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.

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