A vision of South Station as indoor park

Pianist Bruce Lewis gave his weekly performance at South Station last week. Operators look to add more cultural events. Pianist Bruce Lewis gave his weekly performance at South Station last week. Operators look to add more cultural events. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / July 18, 2011

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After an all-night train trip, Reina M. DuVal arrived in Boston last week tired, hungry, and eager for fresh air. But a weekly lunchtime concert captivated DuVal as she rolled her suitcase across the scuffed floor of South Station’s bustling grand concourse.

A professional musician in a tuxedo played a solo set at a grand piano, his repertoire ranging from Mozart to John Denver, while the massive schedule board flashed an update for the 1 p.m. to Framingham.

Imagine a South Station with live music almost every day, along with performances by theater troupes, art exhibits, and a white-tablecloth restaurant, all while 100,000 people a day rush - or sometimes wait - to catch a train or bus.

That is the new vision of Equity Office, the company that holds a 30-year lease for the commercial space in South Station. The firm hopes to invigorate the grand concourse and entice people like DuVal to linger and spend money.

“We looked at it and said this is one of the best indoor spaces in Boston,’’ said John Conley, vice president of asset management for Equity Office. “But the station is underutilized. We asked how could we take this terrific space and really enliven it.’’

It may have been the calming composition by Chopin or the playful rhythm of ragtime, but last week’s lunchtime concert by pianist Bruce Lewis demonstrated that performances have the potential to make South Station more of a destination and less of a turnstile.

Dozens of people were fixed in place, seemingly oblivious to the departing trains. They sat in 50 folding chairs set up for the event: A man in a light-colored business suit with a newspaper stuffed in his briefcase; a 20-something traveler with tattoos who ate stir-fried broccoli from a Styrofoam container; and a middle-aged woman tapping her foot in time with Scott Joplin’s Peacherine Rag.

“I got in at 11:06 [a.m.], and I’m still here,’’ said DuVal, 61, the overnight traveler from Virginia who had been camped at a table for two hours. “I was going to go to lunch somewhere, but instead I [got a salad at Cosi] and stayed.’’

Equity Office had previously used an in-house marketer to oversee its long-running summer lunchtime concert series and other events. But recently the firm hired Daniel A. Biederman, a New York City park consultant who helped pull Manhattan’s Bryant Park back from the brink of urban decay in the 1990s.

Though he offered no concrete plans for South Station, Biederman spoke of the 40,000-square-foot grand concourse as an indoor park flush with potential for events and intriguing experiences to promote products and entertain commuters, as early as this fall.

“In South Station, you have 365 days of good weather,’’ said Biederman. “Parks in the Northeast get 100 days of good weather.’’

Biederman caused a stir last year when the Friends of the Public Garden hired him to raise money for Boston Common in part by seeking commercial sponsors. In Bryant Park, he has used corporate money to fund improvements and pay for programming.

While no blockbuster deals have been announced for Boston Common, Coca-Cola will pay a substantial amount of a money to sponsor a baseball clinic by Red Sox players for children, said Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of Friends of the Public Garden.

“It’s been a long cultivation process, and Dan would admit as much,’’ said Vizza, adding that the group hopes to secure more corporate money for the improvements near the Brewer Fountain, slated to be complete by October.

Biederman’s company has also been hired recently by The Esplanade Association, the nonprofit that advocates for the 3-mile, state-owned park along the Charles River. That association also plans to use his corporate contacts to raise money.

“Some people think these public spaces are being privatized; I don’t think that’s the case at all,’’ said Sylvia Salas, the association’s executive director, who pointed out that nonprofits have long relied on private companies.

Built in the 1890s, South Station may be a public space, but it is no stranger to corporate logos. Enormous banners advertising Mohegan Sun casino hang from the rafters, and a dozen fast-food restaurants serve commuters.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which owns South Station, said it favors the effort to enliven the space, within reason.

“Transportation use must take priority,’’ said Mark Boyle, the MBTA’s assistant general manager for development. “There needs to be sufficient room for commuters to pass. In terms of audio, the announcements for train service take priority, as well. But it’s just common sense.’’

Those restrictions would still allow actors from the Lion King or Blue Man Group, for example, to stage performances to promote their shows in the Theater District, said Ted Furst, Boston project manager for Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corp.

Even a performance as simple as last week’s piano music was a powerful draw.

“People who are sitting there have been there for a while,’’ said Cindy Scolamiero, traveling from Exeter, N.H., to look for work in Boston. “It lightens your mood. Even if you are in a rush, you rush by and smile.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAndrewRyan.