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Imagining a new Government Center

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  December 10, 2010 01:13 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for

In its current state, City Hall Plaza is often a wasteland of unused and unloved public space.

Be bold and take a holistic approach, or be modest and proceed by increments.

That’s the mixed message from architects, urban planners, and designers who spoke at a Symposium on Greening Government Center at the Boston Public Library main branch. The symposium on Thursday was the first step in a lengthy design process intended to remake the outdoor spaces in Government Center so they are more friendly to the environment, as well as more appealing and useful to Boston’s citizens and visitors.

“Through this program, Mayor Menino proposed reimagining City Hall Plaza using sustainability as our guiding framework,” said Jim Hunt, chief for environmental and energy services for the City of Boston. “We hope to incorporate green infrastructure, green building and technology innovation to make the plaza more accessible and inviting to the public. But we also want this opportunity to serve as a catalyst for greening the entire Government Center.”

Boston is one of five cities nationwide selected by the US Environmental Protection Agency to participate in the Greening America’s Capitals program. The other capitals chosen are Charleston, W.Va.; Hartford, Conn.; Jefferson City, Miss.; and Little Rock, Ark.

That designation comes with funding for a team of designers to produce drawings that will aid in the planning process. The EPA selected Boston-based Utile, Inc. Architecture + Planning to lead the process.

The panel identified a number of problems with the plaza in its current state, while pointing out a wide variety of overlapping and contradictory opportunities for making it a more usable public space.

Janet Marie Smith, an architect and urban planner who oversaw renovations of Fenway Park, said that the area is a great space for public celebrations, but even with four strong sports franchises, those are few and far between.

“When the citizens are out en masse, the place really is delightfully transformed,” Smith said. “But every day of the year is not a celebration, and more often than not, City Hall sits lonely and isolated.”

Alex Krieger, a Harvard professor and former chairman of its Urban Planning and Design department, agreed with Smith’s observations and pointed out that the architects who designed the plaza drew their inspiration from the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy.

But unlike that public square, he said, City Hall Plaza does not have thriving activity along its edges to feed people into the space.

“The problem is that when the sports enthusiasts go away, no one’s there in the plaza,” he said. “There’s actually nowhere to go, whereas at the Campo, they all stay. They recede back to the perimeter, where all the action takes place.”

The speakers encouraged designers and city residents to look at this moment as an opportunity to make the plaza a more attractive place to spend time while also seeking ways to harness untapped resources. They said it could be transformed through increased green space, seating and shelter from the elements and that adding retail to the area could increase foot traffic.

To make it more environmentally friendly, the city could put a “green” roof atop City Hall, or add solar panels. And rainwater could be captured and recycled.

Architect Bob Fox spoke of the potential consequences for Boston of rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels worldwide.

“In Boston, you have had a few days over 90 [degrees this year], but if I look at your own statistics that you’ve prepared, in 2070 you expect to have 50 days over 90 degrees,” he said. “And I suspect you won’t like it.”

Then, showing an image of Downtown Boston flooded by rising sea levels, he said, “If that continues, City Hall Plaza and the Government Center district will have a very different design challenge than the one we think we’re facing today. … City Hall Plaza will have a marina.”

Fox said the city could embrace Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 80 percent over the next 40 years in part by harnessing untapped resources.

He said the city could replaced the inefficient 83-year-old substation that currently powers the large office buildings adjacent to Government Center with a new power plant that would capture the heat from an existing underground steam system.

“It would provide an incredible amount of good energy and really move the bar on the 80 percent goal by 2050,” Fox said. “And when you don’t need all that power during the day, you could make ice at night, shifting load from the grid and use the ice that you’re storing to air-condition the buildings during the day.”

Landscape designer Chris Reed strongly encouraged everyone to look beyond just City Hall Plaza at the entire Government Center complex of buildings and open spaces and find ways to make systematic changes.

But Krieger pointed to the success of Smith’s team in gradually transforming Fenway Park over a seven-year span to demonstrate that incremental change could be the more likely route for this project.

“Probably, regarding the plaza, starting and fixing slowly and coming up with a second idea a year later and so forth, may well be a much more likely step than coming up with a major, bold, and probably infeasible idea to transform it all at once,” Krieger said.

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