Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-1: 131 Dartmouth helps smooth the transition of the High Spine into the South End...

...and gives us an opportunity to consider again how Boston dodged a potentially very damaging freeway bullet





Photos: Quite frankly, RTUF is having trouble manipulating photos on our "new" apple computer, and so unable to get the order quite right with the pix, but (1) view across Dartmouth Street with Back Bay Station to the left; (2) looking from Clarendon Street; (2a) context shot of Back Bay Station from Clarendon Street; (3) closer-in view of the office entrance; (4) another view across Dartmouth Street, but this time showing how the building steps down toward the South End; (4a) decent view of the lower volume of the building and how well it reads as a South End row; and (5) another view of the office entrance.

Location: 131 Dartmouth Street, Boston (South End), MA.

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2002

The Story: Before we get down to business, hope everyone out there in RTUF Nation had safe and happy holidays and is off to a great start for 2011! Given the lack of posts, you can guess that December was rather hectic. But now we're back and ready for another year of fun as we scan Boston's built landscape for signs of improvement.

Today, whether because of the colossal expense, the sheer engineering feat its construction represented, or the tragic death of Milena DelValle in 2006 when a chunk of the tunnel ceiling fell onto the car she was traveling in, most everyone is familiar with the Central Artery/Third Tunnel project, better known as the "Big Dig." That mega-project submerged the former elevated Central Artery highway that separated downtown Boston from the North End and the waterfront and built a new, third tunnel under Boston Harbor from South Boston to Logan Airport. As a general rule, most are glad that one of the worst violations of the city's urban fabric has been repaired despite the costs. But few today likely remember that the Central Artery was originally intended to be only one link in a network of inner-city highway links including the Inner Belt, the Northwest Expressway, the Northeast Expressway, and, most importantly for this entry's discussion, the Southwest Expressway.

As described at the foregoing link, the route for that expressway evolved over time, but it was ultimately planned to run north-northeast from where I-95 currently ends in Canton through the Boston neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the South End roughly along the alignment of the then-New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad mainline to link up with the Inner Belt/I-695, which was intended to run in a semi-circle through Somerville, Cambridge, Brookline, and the South End, connecting to I-93 at both ends. Plans for the Southwest Expressway and essentially the entire inner-city network were abandoned during the Freeway Revolt of the late 1960s/early 1970s. And let me tell you, as a resident of Roslindale: that decision is largely responsible for Roslindale's "Can't get there from here" sense of being largely and happily off the map, at least as far as the regional highway system goes. Had the Southwest Expressway been built, we might have had better auto access but the blocks adjoining the freeway on either side would have been permanently blighted. Roslindale Square's excellent overall transit service -- commuter rail station in the middle and multiple bus lines converging on the one-mile section of Washington Street leading north to Forest Hills station on the Orange Line -- more than compensates for the lack of highway access. It's a feature, not a bug, in my view.

Now, by the time the plug on new limited access highways inside Route 128 was finally pulled, significant, but not complete, land takings and even clearance had occurred along substantial portions of the proposed route, especially in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. The funds originally designated for the Southwest Expressway were then re-deployed to relocate the southern end of the MBTA's Orange Line from its elevated route down Washington Street to a new alignment within a "Southwest Corridor" linear park stretching from Forest Hills into Back Bay Station. And so, a new Back Bay Station was conceived as part of the project and opened in 1987. Designed by Kallman, McKinney and Wood, the station recalls the prior stations on the location with its multiple archways and central arched space, but has plenty of exposed structural concrete representing the late 20th century and the wave of investment in Boston's public transit system that swept across the region in the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of the rejection of interstate largesse.

Land takings and clearance around Back Bay Station were extensive, both for the expressway and as part of the South End Urban Renewal Plan pursued by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Across Dartmouth Street, citizen activism in the late 1960s over cleared but unused land resulted in the Tent City protest and ultimately the Tent City mixed-use/mixed-income project. The land directly abutting the station between Dartmouth and Clarendon Streets to the south/east was never part of the eminent domain takings, but the former row buildings and 3-story parking garage were ultimately cleared and then took until 2002 to finally fill back in with (and now we get to it) the 131 Dartmouth Street building featured in the photos. The building, designed by Somerville's Arrowstreet Architects, does about as good a job as can be imagined in fitting a new, 12-story mixed-used structure onto a fairly constrained site. The architecture is informed by the South End and its historic brick row houses, but it never devolves into kitschiness and presents extremely well at the street level. And of course, it's the very edge of the High Spine (see Blog Post No. 2009-8), so the medium height the building and the way it steps down toward the lower rise South End helps the transition from the higher parts of the spine a couple of blocks to the north.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: You can see just how well the building fills out its site in this sketch. It really does exactly what it needs to do in as closely knit an area as the South End.