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Paul McMorrow

A fix for the West End

By Paul McMorrow
January 21, 2011

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AT THE end of Nashua Street, in the shadows of a parking garage and the Boston Garden, lies the closest thing to a grave marker that the old West End ever got: the slogan, “the greatest neighborhood this side of heaven,’’ etched onto the side of a highway onramp.

There’s a nice bit of righteous anger in affixing the slogan to a piece of highway infrastructure, which is just about the worst thing urban renewal planners ever could have traded a real neighborhood for. But if the onramp rising above Nashua Street serves as an ongoing protest of John B. Hynes, the mayor who orchestrated the razing of the West End, then the West End Park, which sits at its base, is a testament to the ongoing struggle to recapture the neighborhood’s vitality, a half-century after it was bulldozed.

The park was created as mitigation for the Big Dig. There’s really nothing sadder than an empty park. And this thing is empty. Why wouldn’t it be? Northbound cars rush overhead. The park overlooks the rear of the massive Garden, and the only slightly-less-massive Tip O’Neill Federal Building. There’s an apartment building across the way, but it’s overshadowed by the monstrous parking garage next door. The garage abuts residences on three sides, but its presence chokes off any life that might take root along the street, leaving that sad little patch of green with no constituency to speak of.

Other parts of the West End were rebuilt long ago, but this stretch, along Nashua Street and Lomasney Way, remains largely dead. It’s a kind of service door for the city — a conduit for getting people into town, but not an actual place in and of itself.

That’s why the imminent destruction of the parking garage overlooking West End Park is so meaningful.

Next week, Boston development officials will begin formally vetting a proposal by the garage’s owner, Equity Residential, to bury the old garage, and replace it with a pair of apartment towers. Equity’s proposal brings urban renewal in the West End full circle.

The developer acquired the concrete eyesore, which is officially known as the Garden Garage, but which most commuters know as the home to Basketball City, when it bought the adjacent Charles River Park apartments in 1999. Charles River Park was built to replace the old West End. It was laid out as a rare swath of urban green space, lined by apartment buildings. In order to rent those new apartments to wealthy suburbanites, the complex’s original developer built a hulking concrete parking garage along Lomasney Way. The garage’s construction had the effect of walling off Charles River Park from the rest of the city, deadening the streets around it, and warding off future development.

Since the construction of the Garden Garage at Charles River Park, we’ve learned a lot about the terrible things above-ground parking garages do to urban spaces. They break up streetscapes. They’re unfriendly to pedestrians. They diffuse the density that’s necessary for good, vibrant public spaces. We’ve learned so much, in fact, that the owner of a waterfront garage across town can propose redeveloping his garage, mount a public relations campaign based largely on arguments about good urban design, and actually win converts.

The economics behind Equity’s Garden Garage redevelopment are friendlier than at Don Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage, since Equity’s 710-space garage is half the size of Chiofaro’s. The Garden Garage has the added benefit of being in a neighborhood where significant construction projects are an easier sell: Equity’s proposed 21- and 28-story towers would be built next door to a pair of existing 38-story apartment buildings.

Bob O’Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Association, has been advocating for years for the redevelopment of the corridor between Nashua Street and Causeway Street — the part of the West End that urban renewal redevelopment left behind. “An area that’s been devoted to transportation could be reclaimed as a residential neighborhood,’’ he says. Razing the Garden Garage, he says, “could be the catalyst for the development of the rest of it.’’

The urban consequences of demolishing Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage are easy to grasp, now that the Central Artery is gone and the garage is sitting between the waterfront and the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Equity’s proposal to bury the Garden Garage and open up the West End to the rest of Boston is more difficult to envision, because the Garden Garage is on a street that’s been devoid of vibrancy for decades. There may be no surer endorsement than that.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.