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Picture City Hall Plaza, with trees

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  February 8, 2011 05:05 PM

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Greening Government Center scheme 1

(Courtesy the City of Boston)


In this rendering of the first tentative design recommendation for Greening Government Center, the large, open area adjacent to City Hall on the north and west sides is reduced in size and split into two smaller areas by neat rows of trees.

Greening Government Center scheme 2

(Courtesy the City of Boston)


In this rendering of the second tentative design recommendation for Greening Government Center, rows of trees define a pedestrian and bicycle pathway at the north end of the plaza that extends Hanover Street to Cambridge Street..

Imagine a City Hall Plaza with lush green trees and ample shade, a place where downtown office workers could enjoy their lunches in the fresh air, where college students and weary tourists could pick a shady spot to read and children could play hide and seek.

That vision could be a reality — and today’s empty, red-brick expanse just a memory — if a local design team gets its wish.

The leafy scenario was one of several aired earlier this week at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre, during a symposium on greening Government Center. Architect Tim Love presented the ideas generated during three days of meetings and brainstorming sessions in December.

Love, a founder and principal at Utile, Inc. Architecture + Planning, stressed that it was still very early in the planning process.

“These aren’t projects yet,” he said. “They’re not proposals. They’re proto-schemes.”

Although there was talk at a previous symposium in early December of embracing change across the entire Government Center complex, the two “proto-schemes” include changes only to City Hall Plaza. Both focus on two elements: adding the trees and addressing the change in slope — the 20-foot drop between the Cambridge Street side of the plaza and the Congress Street side.

Both would create more flat land and a clearer path to the entrance of City Hall from the Washington Street Mall south of the building, and both would expand upon existing rows of trees on the north side of the plaza, adjacent to the federal building, and add a row of trees hugging the curve of Cambridge Street.

The major difference is that the first scheme would split the large open space on the north and west sides of City Hall into two smaller — but still ample — spaces, while the second would create several smaller spaces and open a pedestrian and bicycle path as a continuation of Hanover Street across the plaza to Cambridge Street.

Both ideas would seek to take advantage of work already planned for Cambridge Street and for a new headhouse for the Government Center MBTA stop to simplify construction and reduce costs.

The other panelists praised the plans for their modesty and feasibility.

“I admire the restraint of these proposals, and that may not sound like a pretty big compliment, but actually I intend it to be a compliment,” said Alex Krieger, founding principal of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Krieger noted that a number of more ambitious plans for redeveloping the site had foundered in the past due to lack of consensus and lack of money.

Almost since its completion, there have been cries to change the vast, open plain of City Hall Plaza, built during the urban renewal craze of the 1960s on the site of the demolished Scollay Square — previously a raucous district of burlesque theaters, tattoo parlors, rooming houses and taverns popular with sailors docked at the waterfront.

Intended as a public square similar to the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, the plaza never drew the kind of crowds its designers hoped for, and in the 1970s much of the foot traffic it did attract was lost to the revitalized Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been a big supporter of ways to reinvent the 100-acre area that includes some of the city's most valuable real estate.

In looking at redeveloping the plaza, Ted Landsmark, president of the Boston Architectural College, cautioned that the planners must step outside their ingrained ways of thinking as architects and designers and put themselves in the shoes of the average person who would use the space.

“The reality is that most of the folks who we would want to capture in these spaces would neither look nor sound like most of us,” Landsmark said.

The US Environmental Protection Agency selected Boston and four other cities last fall to participate in the Greening America’s Capitals program, which provides seed funding to begin designing more environmentally friendly neighborhoods in state capitals.

The project team plans to issue a final report on its recommendations by mid-March, at which time a third public symposium will be held.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

Greening Government Center panel

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)


Jim Hunt (standing), chief for environmental and energy services for the City of Boston, served as moderator at Monday’s symposium, and the panel consisted of (from left) Tim Love of Utile Inc., Gary Hilderbrand of Reed Hilderbrand, Ted Landsmark of the Boston Architectural College and Alex Krieger of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz.

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