Downtown View:Curiouser and Curiouser

January 7, 2016
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City Hall Plaza is maligned, disparaged, abhorred and then used whenever we have a citywide celebration—think World Series.

The place has been poorly maintained for almost 50 years while serving as a staging area, a site for the Big Apple Circus and concerts and a parking lot for unidentified cars. Parts of it have been covered with fake grass. A fountain, the most interesting feature on the plaza, broke long ago, and someone decided the best remedy would be to dump concrete into the hole. Strange.

Mayor Walsh issued a Request for Proposals to fix the plaza, with a deadline for submissions in October, and now another RFP had a deadline of January 4, according to the Mayor’s Press Office. Mysterious.

Recently, however, the plaza has changed without a plan. Whether this is a good move or a bad one has yet to be determined.

The plaza used to have a feature that may have been its best. Two sides were curved. Cambridge Street’s arc became Tremont Street as it straightened out. Sears Crescent rounded the plaza’s southern side. Edges like this in other “world-class” cities have been pressed into service as restaurants and bars, making otherwise barren hardscapes vibrant and attractive. Here, the edges were not only ignored but now their curves have been compromised with straight edges.

First it was a baffling installation several years ago along the Cambridge Street curve. Someone put in a straight line of lighted poles adorned with a thin metal pergola. The purpose of this “thing”—I have no real word for it—was unclear. Benches underneath are uncomfortable and unprotected from the elements. As a statement for the plaza or maybe a piece of art, the poles and their pergola are too narrow and insignificant to hold their own. Naturally, in this maintenance-challenged city, lights on the poles are broken. A farmers’ market used the pergola as a place under which to set up. I can’t find out either from City Hall or the Internet what these poles are called, why they are there or how much they cost. What they do is fight the curve.

Now another feature on City Hall Plaza is nearing completion, enough so that we can see its effect. The new headhouse at the Government Center MBTA station is a glass box. It promises to bring welcome natural light into the station itself. The description of the station’s terrazzo floors makes me think we will like them. A canopy will provide shelter.

But this installation, like the baffling one without a name, fights the gentle curve of the Sears Crescent, hiding it, compromising a good feature. Moreover, although the Massachusetts Historic Commission signed off on the station’s design during the review process as not blocking the view to the Old North Church, that is exactly what it does. Ironically, it blocks it from the sidewalk plaque on Tremont Street that points pedestrians toward the view.

How important is this? Who knows? There are plenty of places in which structures block views of Old North. You can sort of see the church through the glass if you know where to look.

If you’ve read these columns in the past, you know that I often mention that the edges of any plaza are the most important feature a plaza can have.     The Piazza San Marco is always mentioned as the inspiration for City Hall Plaza. But the plaza’s planners looked only at the empty stone Venetian plaza and neglected to see what surrounds it — umpteen bars and restaurants that start serving alcohol at nine o’clock every morning.

All of Rome’s inviting plazas feature the same restaurants and bars providing 18-hour activity. It does not matter how many trees or bricks a plaza contains, nor does it matter if the building anchoring it is the Pantheon or a strange looking city hall. If the edges are active and vibrant, the plaza will be also.

Our plaza is now being filled in with random structures without a master plan. Its edges, the feature that makes or breaks a plaza, are being eroded. The structures make it no longer a plaza. The original station plans show trees planted around the station. No one will object to trees, even if they don’t play a part in Italian cities’ plazas’ success. Even if a smart, sassy planning firm comes up with activities people will enjoy, this plaza is compromised. Maybe we should just bring back the old Hanover Street—it is still there, underneath—and turn the rest of the place into streets and sidewalks.

If the Red Sox continue to play as poorly as they did this past season, we won’t need a place to celebrate a World Series win again anyway.

 

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