Once openly hostile to tall buildings, Boston is finally embracing the age of the skyscraper.
From North Station to the Back Bay, new towers are being planned that would stretch the city’s boundaries both vertically and culturally, and in some cases demolish overbearing developments from the past that sapped life from its core neighborhoods and commercial districts.
On Wednesday, a developer proposed replacing the hulking Government Center Garage—a universally derided structure on Congress Street—with a huge new complex of high- and mid-rise buildings, including a 600-foot office tower that would be one of downtown’s tallest.
Meanwhile, at the Christian Science Plaza, another developer is pitching a 700-foot hotel and residential building that would bring a new level of height to the edge of an iconic, if outdated, civic space. Several other skyscrapers are under review or being constructed near North Station, Copley Square, Downtown Crossing and Chinatown.
“The city is more open to tall buildings,” said David Dixon, principal of the architecture firm Goody Clancy. “There is a much better understanding that height and density in the right place can pay dividends in terms of vibrant streets and the kind of life in the city we value so much.”
Many of the proposals, including the Government Center Garage project, still need approvals from City Hall, but so far most have provoked few major objections.
Indeed, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino signaled tacit approval of the Garage proposal when he said Wednesday it would bring “a vibrant new pair of blocks” to downtown.
“The redevelopment of the Government Center Garage site has been a long time coming, and the 771 units of housing that will rise at that location will provide a more people-friendly environment in the heart of our city,” Menino said.
The sheer number of skyscraper proposals around the city is partly due to the rising economy. But commercial real estate veterans also speak of a broader shift in mentality in Boston, where an influx of residents and cutting-edge companies are inspiring bolder, taller buildings that also include lively new civic spaces, stores and restaurants.
In prior decades, Boston was often hostile to towering new buildings, fearing they would mar the city’s historical character, or cast long shadows. Often, those concerns were well-founded, as Boston suffered grievous development mistakes in the Urban Renewal era of the 1950s and 60s, when neighborhoods such as the old West End and Scollay Square were demolished to make way for non-descript concrete buildings, including the massive Government Center Garage.
Today’s greater acceptance of new high rises is due in part to the fact that they would replace many of the most objectionable buildings from that time period.
The Government Center Garage project, proposed by HYM Investment Group LLC, would demolish much of the original Brutalist garage structure to make way for six new buildings with 771 residences, 1.3 million square feet of office space, 1,100 parking spaces, and 82,500 square feet of stores and restaurants.
In addition to the 600-foot office tower, the proposal includes a pair of large residential buildings—one 470 feet and another 275 feet. Those three buildings would be situated on the uphill side of Congress Street, closest to Government Center. Across Congress, HYM would build a 275-foot hotel and condominium building, additional offices and stores that would form a new public square along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
HYM has estimated the project will cost about $2 billion. At full build-out, according to HYM, it would produce about $11 million annually in taxes and about 6,000 permanent jobs. It would also create 2,600 jobs during construction.
If approved by Boston regulators, construction could start late next year, according to HYM, whose managing director is Thomas N. O’Brien, a former head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1990s.
O’Brien said on Wednesday that height has not been a major part of his discussion with community residents, in large part because it is smaller than a prior proposal and comports with city zoning guidelines for properties near the Greenway.
“For almost 50 years, this garage has been a barrier between Government Center and the North End and West End neighborhoods,” O’Brien said. “It was a mistake from the beginning and replacing it allows us to create a place that really works for people, with retail on the first floor and new spots to shop and eat.”
The project, situated on a 4.8-acre site bounded by New Chardon, New Sudbury and Congress streets, is one of the last major redevelopment parcels near the Greenway. Its construction would be close to a section along the Greenway that the city wants to make a food-market district, which would include a permanent public food market, restaurants and specialty shops. In the adjacent West End, there are a half dozen large-scale buildings in the works; combined would bring hundreds of residences, stores, offices and hotel rooms.
The Government Center Garage was built in the late 1960s and has been targeted for redevelopment since 2007. A prior plan by developer Ted Raymond for two office skyscrapers, stores and residences failed to gain traction in City Hall. O’Brien was then tapped to replace Raymond as development manager, and has spent months crafting a new plan for the property.
Construction of his proposed buildings would come in multiple phases, starting with the 470-foot, or 45-story, residential tower that would include both apartments and condominiums, followed by the 600-foot office building, the hotel, and some additional offices, residences and stores.
The project would retain about 1,100 parking spaces in a portion of the existing garage that would be tucked behind the new buildings. It would also have storage space for about 850 bicycles, and a Hubway rental station. Given its size and complexity, it would likely take many years to complete.
The firm is also lead developer on the 5-million-square-foot NorthPoint development in East Cambridge and is a partner on Waterside Place, a 20-story luxury apartment complex under construction in the South Boston Innovation District.Casey Ross can be reached at email@example.com.