Globe Editorial

Three big-ticket developments would speed Boston’s recovery

August 10, 2011

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THE STANDARD rap on development in Boston is that it takes forever to get anything built, and that neighborhood sentiment and pressure from City Hall tend to reduce the size and scope of ambitious projects. But as the local economy recovers faster than that of the nation as a whole, Boston now has three major opportunities to go big.

One is at Copley Place, where owner Simon Property Group wants to build a gleaming 47-story tower on a site that’s currently occupied partly by a Neiman Marcus store and partly by a ho-hum expanse of red brick. The project, which would include 318 housing units, restaurants, shops, and a glass-enclosed garden, is the embodiment of the state’s “smart growth’’ strategy; if ever a site was appropriate for dense transit-oriented residential development, it’s this property, which sits between Copley station on the Green Line and Back Bay station on the Orange Line, along with Amtrak and commuter rail.

The height of the project is bound to raise objections, and one bill before the Legislature, by seeking to restrict significant new shadows over nearby Copley Square and other park areas, could put the tower in jeopardy. That would be unwise. The proposed site is near the Hancock Tower, so the new tower is in keeping with its surroundings. And its shadows would move across the course of the day. Meanwhile, the upside is significant: New residents would enliven the area. The Boston Redevelopment Authority should demand an aesthetically pleasing building in harmony with its surroundings - but recognize that the basic concept here is sound.

The planning agency should do the same, on both counts, for the proposal to redevelop what’s now the 11-story Government Center Garage. That hulking 1967 facility was built in an era when packing in as many cars as possible seemed like the best way to keep Boston moving. Now it’s an eyesore - especially the part of the garage that extends over Congress Street. The mixed-use redevelopment proposal by developer HYM Investment Group would reconnect neighborhoods that were separated during the age of so-called urban renewal and would add life to the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

Finally, there’s the Boston Herald site at the intersection of Chinatown, the South End, and South Boston. An early proposal by National Development calls for a low-rise structure with retail and residential uses - a plan that would maintain the current foundation of the existing Herald building. As this editorial page noted earlier this year, the proposal seems solid and viable, and has the potential to encourage the development of surrounding industrial parcels. But it’s not an ambitious use of a crucial parcel of land. In recent weeks, there’s been an outpouring of community sentiment in favor of a much larger, more imaginative project. It’s a rare moment in Boston when neighbors are demanding something bigger, taller, and grander than what a developer proposes. The developer of the Herald site ought to listen.

Because of a credit crunch and then because of general economic malaise, there’s been a relative lack of skyline- and neighborhood-altering buildings in the last three years. But that pause has given the Menino administration and Boston residents time to reflect on the kind of city they want to see. At least in these three cases, thinking big is the right approach.