Brian McGrory

Spoiling for a fight

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / May 5, 2010

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It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Nothing, precisely nothing, is ever easy in this town.

A call came into City Hall a couple of months ago from the nation’s largest and oldest civic planning organization, inviting Boston officials to nominate the Back Bay for a prestigious designation as one of America’s great neighborhoods.

Anyone around here knows that Back Bay is one of the great square miles in the world, a profoundly beautiful mix of 19th-century town houses and world-class modern architecture, a place where sharp contrasts create unusual harmony.

The designation would put a spotlight on it, one made all the sweeter by the fact that the American Planning Association, or APA, which bestows the award, is hosting 5,000 planners at its national conference at the Hynes Auditorium next year.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority rightfully bit. Officials filled out the lengthy application and called around to civic leaders to send letters of support.

The BRA reached out to the Back Bay Association, the business group that represents the area, and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, the group of residents. Oil and water have more in common than these two groups. They make Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill look like best friends. But this designation would be a rallying cry for everyone to unite in the name of one glorious goal.

“I really thought it was an opportunity for us all to step back and work together to get our neighborhood the recognition it deserves,’’ said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, the able head of the Back Bay Association.

And thus the controversy begins. But before I go on, some necessary caveats. Individually, leaders of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, or NABB, are nice people. They’re smart people. They’re well-intentioned people, deserving of credit for preserving some essential parts of the Back Bay. They’re also my neighbors, and I admire them all.

But something happens when they get together. They lose their minds. They oppose for the sake of opposition. They fight seemingly any restaurant that wants to serve — brace yourself, please — alcohol or locate on the sunny side of Newbury Street. They disdain buildings taller than an NBA player. They fought the construction of handicap accessible elevators to the Green Line.

But a bid to designate Back Bay as one of America’s great neighborhoods — certainly NABB could support that, no? They could acknowledge that businesses are a critical part of Back Bay.

No. NABB officials sent a letter to the APA last week eviscerating the idea. They complained the application included such areas as the Prudential Center, the Copley Mall, Stuart Street — all vital to the neighborhood. “These areas are not exemplary of good planning and, in fact, include many examples where development interests alone — and not comprehensive planning — have driven the City’s decision-making,’’ they wrote.

I asked Ann Gleason, NABB chairwoman, what it means for a neighborhood to fight a designation that would recognize it as one of America’s best.

“It is awkward,’’ said Gleason, a respected architect and member of the community. “It was difficult. We had a healthy discussion about it.’’

She added, “It became apparent, when things were brought to my attention, that a lot of people were uneasy endorsing a development agenda that they thought was inappropriate for the neighborhood and that the BRA was seeking national recognition for what they were doing.’’

With NABB, an award can’t just be an award; it has to be fraught with ominous meaning.

John Palmieri, the BRA director, penned a response to Gleason saying he was “disappointed’’ by NABB’s “unfortunate’’ actions. The application continues.

The APA’s Richard Lukas said the group won’t shy away from controversy, but will consider objections with “merit.’’ I’m sure he thinks we’re completely nuts.

But that’s life in the Back Bay, where NABB’s new slogan might be: “Not as good a neighborhood as you think.’’

McGrory is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is

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