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Paul McMorrow

Something beautiful

Creativity is needed to develop businesses along the Greenway

By Paul McMorrow
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2010

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AS BOSTONIANS, we’ve have been told that the Rose Kennedy Greenway is our great reward for slogging through a two-decade-long public works project. There was noise and traffic and Jersey barriers, and at the end of it all, some grass and trees and manicured shrubbery! Hooray.

It’s time to stop viewing the Greenway that way.

The Greenway is not some plastic toy lying at the bottom of a box of breakfast cereal. It’s not like a lollipop doled out at the doctor’s office, a saccharine treat rewarding the squeamish for enduring pain and needles and other unpleasantries.

When we look at the parks atop the Big Dig like a prize, we miss the whole point. The parks’ impact on Boston’s urban fabric is an end unto itself.

When the old Central Artery was buried, so too were the old urban planning models that Robert Moses pioneered. Moses, the brawling New York redevelopment figure, argued that highways would revitalize the American city. Instead, the roadways that Moses and his imitators across the country built wound up whisking cars through cities, not into them, while choking off life in the neighborhoods they slashed through.

The Central Artery covered neighborhoods in shadow and walled them off from the rest of town. The real payoff to the artery’s razing wasn’t a nice new leaky underground tunnel; it was erasing the rusty green scar cutting through the middle of town, repairing the neighborhood connections that the elevated highway had severed, and bringing the city back to an urban scale oriented around people, not cars.

Beating a highway isn’t enough, though. Just ask the people who live along the corridors that were cleared in the 1960s for the doomed Southwest Expressway and Inner Belt highways. Activists killed a destructive highway project, and in large swaths of Columbus Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard they’ve been left with a local roadway that isn’t much better than a highway. City and state officials left behind under-utilized, pedestrian-repellant super-blocks that don’t interact with one another or their neighbors. They failed to repair what they’d done to the neighborhoods they’d cleared for the project.

The Greenway isn’t yet in danger of becoming Melnea Cass Boulevard. But planners’ failures in Roxbury hold some weighty lessons for the new downtown parks system.

As a parks system, the Greenway only gets the city halfway to where it needs to be — a community reunited across, and along, the scar left by the Central Artery. So city planners are right to focus on the other half, on the built edges that line the park.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s ongoing Greenway District Planning Study wants to protect the parks by guarding them from the shadows of new developments. Mayor Tom Menino has warned against turning the parks ribbon into a canyon.

The problem is, lucrative parking garages sit on top of four of the prime redevelopment sites along the Greenway. Urban planners like to talk about active edges. This is a fancy way of saying they prefer buildings that people actually use to blank walls or dead spaces. And parking garages, by their very nature, present pedestrians with inactive edges. So what good is it to bury a monstrous elevated highway if all it leaves behind is a streetscape that’s broken and deadened by parking garages?

Developer Don Chiofaro has grabbed attention by wrapping his Harbor Garage with a giant red X, and then threatening to leave the garage as a giant dead spot on the Greenway if he’s not allowed to replace it with two 600-foot tall towers. The BRA’s chief planner has retorted that the city is not in the business of using zoning variances to make financially infeasible projects feasible.

Chiofaro’s case is an extreme example because of the exorbitant sum he paid for his garage, but the same dynamic is in play at the Government Center Garage, and the Dock Square garage, and the Lincoln Street garage — all Greenway redevelopment sites, and all valuable real estate enterprises in their current forms. Economics could leave each with dead faces along a parks system that was built to reanimate the city.

Left to their own devices, developers will seldom replace a parking garage, unless they’re allowed to replace it with a fairly massive and lucrative development. The things are too valuable to demolish out of pure civic pride. City officials actually recognized this fact when they let the Abbey Group replace an aging Downtown Crossing garage with the shiny new (and quite tall, at 315 feet) 45 Province condo tower.

Height isn’t the only answer though. Developers and city officials need to move beyond the zero-sum game they’re currently engaged in over Greenway construction. Creativity is needed. Innovative public-private partnerships could help realign the goals of city planners and property owners. Both need to recognize that the making of the Greenway has just started.

Paul McMorrow, a guest columnist, is staff writer for Banker & Tradesman.

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