Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-16: Three July Things

They report it, we give it the once over...

As much of the Boston region prepares to enter the August hiatus, we here at RTUF are far from asleep at the wheel. We are continuing to scour the print and intertube-based media for spicy tidbits of information related to the urban fabric here in the Hub. In the last third of this, the month of birthdays (my daughter's, my brother's, Harry Potter's), we have indeed had some exciting news:

First up: We here at RTUF thought a good temporary location for the Boston Public Market while it continued its Odysseus-like search for a permanent home was City Hall Plaza, but they have finally found their proverbial Ithaca in the first floor of the combined retail-office-garage building on Greenway Parcel 7. This is the building on Congress Street sandwiched between the Government Center Garage and the Blackstone Block near Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market. The news reported in the Globe this week indicates that the commonwealth has finally done the right thing and designated them as the tentative tenant of that space, subject to release of about $4 Million in state bond funds (of the total $10 Million allocated) and gap fundraising to the tune of approximately $3 Million. Congratulations BPMA! Raise those funds and get open as soon as possible!

Next: Restoration work on the Longfellow Bridge, aka the "Salt and Pepper" bridge, that links Cambridge Street in Boston with Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and has the Red Line running down the middle, is finally about to start this fall. As reported, again, in the Globe, the first phase will be principally exploratory with actual construction work to start in the spring. That phasing is helping put off the decision on final configuration of the restored bridge, about which there appears to be lively debate. There are multiple stakeholders here, including public entities -- the cities themselves, MassDOT, which has charge of the bridge itself, and the MBTA -- and private actors in including MGH, Mass Eye and Ear, and bicycle and walking advocacy organizations. To my mind, the most compelling vision is from WalkBoston, which is pushing for a road diet that would result in one fewer vehicular traffic lane in each direction than is currently the case. If that happens, the bridge would have the potential to become a prime strolling and viewing venue -- and its views of the Esplanade, Charles River Basin and downtown are truly inspring -- on a par with some of the world's great urban bridges. There are of course countervailing concerns about where the traffic could be expected to go and what would happen to emergency vehicles trying to reach MGH and MEEI if the single inbound lane were blocked or full of traffic. As a former transportation planner, this is going to be a fascinating debate. We'll follow it and let you know how it turns out.

And finally: Going back to my hometown where another transportation-related debate has been brewing in the Bronx over the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's long-running effort to get the elevated Sheridan Expressway demolished and replaced with a boulevard. The poster child for this kind of an effort is the former Embarcadero Freeway along the waterfront in San Francisco, which was condemned after the Loma Prieta Earthquake 20 years ago and replaced with a bouelvard instead of a new highway. The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago that a recent NYSDOT study had concluded that traffic that would have been on the Sheridan would end up on local roads if it were removed. I can't say that's really surprising, but the Times reports that it's a "blow" to removal proponents. We'll have to stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-15: The Liberty Tree Building

Ably Restored and Contributing Again








Location: The Liberty Tree Building, 630 Wasington Street (at Boylston/Essex Streets), Boston, MA

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 1998

Photos: (1) Looking from the corner diagonally across Washington Street; (2) Same vantage point, but looking down the Essex Street facade of the building; (3) View of the upper stories; (4) the Liberty Tree plaque on the Washington Street facade of the building; (5) Longer view of the Washington Street facade; (6) Point of contact between the Liberty Tree Building and Archstone Boston Common building; and (7) Liberty Tree memorial across Washington Street from the building.

The Story: This is another building that Campbell/Vanderwarker covered in Cityscapes of Boston, chronicling its decline in the second half of the last century. When they wrote in 1992, the building was at perhaps its lowest ebb, with the upper stories and much of the ground floor boarded up, windows filled with cinder block, and the building highly deteriorated. The Combat Zone, which had dictated the building's use for the 20+ years before that point, was rapidly shrinking and the area was poised for a new wave of development seeking to capitalize on the very close proximity of Boston Common a block away and the Orange Line below. The restored Liberty Tree Building, tenanted by a relocated state Registry of Motor Vehicles office and the ubiquitous Dunkin' Donuts franchise, arrived almost simultaneously with the Millennium Partners development diagonally across Washington Street. That development, which produced a new multi-screen movie theater with its main entrance on Tremont Street facing the Common as well as additional high-end retail, a new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and luxury condominiums, truly changed the face of this stretch of downtown Boston. Immediately on its heels came the building that is now Archstone Boston Common, which abuts the Liberty Tree Building in Photo 6. From my non-architect's perspective, the restoration to the Liberty Tree Building was ably done. The big RMV sign references in its style and location the old-style building facade signs that were a hallmark of Boston's commercial districts around the turn of the last century. There is a quiet dignity in the rhythm of the facade's windows and storefronts. The building looks better now than it has for at least a half century if not more.

As for the Liberty Tree itself, the Wikipedia treatment here hits the main points. The tree was around this location, on the southern end of the Town of Boston in the 1760s. Orange Street has now become Washington Street and the tree, chopped down by the British in 1775 when things really started heating up, is remembered in the facade plaque of the building as well as the memorial on the other side of Washington. One of the things I love about Boston is this kind of embedded history. There are just layers upon layers of meaning. To give just one example, I mentioned the Orange Line above. That subway line, in this area originally developed simply as the Washington Street subway, was given the name the Orange Line by the MBTA, our regional transit authority, in the early 1960s because the name of the street had originally been Orange Street. In closing:
Liberty 1776
Law and Order
Sons of Liberty 1766
Independence of Their Country 1776
RTUF Public Service Announcement: Between this post and last, we have now hit over 1,000 visits to the blog. Many thanks to everyone who has taken a look! - MJL

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-14: Thinking about Adams Park...

as July passes the 1/3rd mark

Of Farmers Markets, EBTs, and Bounty Bucks.

Like an increasing number of neighborhoods in Boston, Roslindale has a weekend farmers market in the summer and fall dubbed, logically enough, the Roslindale Farmers Market. Today was hot and humid in Roslindale. But that didn't keep a good crowd from turning out, which is a story that has a couple of interesting angles.

When we first moved here in 2000, the market was located on the lower parking lot directly adjacent to the MBTA's Roslindale Village commuter rail station. For whatever reason, the market never seemed to be worth visiting at that location. Too few vendors, too little action going on. A couple of years ago, the market moved into Adams Park, the small park at the center of Roslindale Square. Though I do worry about the wear and tear on the park, especially in a relatively hot and dry summer as this one has been so far, that change in venue has really worked wonders. We now have multiple, high quality farm stands to choose from, a handful of local merchants putting out their own small-scale operations (I especially appreciate Fornax Bakery's stand), and entertainment. [This weekend's band was a surf-sound group called The Beachcombovers. Not bad at all. ] And the attendance at the market seems to be increasing year-on-year. Certainly some of the crowd is drawn by the quality of the produce, local sourcing, etc. It's also a location with much greater visibility and dignity than the MBTA parking lot.

I also firmly believe that the City of Boston's assistance starting in the last two years to the farm stands in being able to offer Electronic Benefit Transfers or EBTs, which permit debit card-like expenditure of federal supplemental nutrition assistance program dollars, has made a world of difference. Because, let's face it, the goods at farmers markets are often priced higher than similar goods in conventional grocery stores (particularly in a state like Massachusetts, where the remaining farming is relatively small-scale), they can sometimes feel like preserves of the conscientious but well-heeled. Not so since EBTs started being accommodated. And even less so with the City's newest program, called Boston Bounty Bucks, launched in partnership with the Food Project. For EBT customers, Bounty Bucks provides a 50% match on the first $20 expended participating farmers markets around town. When I attended the official opening of the Dewey Square Farmers Market near South Station a couple of weeks ago, I tried to get Paul McMorrow, of Banker & Tradesman, Boston Globe, and Harbor Garage article series fame, interested in the story. So far to no avail. But I still think it's potentially a great story, and could be a follow-up to the piece that appeared in yesterday's Globe about urban agriculture and the Food Project's greenhouse in the Dudley Triangle ("Boston ploughs stimulus money into urban farms"). I think a look at the numbers would show a jump in purchases by low and middle-income households at farmers markets where EBTs and Bounty Bucks are offered. In other words, the Roslindale Farmers Market now looks and feels like all of Roslindale is in on the action. And that's a very good thing.

UDPATE and RTUF ADVISORY: Two items I read in the paper (the Globe, of course) this morning seem worth mention. First, an opinion piece by Michael Harmon ("Main Street model revitalizes Roslindale") points out the great success that Roslindale Village Main Street has been since its inception in the mid-1980s. Everything in the piece is true about the small-scale changes that have made the Square a turnaround success, though much more could be said about the details. In any event, we do have a functioning neighborhood center to be proud of, and the 2200-person average attendance number quoted for the Farmers Market sounds on target. Second, this week's entry in the Brainiac column ("MFA 1, Gardner 0") speaks to a recent subtle improvement in the urban fabric I've had in mind to blog about: the reopening of the Museum of Fine Arts' Fenway entrance back in 2008. The reopening of that entrance, along with the increase in emphasis on the Huntington Avenue entrance, construction of a new visitors' center in the center of the museum's main building, and the de-emphasis and eventual closure of the entrance on Museum Road (located behind a surface parking lot), were among the first tangible fruits of the museum's broader expansion project under the direction of Foster + Partners. Apparently, Charles Birnbaum from the Cultural Landscape Foundation also agrees that reopening the Fenway entrance was a good idea, representing the reconnection of the institution to the historic park it faces. Not having been able to see the Renzo Piano design of the Gardner Museum's expansion plan in much detail, I can't say whether I agree that it loses something important in its connection to the Fens. If others have opinions, I'd love to hear in them in the comment section.

Please note that, in addition to the above update, this entry was also further edited after its initial publication. -- MJL