Saturday, November 14, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-7: The Back of the Four Seasons Hotel

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference (The first in a series...)

Location: 200 Boylston Street, Boston, MA (MAP)

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2006

The Photos: In and around the intersection of Columbus Avenue, Charles Street, and St. James Avenue, at the rear of the Four Seasons Hotel, showing the two-story addition done as part of the extensive renovation of the hotel.

The Story: Completed in 1985, the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston was one of the first hotels developed with luxury condominiums in the same building that can make use of the hotel's services. Needless to say, a success and a model much copied elsewhere. Given the hotel's location -- across Boylston Street from the Public Garden and Boston Common, blocks from Boston's high-end shopping districts along Back Bay's Newbury Street and in the Copley Plaza -- it's hard to remember that the development project was actually pursued under the auspices of the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan. The area to the rear of the hotel, Boston's Park Plaza area, was the principal area to which the city's red light district migrated after the early 1960s urban renewal-motivated demolition of the old Scollay Square to make way for Government Center. With the adoption and implementation of the Park Plaza plan in the 1970s and 1980s, the remaining adult entertainment uses moved on to the Combat Zone a few blocks to the east. Getting back to the Four Seasons itself, its Boylston Street frontage worked well from the beginning, being drawn up to the wide sidewalks of the major street and activating the edge with entrances and high visibility into the hotel's ground floor through a permeable facade. But the St. James Avenue frontage was less fortunate. Particularly at the irregular intersection of St. James, Charles, and Columbus, the building was drawn far back from Columbus, leaving a no-man's land that was little used. There were also no ground floor entrances or uses that could bring life to the street. When the hotel decided it was time for a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of its guest rooms, they also took the felicitous step of filling in the dead zone that had been left at this intersection, inserting a curving two-story wing that includes a high-end furniture store at the ground level and meeting areas and function space above. This may seem like a fairly small, incremental improvement, but when teamed with the much-improved retail uses on the ground floor of the 1920s-era Motormart Garage and the One Charles residential building across St. James (RTUF will get to that in a later post) and the smart treatment of the smaller and more usable public space (now dubbed the Bristol Courtyard) that remains, it clearly works as a sum greater than its parts. And I'm an incrementalist at heart anyway.

[Rev. November 16, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: See below. I'm clearly not an architect, but you get a sense of the sensitivity of the change here and how it helps frame up and channel the view along Columbus Avenue into the Common.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-6: New Feature

RTUF is adding a new feature to our posts: hand-drawn sketches showing the urban fabric restoration in plan view, starting with Blog Post No. 2009-1 on the Saltonstall Building. The feature will be added on a rolling basis to prior posts and will be included in all posts going forward. We hope this added feature is helpful. -- ML

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-5: Charles River Plaza

The Evolution of an Urban Shopping Center

Address: Charles River Plaza, 175 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA (MAP)
Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2003/2008

The Photos: Walking up Cambridge Street from Massachusetts General Hospital heading toward the Harrison Gray Otis House and Old West Church.

The Story: For a period starting in the 1960s up and through the early 2000s, Charles River Plaza behaved much like a garden-variety suburban strip center dropped into the heart of a major city. A supermarket, some smaller stores (including a pharmacy and bank), and a movie theater (closed in the early 1990s) were arranged in an L shape facing the corner of Cambridge Street and Blossom Street in Boston's West End (whose demolition to pave the way for urban renewal in the late 1950s/early 1960s is a story all its own) with below-grade and surface parking entered from Cambridge Street and a mid-rise hotel at the corner itself. The early 2000s redevelopment of the center, completed in 2003, added new building area on top of the former movie theater space to create a mid-rise office building and also infilled a new 5-story addition along the Cambridge Street frontage with office space above and retail stores below. All of the office space was taken by nearby Massachusetts General Hospital as clinical and medical office space for its doctors and staff. The surface parking level atop the garage structure remains and is generally hidden from the Cambridge Street frontage. So, instead of walking past a blank parking structure wall and street level garage roof parking, you walk by retail stores and a building that does a much better job of enclosing an important and historic street. As with the Saltonstall Building described in Post No. 2009-1 of this blog, the reconstruction of the streetscape along Cambridge Street that was completed in 2008 was long and drawn-out. But the end result is a very substantial improvement over what existed before and works well with the evolution of Charles River Plaza.

[Rev. November 18, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: See below. The filled in portion is effectively a full block along this portion of Cambridge Street.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-4: Houston, we have a Follower!

RTUF is pleased to announce that our good friend Darlene Wynne has, as of yesterday, become this blog's first Follower! [To be totally precise, Darlene is our first and only Follower, but we hope that changes very soon.] For those of you who don't know Darlene, she is a planner and New Urbanista of the first order. Indeed, Darlene was one of the founders and major motivating players of the New England Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism for several years. Although she now lives and works in the Philadephia area, her efforts in this region have not been forgotten. Thanks for signing on Darlene! -- ML