Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-5: Whither the Greenway...

or getting the buildings to pay attention now that a park has shown up

Those who know me at all quickly learn that one of the things I enjoy doing in my spare time is running. I've been running with much the same group of guys (and occasionally gals) out of the West Roxbury YMCA for the better part of the last decade. We typically leave the Y at about 5:25 am on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, year-round, year-in, year-out. One of the group's stalwarts is a hard-core conservative by the name of Frank Galvin. And one of Frank's stock-in-trade caricatures of me (decidedly a political and social liberal) is that I take all of my news directly from the Boston Globe. Not to prove Frank right, but....

In urban planning and development as in geometry, one piece of data is a point, two constitute a vector or a trend, and three create a plane or pattern. Ladies and gentlemen, the Boston Globe is clearly trying to show us a pattern about development on the Greenway and one current development proposal in particular:

, Joan Vennochi's regular opinion piece on Sunday ("Shadow on the Greenway") highlighted recently-released information on likely guidelines for future development along the Greenway and posited that the Mayor's conventional wisdom-based reputation for micro-managing development was muddying the waters on those guidelines. Vennochi pointed particularly to the increasingly public dispute over developer Don Chiofaro's proposal for relatively tall buildings to replace the Harbor Garage site near the New England Aquarium as an example of the downside of the Mayor's attention to this kind of detail.

, Paul McMorrow, usually of Banker & Tradesman, had an opinion piece in Monday's Globe about the Greenway. Entitled "Something Beautiful," McMorrow's piece raises the entirely reasonable concern that the battle for restoring Boston's waterfront/downtown urban fabric may still be lost, even after spending close to $15 Billion and topping off the submerged facility with plenty of green, if the parkland is not provided with good, strong, "active edges" on the facing streets. McMorrow then goes on to focus on the Harbor Garage and 3 other Grenway-adjacent public garages and the difficulty of redeveloping those cash flow-generating structures without a big upside in terms of height and intensity of use. McMorrow's piece ends with a plea for public-private partnership on these sites that will lead, he hopes, to creative solutions.
Third, and finally, this morning's column from Brian McGrory -- "First, build compromise" -- returns yet again to the theme of the Harbor Garage with a full-on he-said/he-said write-up over the personal dimension of the relationship between the Mayor and Don Chiofaro. McGrory closes with his own solution: if Chiofaro's tallest building is proposed at 625 feet and the new height guidelines are showing a 200-foot height limit, then the parties should just split the difference and agree to a height limit of 410 feet (right in the middle) so we can all move on.

Did you notice the pattern too?

Now, don't get me wrong. This is juicy stuff for those of us who follow urban design and development issues closely. And the issues at stake -- height, density, shadows, the future of the Greenway as a central element in Boston's downtown justifying the very substantial public investment -- are real. The Greenway absolutely needs to be more than just greenspace that people drive by and don't really use. That would be tragic and a massive wasted opportunity for the City. It would also be a mistake to permit new buildings to shadow the Greenway to such an extent that the parkland really became inhospitable and unused.

But we shouldn't miss the street-and-sidewalk level for the tall buildings here, either. However the height issues are resolved for the Harbor Garage site and all of the other sites adjacent and near to the Greenway within the study area, let's don't lose sight of the urbanistcally complete (dare I say it?) form-based approach that the BRA and their consultants are taking on the overall Greenway District Planning Study. I encourage everyone to look at the full series of presentations (link here) and see how much more is being considered and weighed through that process. There's more going on than building heights. From this blogger's viewpoint, whatever your opinion about building height and shadows, the new development scenarios are taking the right approach at the level of the street and the sidewalk: the intent is to fill in edges and activate key frontages with retail and other uses that are likely to have the greatest impact on activity on the Greenway, without resorting to mega-projects and super-blocks. One look at the reality today, however, shows that this is going to be a lengthy effort requiring an abundance of patience.

When the former elevated Central Artery was built, some of the existing buildings directly adjacent to the highway were literally cut in half and all buildings were forced to turn away. Subsequent buildings largely followed this pattern. Now that the viaduct is gone and has been replaced by the Greenway, it will still take time to reorient the buildings and open them up to what is now a real amenity. To some extent, this process is already underway. When the sun was shining late last week, I snapped a few photos of some examples of this gathering phenomenon, arranged in order from OK to better to really working well:

The photos:

On the left, the landward side of the Marriott Long Whart hotel, where Tia's has put outdoor seating on the Greenway side and a couple of tourist-service storefronts provide some life.
In the middle, at the foot of State Street, an old mercantile building's blank facade has been punched through with windows and balconies. Note the still-blank facade of the lower building.
On the right, new storefronts and streetscape in the block between Hanover and Salem streets, blessed with a location directly adjacent to the North End.

This blog has a clear preference for the small, incremental changes to the urban fabric that repair it piece by piece. While the public debate over height on the Greenway is resolved, here's hoping that these building-by-building improvements continue. And let's also hope that the final guidelines for the Greenway and ultimately any new zoning regulations will find ways to encourage these kinds of changes too. As they occur, RTUF will be cheering them on.

RTUF Follow-up (Posted April 11, 2010): Dan Wasserman, the Boston Globe's excellent editorial cartoonist, makes light of the back-and-forth regarding the Harbor Garage proposal and the Greenway in this morning's editorial page: "Greenway showdown."

1 comment:

  1. Pattern vs. plane, it's but one example of the Growth Machine. I do try to read the Boston Globe in hard copy (it's one of the only regional newspapers that still makes it to DC periodical stores any more) and I happened to catch that run of articles, and had similar thoughts about the paper and the community leadership lining up in favor of a building project.

    This blog entry discusses "Growth Machine" and "Urban Regime" theory: