Sunday, March 31, 2013

The end of the Menino era...and one reason, originating in God's Country, why that era was a good one for the urban fabric (Blog Post No. 2013-4)

The big news in the Hub of the Universe over the last several days has been the decision of our long-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino, to retire at the end of his fifth term rather than seek re-election this fall. Yes, you read that right - Boston has had the same man in easily the city's most powerful position for the last 20 years. It's a long run, no matter what your frame of reference might be. And there's no doubt that this mayor in particular has been powerful in a sustained and all-encompassing way that few if any present day mayors even come close to matching. It is a cliche, but also as plainly true as such things ever are, that nothing of any significance has gone on in this town while Tom Menino has been our mayor that he hasn't known about and ultimately approved of, and the bar on what qualified as "significant" was a lot lower than the out-of-town observer might first imagine.

We can all argue over the necessarily mixed bag that that kind of tight gate-keeping entails. But one fundamental concept on which it was thoroughly right from start to finish was in first preserving and then helping to flourish neighborhood business distirct across the city through the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Streets program. Blog friend and Roslindale neighbor Carter Wilkie, himself a former mayoral aide in the late 1990s, wrote an opinion piece in The Boston Globe a couple of days ago -- you can find it here -- that accurately sums up the mayor's early, pre-mayoralty insight on the value of the Main Streets program in urban neighborhood settings. In the mid-1980s, with then-councilor Menino's urging, the National Trust made Roslindale Village Main Street the first urban main streets program in the country. The principal idea behind the program was and has remained that traditional, pre-auto-dominance shopping districts -- "Main Streets" understood broadly all across the country -- need and deserve the same kind of attention to overall image and basic infrastructure that privately-owned suburban and exurban shopping centers and malls have enjoyed for decades.

After the Mayor became mayor, main streets organizations were formed all across the city, such that there are now19 main streets organization from East Boston to West Roxbury and almost everywhere in between. Their combined impact is broader than their simple numbers. Collectively, they are operative symbols of the idea that a great many places, not just the big-ticket ones (the Back Bays and Beacon Hills of the world), are worth preserving and working with and moving forward. Rosindale Square (I sympathize with the old-timers who have steadfastly refused to use the word "Village" after "Roslindale" except when absolutely required) is an extremely apt poster child for this idea. I have come to love our neighborhood's walkable and lively center, yet one could hardly call it perfect. And that's the point. A place doesn't have to be perfect to be cared for and made better. It just has to be ours.

Friday, March 1, 2013

More than just re-branding on Post Office Square (Blog Post No. 2013-3)

Photo 1: The main entrance.
Photo 2: The CongressStreet -High Street corner and the former garage space, now retail.
Photo 3: Another view of the same corner, looking further down High Street.
Photo 4: The new High Street entry.
Photo 5: New retail space on the corner of Oliver Street and Franklin Street.
Photo 6: New retail space on the corner of Franklin Street and Congress Street.

The Location: 50 Post Office Square, Boston, MA (formerly 185 Franklin Street). Check out google street view to see what these frontages looked like before: HERE.

The Story: This post clearly belongs in the incremental changes category, without question, though the underlying trend here is definitely not insignificant. We are looking at the re-branded 50 Post Office Square, formerly just plain old 185 Franklin Street and more widely known as the New England Telephone Building for many years. The building itself is a relatively late period example of Art Deco, having been constructed in the late 1940s, when the style was past its prime and already yielding to the International Style. This Boston Globe piece from Casey Ross ("An Art Deco Makeover") does a great job of setting out the essentials. Verizon, the successor to NET through a couple of mergers, emphatically ended the building's first chpater in 2010 when it decided to move most of its employees to other locations and sold to a private developer, in this case a group called Commonwealth Ventures. Clearly, Commonwealth saw substantial upside in the location - across Franklin Street from Post Office Square Park - despite the loss in near-term value that would result from losing most of the main tenant.

To realize that upside, however, Commonwealth needed to do more than simply give the building a new address and hire brokers. They needed to do things that may seem like common sense (at least to this blog, they do), but that still required vision and a willingness to take a certain amount of risk. Because the building had been a single-tenant affair since its construction, there had been little impetus to do more than accommodate the arrival and departure of the employees of that single tenant. Thus, the only entrances were the front entrance on Franklin, admittedly marked by an impressive and distinct architectural expression, and the rather sad couple of doors on High Street denoted by a forlorn canopy more appropriate for an early 1970s bus station than an important regional corporate player. In other words, while not a hostile building, certainly not playing the part it could in the urban ensemble. You occupy a whole city block in the heart of Boston, you need to do more than 2 entrances on the front and back. Commonwealth recognized that imperative, and, as the Globe aritcle indicates, hired Elkus Manfredi to manage the building's renovation, including, among other things, new retail space on basically 1/3 of the ground floor frontages and a new lobby on High Street. Nothing earthshattering here. Just another strand in the fabric doing a lot more than it used to, and clearly reflecting the trend that the level of urbanistic expectation is getting higher every day. And, to bookend the discussion, by snagging a consolidating Brown Brothers Harriman as the tenant that will take almost all of the old Verizon space, Commonwealth has seen their risk taking rewarded, which is a nice bit of positive reinforcement for other downtown landlords that might want to follow their example.