reflecting pool, which leaks into a parking garage beneath the plaza.

Last year, the church proposed to build a more modern, shallower pool that would be easier to maintain. Perhaps more significantly, it proposed a 20-foot wide path across the pool to the original church on the property.

But that proposal proved controversial, with some preservationists arguing the 39-year-old plaza and pool, designed by I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta, Associate Architects, should not be altered.

Church officials acknowledged those concerns yesterday and said they are still working on plans for the reflecting pool.

Some architects have raised concerns that making the pool shallow would ruin its reflective effect.

“You have to make sure that it’s not so shallow that you don’t get that beautiful glasslike finish,’’ said George Thrush, director of the School of Architecture at Northeastern University.

Thrush served as cochairman of a citizens advisory committee that spent more than two years examining the church’s plans. He noted the redevelopment would add stores and residences to relatively desolate corners of the church’s property. If anything, he said, the current plan does not include enough new buildings, leaving vacant a long stretch along Huntington Avenue.

“There’s a huge gap in the street life there,’’ he said. “That’s not something to be preserved.’’

But others said it would difficult to find enough small-footprint retailers to occupy the kind of long, low-rise building that Thrush and others had envisioned there.

In addition to new towers, the church is also planning 4,300 square feet of green space near the corner of Dalton and Belvidere, along with a pavilion on Huntington Avenue that could host a cafe, similar to the one in Post Office Square.

The church’s plans have yet to be approved by the city’s zoning commission, which plans to take up the matter in September.

The BRA also must give a final sign-off on the design and use of each new building.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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