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.
Some lessons on upkeep at City Hall Plaza
By Robert F. Walsh, 4/15/2002
Boston is a special place. Its scale provides a comfortable setting for living, working, and visiting. It is renowned for its park system, founded on the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace. Currently, there is the opportunity to reinforce this legacy of Boston and expand the park system on the land that will be created by the depression of the Central Artery.
Civic leaders, both public and private, are engaged in deliberations about final design, the ownership, and the maintenance of the 27 acres. While the governance structure is important, the maintenance of the new open space, including guaranteed financial resources, must also be viewed as central to the long-term success of the space.
Unfortunately, not all of Boston's open space is successful. City Hall Plaza is an example of a public space that has not worked and requires a major infusion of funds for it to be accepted as a community asset. To that end, Mayor Thomas Menino asked for volunteers to fix the plaza, and the Trust for City Hall Plaza was created and has produced tangible success, but with much to be done.
However, the experience of the Trust can be instructive as we reach a critical stage in the Surface Artery's open space planning.
The Trust has found that there is no simple formula for success, but there are basic issues that can be addressed by the Surface Artery planners. Resolving these issues can help create open space that is worthy of the Boston standard established by Olmsted and continued today in places like Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square.
Part of City Hall Plaza's problem is its scale. It is too large, lacks definition, and its vast hard surface reinforced the monotony of the design. In its 35-year history it has been treated more as a liability than an asset, and it has often lost out when budget decisions are made for capital or operating improvements. To address that issue strong consideration should be given to funding operating reserves as part of the initial construction budget.
Boston's experience teaches us that open space works best where there is some form of dedicated revenue and where there are engaged advocates for the space. While there is no set formula for how this can work, successful examples include Post Office Square, supported by revenue from an underground garage and well managed by a nonprofit board. The Public Garden, with its modest trust fund, tenacious Friends of the Public Garden working in partnership with the Boston Parks Department, and the Arnold Arboretum, supported by its private endowment and managed by Harvard. No single model is a guarantee of success, but combined sources of revenues and a committed community of supporters are mainstays of our succcessful open spaces.
Accordingly, an important goal of the Trust is to identify a private revenue source to participate in the rebuilding and maintenance of the plaza. Our original idea was that a hotel could provide the revenue. That proposal was not well received and is no longer under consideration. Identifying a private funding source is still key to successful transformation of the plaza, but it will be part of a combination of resources, both public and private, that will be needed.
For the Surface Artery and City Hall Plaza, multiple funding resources, from government agencies, foundations, abutters, corporate benefactors, and institutions, will be the key to success. Both projects should aim to establish a quality of maintenance consistent with the Norman B. Leventhal Park, which has a maintenance budget that, on a square foot basis, is twice the amount budgeted for comparable city-owned open spaces. However, Boston taxpayers should not have to support exclusively a project which is a benefit to Greater Boston.
The 11-acre City Hall Plaza remains a difficult challenge, but progress has been made. The most visible is the Community Arcade at the Cambridge Street edge of the plaza. Later this year, construction will begin on the new Green Line station. The MBTA, with the assistance of the Trust, has chosen an outstanding design to replace the existing brick bunker. These improvements will go a long way to reduce the sprawl of the plaza, provide definition, and make it feel more compatible with its neighbors. The Trust looks forward to working with our neighbors, particularly the General Services Administration, on improvements. Clearly, recent events have heightened everyone's awareness of necessary security precautions, but we should elect a design solution that incorporates security measures into attractive design.
The plaza is beginning to show the benefit of having multiple resources for its maintenance. While the city has the primary responsibility of maintaining the plaza, the Trust, through one of its members, Equity Office Properties, has supplemented the city's effort with daily upkeep of the Community Arcade.
The planners for the Surface Artery should be encouraged to learn from the successes and failures of the past in order to create a civic asset that will be valued for future generations.
Robert F. Walsh is chairman of the Trust for the City Hall Plaza.