Friday, April 23, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-7: For City Hall Plaza, maybe continuously rotating temporary uses makes sense...

1 2
3 4 least for now

: Government Center (formerly Scollay Square, and today alternatively called Boston City Hall Square or City Hall Plaza), Boston, MA. (MAP)

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration:
Ongoing (April 2010).

The Photos:
Taken on Patriots' Day 2010, looking northwest along the side of City Hall, then coming into the plaza and looking north and northeast at the Big Apple Circus tent.

The Story:
So, we took the kids to the Big Apple Circus on City Hall Plaza last Friday night. We had a great time at a show of almost 2 hours in length, featuring the return of Bello Nock and a number of classic circus acts such as juggling, acrobatics, and (my personal favorite, especially now since we have a rescue puppy of our own) a dog act featuring (you guessed it) rescue dogs. Really fun stuff for the whole family.

But this entry is not about the circus itself, fun though it was. It's about the temporary life and activity and yes, restoration of the urban fabric, that can occur when even something as simple as a circus with a tent is brought onto City Hall Plaza. A plaza which has ripened into perhaps the most underperforming centrally-located public space in Boston, if not all of New England and if not the country. I mean, it's really bad, especially considering its proximity to so much great urban fabric and activity. I touched a bit on the plaza in the post about Boston's "mid-century modern" buildings a few weeks ago. It is truly of a piece with the failed buildings with whom it entered our cityscape in the mid-1960s. Most of the time it is a wind-swept, shade-less, inhospitable no-man's land that people hurry through to get from a dreadful MBTA headhouse for the Government Center Station

[especially when compared to what it replaced

to everything that surrounds the plaza -- Boston City Hall itself, Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market across Congress Street, the Old State House around the corner at the intersection of Court and Washington, the state government complex up the hill, and the federal government's buildings on the north side of the plaza. When you think of the number of people who go around and through it on a daily basis, it's something of a twisted accomplishment that the space is so dead.

This failed state of affairs at the very center of the city has not gone entirely unnoticed, especially in the last 10 to 15 years. Proposals have been floated and special task forces created to improve the plaza itself and make the buildings around it work better. After extensive discussion and effort from some of the city's most talented and influential citizens, there has been relatively little to show. Physically, all that has happened is the construction of a series of benches and small balconies along the Cambridge Street frontage with vertical, flagpole-like lighting elements (see photo 4, above). The only obvious programmatic progress has been a seasonal farmers' market that sets up just along that Cambridge Street frontage on certain weekdays in the summer. Most recently, the Boston Globe ran a piece about a design contest for ideas to better integrate City Hall itself into the urban fabric. The proposals highlighted are interesting and I do like the way the winning entry opens up the Congress Street side of the building and introduces a cafe at the lower plaza level.

Far be it from this blog to criticize incremental changes and developments like these. Yet the fact remains that chipping away at the edges is not doing enough to change the plaza's sub-par dynamic. To do that, something needs to be happening in the middle of the plaza on a consistent basis. Now, since the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics have all won titles in their respective professional leagues this decade, there have been 6 victory parades (the City likes to call them "Rolling Rallies") that have wound past and sometimes ended at City Hall Plaza, so that's brought some crowds onto the plaza. And the City has set up a few major events, sometimes for extended periods, on the plaza in the past several years. These have included not only the Big Apple Circus but also the Holiday Village that used to be at Jordan Marsh (then Macy's) at Downtown Crossing, and is now residing at one of Jordan's Furniture's suburban locations. These are good events, but relatively few and far between. So...a humble suggestion to the City, which may already be going in this about a simple, set schedule of extended engagements on City Hall Plaza for temporary uses that encourage people to come and spend some time and even spend some money in the very middle of town? Maybe the Big Apple Circus could be more firmly established as the rite of early spring, while late spring, summer and early fall could feature the existing farmers' market combined with the fledging Boston Public Market, which has been casting around for a home for the last few years, and seems always just a step away, but never quite there? They've most recently been in Dewey Square on two days a week during the summer. Despite the great foot traffic generated by its proximity to South Station and the need for the Greenway to have worthwhile programming, that location is really challenged, surrounded on 3 sides by multi-lane, one-way streets and on the fourth side by a utility building for the Big Dig. They can do better. Bring them to City Hall Plaza for an extended run in the middle of the year, get them to operate on more days, maybe even allow them to put up a temporary structure or two, and we'd really be talking. Once we're at the tail end of the fall harvest and the market is closed down, maybe we could have a temporary fair with rides and the like to lead us into winter. And then, who knows, the plaza hunkers down like the rest of us during the coldest part of the year and waits for the clowns, horses, acrobats, jugglers, Bello, Grandma, and the rest of the circus to come again in March?
RTUF Note: This post was edited after its original publication. - MJL

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-6: Streets and intersections are meaningful public spaces...

...not traffic sewers

Location: The intersection of Belgrade Avenue, Corinth Street, and Robert Street in Roslindale, a.k.a, Eagan Square, a.k.a. Alexander the Great Square (MAP)

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2007

Photos: Clockwise around the intersection, showing the view up Belgrade Avenue back toward the turn at South Street, then the Corinth Street islands, up Belgrade toward Walworth Street, then across and back down Belgrade.

The Story: I said at the end of my last post that this blog has a soft spot for incremental change, and here's an absolutely prime example at the neighborhood scale. We're back again in Roslindale Square, at its southwestern gateway, just after the point at which Robert Street comes under the MBTA Needham Line trestle and meets Belgrade Avenue and Corinth Street. This intersection has a veteran's memorial name of Eagan Square, but there's a second, more recent designation as Alexander the Great Square. That's a nod to the community's still strong Greek presence, as evidenced by Alexander the Great Park, which has a bust of the great man at its center.

Until this intersection took its current form about 3 years ago, it was one of the very worst in the neighborhood, from the perspective of both cars and pedestrians. As a driver, it was hard to know who exactly had the right-of-way and the massive expanse of pavement without much definition left it hard to know exactly where the travel lanes were supposed to be. As a pedestrian, it felt like a free-fire zone: far too wide, with poorly located crosswalks that just left you hanging out there.

The new configuration, shown in the pictures and in my sketch below, is far, far better. The two tiny islands have been widened and extended. The cross-walks are now manageable in length. The main construction material for the islands is brick, with granite curbing. The two largest elements have green space within them. A public art installation is reportedly awaiting Boston Civic Design Commission approval and could be installed this year. The traffic pattern is clear, with well-defined through and turning lanes. The cars now know where to go, and so do the people. Everyone is being paid some attention.

I am embarrassed to say that, even though this is just blocks from my house and we lived here well before the intersection was reconfigured, I have no idea who exactly is responsible for making this happen. Responsibility for the intersection lies with the Boston Transportation Department, so ultimately it had to be their project. But I don't know who in the community advocated for the change. Whoever that person is, they deserve heartfelt thanks. And BTD is to be commended for implementing a design that is a far cry from what has been done to our streets and intersections for too much of the last 60+ years.

Which brings us to the teachable moment portion of this post. It is a sad fact that, on the whole, our country decided in the post-war period to delegate virtually complete control over our streets to traffic engineers whose sole goal was to move more vehicles at higher speeds all the time, everywhere. Streets and travel lanes were widened. Private property was taken to facilitate that widening. Sidewalk widths were reduced or sidewalks totally eliminated. Off-street parking was reduced or banned outright. Pedestrian street crossing times were reduced and vehicle signal phasing increased. And the design of most of what was actually built was wholly unsatisfactory or just plain ugly. In short, far too many streets -- the connective tissue that make up the vast majority of our public realm -- were radically impoverished, turned from places that people could enjoy spending time in to places to be avoided at all costs. In the words of more than one commentator, those streets had simply become "traffic sewers." All of this is to say nothing of the federal interstate construction boom of the 1950s-1970s, that plowed through and gutted too many urban neighborhoods to mention them all by name. Being from Brooklyn, all you have to say to me is "Sunset Park" and I immediately think of the Gowanus Expressway, an elevated highway built in the early 1940s that cut that neighborhood in two and separated it from the water. Perhaps the best piece of writing on the phenomenon of interstate highway construction in urban areas is Robert Caro's chapter on "One Mile" of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in The Power Broker, his seminal biography on Robert Moses. Worth reading again even if you've read the book before.

I am overstating the point slightly here. Not every traffic engineer wanted to pave over paradise or obliterate urban neighborhoods, and not every street was turned into a high-speed nightmare. Plenty of great neighborhood streets, as well as parkways and urban boulevards survived. A lot of that was the result of an active citizenry -- Jane Jacobs being probably the most famous active citizen given her well-publicized fights with Moses over Washington Square Park and the Lower Manhattan Expressway [for an excellent treatment of that dynamic, check out Anthony Flint's Wrestling with Moses, reviewed in the New York Times here] -- that fought the freeway revolt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of it was the sheer amount of good urban fabric that our country has been blessed with. There simply wasn't enough time and money while the game was really on to screw up everything. Over the last 20 years, the pendulum has swung strongly back toward treating our streets like valuable, critically important shared spaces. It is no coincidence that form-based coders devote a lot of time and energy to the design of the streets and related open spaces that become the framework for new neighborhoods. If you want to a satisfying built environment, you need to have the streets and the buildings working together. If either component fails to behave, the place you want will not happen. Great strides have been made, to the point where my observation is that resistance to more complete streets often comes from a public distrustful of change in general and of professional traffic engineers, urban designers, and planners in particular, not from those professions themselves. The new Alexander the Great Square shows that the end result is well worth overcoming whatever obstacles are encountered along the way.

RTUF sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: It's a little hard to tell just how much of an improvement the current configuration really lis. There was just way more car-reserved pavement at this intersection than remotely made sense.

RTUF Note: This post has been modified after initial publishing to correct certain typos and grammatical errors and to add photos of the detail of the new traffic islands and of the bust of Alexander the Great that is located in the adjoining park. -- ML