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Building on the Pike

After a decade of planning, the $624m Columbus Center is about to break ground. Its hotel rooms, parks, stores, and condominiums will rise above a four-block section of the turnpike, holding the promise of connecting two estranged neighborhoods in the heart of Boston -- the Back Bay and South End.

When Kenneth A. Himmel finished building Copley Place over the Massachusetts Turnpike in 1984, he figured it would soon be part of a long line of development that would hide the highway and connect neighborhoods.

Two decades later I-90 still divides the city.

''I thought it would all be covered," said Himmel, who was Copley Place's project manager and is now chief executive of Related Urban Development of New York, a development company. ''It would be a sort of boulevard of height running from downtown."

This spring, after a decade in the planning, the next project over the turnpike is set to break ground. The $624 million Columbus Center will rise above a 1,500-foot-long deck over the highway, extending the Prudential Center tunnel to the east and joining Boston's historic Back Bay and South End neighborhoods.

''It's our version of Robert Moses," said Alex Krieger, an urban planner and chief executive of Chan Krieger & Associates, referring to the legendary New York City builder. ''Since '62, we've assumed there would be a substantial covering."

Columbus Center, to be built by Winn Development of Boston, will have less than half the square footage of Copley Place but will cover more than twice as much of the roadway. There will be a 35-story tower with hotel rooms, condos, and stores, several additional condominium buildings, parking for 917 cars, and four parks. The 1.3 million-square-foot project spans four blocks and will be built all at once, not in phases.

If construction starts as planned, it could be completed by 2010.

While Copley and the Prudential Center proved that office and retail development could thrive over a busy interstate highway, Columbus Center's dominant residential nature will likely be known for connecting two estranged neighborhoods.

''I've always thought of it as the continuity of urban fabric," said David Hancock, principal of CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc., which designed the complex. ''We talked about reknitting and weaving together an urban neighborhood."

Construction of the Prudential Center in the early 1960s -- Boston's first development over the pike -- was predicated on the extension of the highway from Weston, allowing a speedy trip into Boston. They were built simultaneously.

Putting a concrete slab over the pike and building on it made sense because it reclaimed land and helped unite two increasingly desirable areas, the Back Bay and South End.

It also offered an alternative to a downtown crowded with towers. In 1961, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kevin Lynch sketched out the idea of a ''tall spine" extending west from downtown Boston. The Hancock Tower, built in the early 1970s at 62 stories, fit that pattern, as did Copley Place 10 years later. Columbus Center -- though not as tall as its originally proposed towers of 38 and 33 floors -- means more vertebrae for that spine.

Columbus Center's costs have risen dramatically, and the condo market has cooled. But in one way its timing may be right: As the developer prepares to erect a 35-story addition to the profile of the Back Bay, city planners and executives have recently begun talking about building skyscrapers again, after a hiatus when they were widely considered to be un-Boston.

Neighborhood groups opposed Columbus Center because they thought it was bigger and taller than it needed to be. To try to win them over, Winn Development agreed to a package of public benefits that includes new parks, groundwater-monitoring wells, and space for a grocery store.

Further drawing out the planning process was the complexity of building a small city over an active roadway.

''This project has got to be built over a highway, transit line, commuter line, and Amtrak -- without closing down any of those ever," said Matthew J. Kiefer, a director at the law firm Goulston & Storrs PC, who has worked on Columbus Center since the Turnpike Authority awarded developing rights to Winn in 1997.

Legal complexities alone were bewildering. The project involved multiple property owners, permits for varying uses, several sources of financing, separate contractors for the deck and the buildings, criticism from multiple neighborhoods, a new MBTA entrance, leases from both the turnpike and the MBTA, special city zoning approval, and putting it all together on top of the highway.

''This is five-dimensional chess for us," said Kiefer, who counts the checklist of closing legal documents for Columbus Center at 15 pages, when they usually number three or four.

No wonder developers have shied away from air rights. Even though they get to build the space above the road -- handy when land is scarce -- these projects are complex and costly. In the early 1990s, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority identified 23 parcels along the thoroughfare in Boston and sought proposals from developers. Nothing has been built since.

During the mid-1990s, Millennium Partners of New York proposed an ambitious hotel and entertainment complex over the turnpike just west of Massachusetts Avenue, but a strong neighborhood opposition nixed it.

Columbus Center survived largely because of the perseverance of Roger M. Cassin, partner in charge of Winn. The project was a subject at about 130 public meetings and was substantially redesigned five times before it was approved by the city in 2003.

''This is going to make a difference," Cassin said last week. ''The construction start will be like a magic machine that will use 2,500 construction jobs to turn noise and traffic into things like kids playing on parks. The chain-link fences that are there now will become doorways to restaurants, shops, and homes."

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at

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