Friday, October 30, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-3: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel

A luxury hotel holds up its side of the street

Location: Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 776 Boylston Street, Boston (Back Bay), MA (MAP)

Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2008

Photos: Walking along Boylston Street, heading from Copley Square toward the Hynes Convention Center.

The Story: The massive Prudential Center complex, to which the Mandarin Oriental is the latest addition, didn't require the clearing of formerly useful urban fabric when it was built in the 1960s. Instead, it actually helped cover the multi-modal transportation corridor that slices through the Back Bay diagonally from the Charles River on the north to what used to be South Bay on the south. That corridor was first developed as a railroad causeway across the Back Bay in the mid-19th century and eventually expanded to include an extensive rail yard that took up the south side of Boylston Street from Massachusetts Avenue to Dartmouth Street for several decades. The first and most ambitious air rights/decking project built in Boston, featuring what is now the second tallest building in town, the Pru presently sits atop the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, several MBTA commuter rail lines, the main Amtrak Northeast Corridor line, and part of the MBTA Green Line subway. However, consistent with its era -- the mid-1960s, that is -- the complex as originally built didn't pay much attention to the street level around its superblock. Its tall buildings were pulled back into the interior of the site, leaving essentially dead, vacant spaces along all of its street edges that were used for vehicular access and, theoretically, park and plaza space for pedestrians. Since acquiring the Pru in the 1990s, Boston Properties has been steadily filling in the blank spaces around the complex's periphery. Completion of construction of the Mandarin Oriental building (including the hotel itself, associated luxury residential condominium units, and retail/restaurant at the street level) last year represents only the latest piece of the puzzle, and subsequent posts may focus on other edges of the Pru that have been productively filled in over the last decade. At this point, there is really only a single developable streetfront site left at the Pru, located just a bit further out on Boylston Street. As can be seen in the photos, the building makes a strong street edge along the equivalent of a full block of the Pru's Boylston Street frontage. There have been complaints about lack of stepping back in the building as its height increases, leading some to label it yet another step in the "Manhattanization" of Boston. Of course, the twin facts that I grew up in New York and that I like the building may be definitive proof of the accusation. From an urban fabric standpoint, though, I think there is little doubt that the south side of Boylston Street's urban fabric has been improved by the Mandarin Oriental's development.

[Added November 18, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: See below. You can see clearly that there's basically one gap left in the Boylston Street frontage for the Pru.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-2: Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center

Medical Center, Heal Thy Site

Location: 4199 Washington Sreet, Roslindale, MA (MAP)

Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2006

The Photos: Coming up Washington Street toward Forest Hills and away from the corner of Washington/South Sreet at the north end of Roslindale Square.

The Story: This is a site very close to where I live in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston, directly in what has been dubbed "Roslindale Village" for several years but most locals still refer to as "Roslindale Square." We moved here in 2000, long after the Rialto Theater, which used to be at this site, was torn down in the early 1970s. The theater was apparently a true fixture and a mainstay of the neighborhood. The barber shop where I get my hair cut by owner Bob Aliano is 2 doors down going back toward the square and its name, Rialto Barbershop, is all that's left of the old movie house. In any event, after the theater came down, the City put in a small municipal parking lot that was relatively underutilized. Earlier this decade, the Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center received funding from a City-controlled trust, called the George Robert White Trust (you can see the name in white on the building's facade), to move out of their relatively cramped quarters in the Roslindale Municipal Building across Washington Street into an entirely new facility. The resulting building ably plugs what used to be a real hole in the square's northern street wall, providing space on the ground floor for an optometrist/eyewear store, and generally supporting the overall urban fabric.

[Added November 16, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: As can be seen below, the medical center building actually fills street wall gaps on both the front (Washington Street) and rear (Taft Hill Terrace).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-1: The Saltonstall Building

Curing a Building's Ills, Outside and In

Location: 100 Cambridge Street, between Bowdoin and Somerset Streets, Boston, MA (Map LINK)

Photos: Views as you walk along the opposite side of Cambridge Street from Bowdoin Street to Somerset Street.

Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2004/2008

The Story: Technically built outside of the Government Center Urban Renewal Area that razed Scollay Square to make way for the new Boston City Hall, the Saltonstall Building as originally designed and constructed was still of a piece with that redevelopment: a 22-story state office building in the Modernist style set well back from Cambridge, Bowdoin, and Somerset streets, and surrounded by a sterile public plaza on the back side of Beacon Hill. The Saltonstall occupies one half of a superblock with the One Ashburton Place office building just up Beacon Hill. Although it might make a better story (at least for this fledgling blog) if the restoration of the urban fabric on Cambridge Street and up Bowdoin Street had been undertaken for urban design purposes, its actual genesis was in indoor air quality concerns. Indeed, the building was long known as a "sick building," ultimately requiring massive overhaul and renovation by the early 2000s. The Saltonstall's landlord, the Commonwealth's Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, turned to the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency to gut renovate and cure the building. In the process, MassDevelopment came up with an urban design that solved the surrounding public plaza's sterility by filling it in with low-rise 4-5 story buildings with retail and a new extended lobby at the ground level on the Cambridge Street frontage and residential entrances on the side streets. One can argue with the style of architecture and detailing. But the resulting redevelopment, completed in 2004 and significantly enhanced by a protracted but ultimately well-worth-it reconstruction of the fronting portion of Cambridge Street completed in 2008, is a decided and welcome improvement in the streetscape in this part of town.

[Added November 13, 2009]: RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: The below is a hand-sketch of the extension of the Saltonstall to meet its frontages (as shown by the hatching). The base map was created from the Boston Redevelopment Authority's helpful online Boston Atlas mapping function.