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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


Ferry Building Plaza, San Francisco


Ferry Building Plaza Ferry Building Plaza is a large open space that replaced the elevated Embarcadero freeway.


* Commonwealth Avenue: Back Bay's elegant boulevard is one of the city's most successful streets.
* Piers Park: Successful in large part because of the designer's sensitivity to the requests of the East Boston community.
* Post Office Square: A lovely oasis in the heart of the city's Financial District that's a good example of public-private partnership.
* South Boston Marine Park: This not-yet-completed park recognizes that open space alone is not enough to attract people.

* Parc de Clot: Interesting reuse of an old industrial site on a scale similar to many Central Artery parcels.
* Porta Vell: A mostly successful project that reconnected a port city with its waterfront.
* The Ramblas: An outstanding example of a main thoroughfare with a people-friendly scale.

* Parc Andre Citroen: Reuse of a huge industrial complex to create a park that is an urban work of art.
* Viaduc des Arts/Promenade Plantee: Innovative reuse of an old elevated railroad viaduc to create a much-needed urban park.

San Francisco
* Crissy Field: An obsolete military base was redeveloped into a vast and successful public open space.
* Rincon Park: Public-private partnership use to build and maintain a waterfront public park.
* Yerba Buena: This combination of park and civic space is a testimonial to the power of careful urban planning and careful event planning.

The new five-acre Ferry Building Plaza exists where the hated Embarcadero elevated freeway once presented a barrier to San Francisco's waterfront. It provides needed public open space and access to the water's edge. The size of this square is equal to the area of the so-called "Central Wharf" blocks -- Parcels 13 through 17 -- which will connect Boston's downtown to the waterfront when Boston's elevated highway is demolished. Ferry Building Plaza takes its name from the 250,000-square-foot Ferry Building built in 1891 that fronts the square. In its heyday, ferryboats brought some 45 million a people a year into the city.

The Ferry Building is undergoing an $80 million transformation into an up-scale commercial office center and food court. The ground floor will showcase native Bay Area foods in a farmers market and specialty cafes, flanked at four corners by major restaurants. This will provide needed life for Ferry Building Plaza, which today draws mostly the homeless to its sun-baked, granite-surfaced expanse. Ferry Building Plaza, like its bleak next-door neighbor, Justin Herman Park (which boasts Villancourt Fountain, an unsightly example of public art gone very wrong), is a testament to the wrongheaded notion that a city need only create public open space and people will come. On a beautiful day last April, no one was to be found in the plaza. Even skateboarders preferred prowling elsewhere on the Embarcadero, up the street where the action was near a cab stand and the fronts of restaurants and shops.


Ferry Building Plaza is a new open space replacing the elevated Embarcadero freeway, which was heavily damaged in a 1989 earthquake. It is designed to accommodate a transit stop for a new trolley line that substitutes for the freeway. It also serves ferry boat passengers arriving from destinations around San Francisco bay. The plaza complements the renovation of the historic Ferry Building, now under construction, that will bring commercial activity and visitors to Ferry Building Plaza. Ferry Building Plaza was designed by the ROMA Design Group of San Francisco. Among the materials used in its construction was polished granite laid out in alternating gray and white stripes. Natural materials include Canary palms and rows of salt-tolerant deciduous trees.


The Plaza hosts a range of architectural gestures and program elements:

  • A colonnade of Canary palm trees that march majestically along the Embarcadero, marking the center of the city at San Francisco water's edge.
  • "Light cannons" -- two giant candelabra that visually bracket the historic Ferry Building clock tower -- capable of projecting column-like shafts of light 300 feet into the night air.
  • Restored streetcar service that operates on the new Mission Bay trolley line, featuring cars purchased from around the world (including one rescued from Boston) and restored by citizen volunteers.
  • Two decorative trolley sheds with striped roof canopies that match the surface paving pattern, designed to protect waiting trolley passengers from the unfiltered sun.
  • Adornments such as fountains, spherical bollards, 1950s glass block sidewalk lights, transit furniture and period signage.


The design of Ferry Building Plaza resulted in Market Street -- San Francisco's most important thoroughfare -- being diverted before it arrives at at the Ferry Building, its natural terminus. Rather, Market Street was made to meander aimlessly through a series of turns that eventually reach the Embarcadero a block or so past the historic building. The only suggestion of what could have been is seen in the morning and afternoon rush-hour pedestrian traffic across the empty plaza, marking the path where the great street should have passed.

These case studies were researched and written by Zhan Guo and Alex-Ricardo Jimenez of MIT, under the direction of Thomas J. Piper of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. They examine a series of urban open space projects with particular lessons for Boston as it decides the future of the land freed up when the Central Artery moves underground.

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