Downtown View:Re-Envisioning City Hall Plaza

April 1, 2015
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Mayor Walsh has asked for help in remaking City Hall Plaza. He has resorted to Twitter to re-invent, re-imagine, re-envision #CityHallPlaza.

In letters, radio commentary and Twitter, Bostonians have chimed in. Art exhibits, a baseball diamond, a roller rink, Yo-Yo Ma’s music garden idea, trees, an inexplicable suggestion for an “enhanced multimodal hub-ness”—all these ideas are great.

Except none of them will work.

I’d like you to consider a shocking concept: there is nothing wrong with City Hall Plaza itself. It’s the edges that make it fail.

(Full disclosure: I once served on a mayor-appointed panel that heard opinions on what to do about the plaza.)

Let’s concentrate on the plaza’s pluses. Find the bird’s eye view of the plaza soon after it was completed on #CityHallPlaza on Twitter. It’s not bad. The brick looks warm. Granite steps break up the expanse. The fountain is tucked in rather nicely.

The plaza functions well for one purpose—big crowds, whether it’s for a concert or a sports celebration. (Trees, a common suggestion, will get trampled by boisterous fans celebrating the next Red Sox World Series Championship, should that ever occur.)

City Hall Plaza’s architects are said to have envisioned Italy’s great plazas when they laid out theirs. Regrettably, most 1960s architects concentrated on whatever they were designing and forgot the setting their design was in. Copying the great Italian plazas, they noted the empty space, the majestic building at one end, the limestone surface, the activity. They ignored the feature that made those plazas successful—the edges.

Whether in Venice, Sienna or Rome, otherwise cold, windswept plazas are lined with dozens of cafes and restaurants filled with people. Those restaurants open early and close late. If you’ve visited Italy, I’ll bet you’ve crossed those plazas to find a spot to sit, sip a coffee or glass of wine, and watch the activity.

So here’s my recommendation: keep the design of the plaza. Remove that awful concrete and restore the old fountain. Re-lay the bricks. Pull out the weeds that make the granite steps buckle. Care for the trees next to the JFK building and plant the pits with flowers that someone waters. This fix is cheap.

Then rezone the edges. An eyeglass shop or an office supply store has no business being on the Sears Crescent side of the plaza. Neither does a blank back entrance to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. Instead ask the vets to enliven their entrance, perhaps with a café that they run. Persuade Boston’s best restaurateurs to set up shop and spill out onto the plaza. Let them stay open late. But that’s only one edge.

Cambridge Street presents a challenge. A roadway is a disaster for Italian-style plazas. The farmer’s market helped, and food carts or Faneuil Hall-style trinket carts could too, and once many years ago, they occupied space there and were successful.

The last blank edge degrading the plaza is the JFK building. When a hotel was proposed in the 1990s, some objected to privatizing public space. But that use would have succeeded in bringing life to that edge. The feds objected to the hotel, claiming that windows facing the JFK would make it vulnerable to bomb-throwing terrorists. We didn’t yet know airplanes were a bigger threat.

If the feds are scared of having people nearby, they shouldn’t be located next to an active plaza. It is a long shot to persuade JFK’s handlers to invite activity into its ground floor, but it is worth trying. The state successfully did this at the Saltonstall Building across the street.

Meanwhile, activate the plaza with events and all sorts of things. Because of no good edges, it will take an dedicated leader and a lot of programming.

Bostonians should take comfort.  We don’t have the worst city hall plaza. Visit Dallas, or go online to view their city hall and its surroundings, brought to them by I. M. Pei, the over-rated architect who laid out our regrettable Government Center.

Dallas City Hall is uglier than ours—hard as that might be to imagine. Roadways surround that plaza, and its surface is concrete.

As to Boston City Hall itself? Plant some ivy. Let it grow up the walls. And call it a day.

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