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Glass haven envisioned for barren Hancock plaza

Email|Print| Text size + By Thomas C. Palmer Jr.
Globe Staff / January 24, 2008

Owners of the sleek Hancock Tower in the Back Bay want to create a glass-enclosed public square on the windswept and forbidding half-acre plaza at its front doors on Clarendon Street, turning the trophy property's biggest drawback into a public asset.

Broadway Partners Fund Manager LLC, of New York, which bought the 60-floor Hancock about a year ago, hopes to create a "winter garden" - a grand public meeting space with landscaping and seating - on a desolate plaza now largely ruled by gusts of wind.

"We have a barren, unusable plaza," said Alan G. Rubenstein, director of asset management for Broadway Partners. "This is a way to reclaim that space."

Below street level, on a vast block-square concourse, the owners propose to build a restaurant and retail complex.

The 25,000-square-foot floor below ground is now used for storage space and an enormous cafeteria, a place once dubbed "the sleeping area" because employees in the John Hancock era would relax there.

The tower occupies the block bounded by Clarendon Street, St. James Avenue, Trinity Place, and Stuart Street.

The company does not yet have a price tag for the project, but construction would cost millions of dollars. The plans will need approval from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and any new restaurant that wants to serve alcohol would need a liquor license.

The new enclosure would shield visitors from winds in the area that are sometimes fierce. The space would be heated in winter and air conditioned in summer.

Glass walls and a roof would enclose about 12,000 square feet in front of the building, a little more than half of the current open space, which now has heavy planters along the edges that double as defenses against terrorist attacks on the building. With security a continuing consideration, the reconfigured plaza would have to incorporate new defenses.

In a preliminary design, the ground-level seating area includes a small bar, for drinks or coffee. Stairways at two wide openings lead to the restaurant and retail space below. The circular openings, forming twin atriums about 50 feet in diameter, would let light into the lower level.

A redeveloped plaza could materialize within two years. Broadway Partners hopes to have the design firmed up in about a month and present its plans to the city in two months. Construction could take 12 to 18 months.

Broadway Partners has hired Boston architect Howard Elkus of Elkus | Manfredi Architects to design the addition. The company is beginning to show conceptual images - inspired by spaces such as an atrium at the IBM Building and the Apple Store at the General Motors Building, both in New York - to neighbors, to get their reactions.

"It's a really good idea," said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, who was briefed on the plans yesterday. "The possibilities are very exciting, not just for the John Hancock but for Copley Square."

"What you see when you walk by there today is women with their hair standing on end, and umbrellas uprooted," she said. "It's a very important commitment to improve that area."

Broadway Partners is scheduled to meet today with representatives of Trinity Church, which is across St. James Avenue on Copley Square.

Whatever its final shape, the one-story glass structure will be designed so that visual corridors are maintained, Rubenstein said. "If you're standing on Stuart Street, you could still see Trinity Church."

Rubenstein said Broadway Partners is studying the market for a restaurant and retail shops to be located on the below-ground level, which has 16-foot ceilings.

"We're looking for the economics of a restaurant or retail to support the cost" of doing the project, he said.

A second underground floor currently has one of the largest kitchens in the city and formerly served many of the 7,000 John Hancock Financial Services employees who used to work in the tower and in nearby buildings, some of whom have been relocated. Hancock, now part of Manulife Financial Corp., still leases some space in the tower, which it once owned.

By eliminating the cafeteria, the kitchen area would be available for "back of house" space for a commercial restaurant or for a retail establishment.

Rubenstein said Broadway Partners is looking for a high-quality "white-tablecloth" restaurant. The company bought the Hancock Tower, designed by the firm of I.M. Pei, from Boston-based Beacon Capital Partners LLP in December 2006, for about $1.3 billion.

Though a preeminent example of modern architecture, the Hancock had its problems after it opened in the mid-1970s. Not only did the mirrored-glass windows come crashing to the ground, but the building itself required structural reinforcing.

Boston has had some notable failures among public and privately owned open spaces, including Copley Square, which went through multiple configurations before its current design, and City Hall Plaza.

Unlike the acclaimed Post Office Square Park downtown, City Hall Plaza, for example, has not found a layout or a use that has clicked with either the public or critics. While not as large, the Hancock plaza has long been considered wasted territory - to be avoided in winter, especially, because of the wind.

"The notion of retrofitting public spaces and correcting deficiencies and making them more suitable for climate and new kinds of use is a very important activity in cities," said Ken Greenberg, an urban planner with Greenberg Consultants Ltd. in Toronto. "Frequently we don't get those spaces right the first time."

The new plaza, when complete, would be another change in a neighborhood that had been much the same for decades - but that may soon be harder to recognize.

The YWCA has redeveloped its building across Stuart Street, and The Beal Cos. LLP has torn down the old Postal Service building to construct The Clarendon, a 32-floor residential complex, on Clarendon near the Hancock.

And work began late last year on the $800 million Columbus Center mixed-use development, which is being built nearby, above the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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