Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thinking about the impact of ventilation exhaust noise on Washington Mall...

... or Installment No. 3 in Targeting New Urban Fabric Restoration

We're going to try audio/video for the first time, because you really need to hear this one. So, here goes:

The Location: Washington Mall (28 State Street), Boston, MA.

The Story: This is actually part of two separate RTUF series. There's the one where we try to prime the pump (indicated above), and also where we observe that relatively small changes can make substantial differences. There is no question that Washington Mall, the less-than-perfect pedestrianized stub-end of Washington Street that resulted from urban renewal lo those many decades ago, is substantially less than it should be, especially considering its location at the very heart of downtown Boston and, if you trace it all the way back, the center of the old Town of Boston. It's directly across the street from the Old State House/Boston Massacre site marker (major attractions on the Freedom Trail), and down a short block from City Hall. There should be more going on here than there is.

And so, dear RTUF Nation, you may wonder why this is? It seems that part of the problem is sub-par urban design at 28 State that placed a relatively dead face to the mall side of the building. This is a condition exacerbated after 9/11, when heightened security measures went into place for high-rises and the number of entry points to most buildings was significantly reduced. Another part of it, I do believe -- and I hope you agree after seeing and hearing the video -- is that a substantial and substantially loud HVAC exhaust vent was placed in the ceiling of the arcade at 28 State and, to make matters worse, that vent is now knocking and pinging on top of being loud. It is a significant deterrent to sitting/standing/trying to carry on a conversation in a location that would otherwise at least have a fighting chance of being comfortable. The Ames Hotel, which came in a few years ago to the then-empty Ames Building, tried to put an outdoor patio at this location and spent what appears to have been a fair amount of money furnishing it. But that failed fairly rapidly and the patio is now completely unused. I strongly suspect that the noise from this exhuast vent was a substantial part of the reason why the patio didn't work.

I won't attempt to sort out the issues here -- whether 28 State's vent is violating the City's noise ordinance or whether the Ames Hotel folks should have tried to reach a deal to quiet the thing -- but the lesson I want to draw is that the urban ensemble required to create great places is sometimes a pretty delicate thing. This is a space that, given the surrounding foot traffic, should be lively. Instead, because of the overhead sound pollution, it just can't get there. It's another example of the ways in which we have collectively allowed ourselves to degrade the public realm. Part of the solution going forward has to be that we pay more attention to these kinds of details so we have an urban fabric that is comfortable as well as functional.

The RTUF Sketch:

Blog Post No. 2014-8