November 28, 2012

"A Wretched Excuse for a Public Space"

Scollay Square in 1906 - a thriving
commercial center (click on any of
these photos for a full-screen view).
In 1795, a merchant named William Scollay purchased a four-story building at the intersection of Court and Cambridge Streets in the burgeoning town of Boston, Massachusetts. With his name affixed to the structure, it wasn’t long before everyone began referring to the intersection as ‘Scollay’s Square’.  By 1838, the city of Boston officially named the site ‘Scollay Square’ and, through the 19th Century it was a thriving shopping and entertainment area, just a few blocks from the refined precincts of Pemberton Square and Beacon Hill. 
Scollay Square in 1947

By the middle of the 20th Century, the venerable Scollay Square neighborhood, like the adjacent West End, had declined in social standing.  The buildings were still solid, but the commercial activity ran to tattoo parlors and bars.  Some theaters closed; the ones that remained tended to show low-budget horror and ‘peep’ shows.  If you were on shore leave, it was the place to go.  If you were a proper Bostonian, it was to be avoided.

By the early 1960s, a new movement had taken hold in America.  The concept was ‘urban renewal’ and it posited that the answer to gritty neighborhoods like the West End and Scollay Square was to simply bulldoze them out of existence and build anew.  Drawing from the French model championed by Le Corbusier and his Plan Voisin school, slums were cleared and modern apartment blocks built on the same site.  In America, it was called ‘The Radiant City’.

1962 - Scollay Square is razed
Convinced that the ‘Hub of the Universe’ was sliding into insignificance, the city of Boston, armed with $45 million of federal funds, conceived of a vast ‘Government Center’ with tall buildings and broad avenues that would bring people downtown and be a magnet for further development.  The site of this bold venture?  Scollay Square.

I.M. Pei's inspiration: Siena's Piazza
del Campo
In 1962, bulldozers began clearing 90 acres – more than 20 city blocks.  No less an architect that I.M. Pei was commissioned to create a master plan for the site.  His centerpiece was a public square modeled on the concept of Siena’s Piazza del Campo which, like its Old World cousin, would be at the foot of City Hall.

In theory, Kallmann, McKinnell &
Knowles designed a plaza that mimicked
the Piazza del Campo.  In practice...
Interpreted by the architectural firm Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles, an eight-acre plaza was designed.  Construction began in 1963; the resulting ‘City Hall Plaza’ was dedicated in February 1969.  Honors followed: that year, the American Institute of Architects named Boston’s new city hall, “the sixth greatest building in American History.”

City Hall.  The less said, the better.
I will not dwell on Boston City Hall, except to say that it perfectly exemplifies the ‘Brutalist’ school of architecture and that in 2008 it was voted ‘the World’s Ugliest Building’ by the readers of  Also in 2008, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino floated the idea of building a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront and selling the City Hall Plaza site to developers.

This being a gardens and gardening blog, I'll focus solely on City Hall Plaza, billed as ‘Boston’s front yard’.

From Congress Street, City Hall Plaza
is an inaccessible two-story-high
In 2004, the Project for Public Spaces identified City Hall Plaza as the worst plaza in the world.  I have not seen every plaza in the world, so I cannot state with certainty that Boston’s is the worst, but it is the worst that I have ever stood in.  It is eight acres of brick interrupted occasionally by strips of concrete.  In form, it resembles the Piazza del Campo in that both are built of brick.  But I have been to Siena.  The Piazza is enclosed by wonderful, low historic buildings and the first floor of those buildings house nearly a hundred restaurants and cafes.  It is beloved equally by residents and tourists.

From Cambridge Street, a bleak,
alienating and uninviting prospect of
brick as far as the eye can see.
By contrast, City Hall Plaza is a vast, wind-swept (and restaurant-free) plaza.  On the Congress Street side, it presents a two-story-high wall of impenetrable brick for much of its length, separated from the rest of the city by a six-lane divided highway.  The more accessible Cambridge Street side (also a six-lane divided highway) offers a bleak, alienating and uninviting prospect of brick as far as the eye can see.  One critic called it, “a sucking void in the heart of the city.”  My favorite description is that of DavidKruh, the author of ‘Scollay Square’, who calls it “a wretched excuse for a public space.”

In 2002, a million people
jammed City Hall Plaza
to cheer the Patriots.
What is baffling is that the site has been recognized as a failure almost from the day it opened.  It has hosted a few memorable moments – mostly tied to celebrations of championships by Boston sports teams – but it usually deserted.  How can a failure go un-rectified for 44 years?  It has not been for a lack of design competitions.  Beginning in 1968 and continuing to this year, there have been a steady stream of re-design invitationals that are international in scope. (One such design is show below).  None have been implemented (Mayor Menino’s trial balloon of moving City Hall may have a lot to do with the lack of action since 2008), but what of the prior decades?

One 2010 entry to re-design the plaza.
One ‘improvement’ ended in  ignominious disaster: In 1969, a fountain was built on the Cambridge Street side of the plaza.  Barely a week after the fountain was first turned on, the filtration system malfunctioned and, according to newspaper accounts of the time, "began spewing brown and green foam that no duck would wet his feathers in." Soon, water from the fountain was leaking into the Blue Line subway tunnel below it.  In 2006, the fountain, dry for decades, was paved over.

The Piazza Del Campo 'works' because
it is enclosed by human-scale
buildings with things that attract
lots of activity
My own guess is that there is a two-part answer to the question of why nothing has been done.  The first is that City Hall Plaza is what City Hall deserves.  A Brutalist, dehumanizing structure fits a barren brick plaza that is devoid of human activity.  The second answer is that site is too large and the scale all wrong.  Siena’s Piazza del Campo works exactly because it is enclosed by those human-scale structures with their outdoor cafes.

Would horticulture help?  At present, greenery in the plaza is restricted to a pathetic rectangular grid of trees adjacent to an office building.  The 'grove' is almost painful to look at.  Could the bricks be torn out and the entire eight acres turned into a park along the lines of Boston Common or, even better, the Norman Leventhal Park at Post Office Square?  It would be an improvement.  Like that park, such a project would need to be built with private donations (my next mystery envisions a murder potentially tied to fund-raising for ‘The Garden at Government Center’).

In the end, though, I think Mayor Menino got it right back in 2008.  City Hall Plaza was an ill-conceived and horribly executed idea; the product of a design era of which, today, we shake our heads and wonder, "what were they thinking?"  After fifty years, it's time to admit that it was a mistake.  Sell the site to the highest bidder and require that it include a publicly accessible park, a la Post Office Square.  Use some of the proceeds to build a new City Hall, with the lone proviso that it look nothing like the current one.  In short, let a new Scollay Square bloom.

November 19, 2012

They Pulled Down a Parking Lot and Put Up Paradise

The pedestrian entrance to the garage
Yesterday morning, Betty and I went to brunch at Cafe Fleuri in the Langham Hotel in Boston. Just across the street, two tourists were puzzling over a map. I stopped and offered to help. They pointed to the escalators behind them, leading to something underneath the Norman B. Leventhal Park, a 1.7 acre oasis in the center of Boston’s Financial District. "We can't figure out which subway station this is," one of them explained. I straightened them out. "It's the pedestrian entrance to the garage underneath the park. It goes down seven levels." They blinked. I'm not sure they believed me.
Post Office Square Park
seen from above
For more than 30 years, one of the ugliest buildings in North America stood on this site. It was a four-story, city-owned garage; an eyesore of monumental proportions endured only because it offered relatively cheap parking in the center of town. It made a mockery of the Beaux Arts Federal Reserve Bank across from it (today the aforementioned Langham) as well as the art deco New England Telephone Building.  For the past 20 years, the site has been a park.  If theRose Kennedy Greenway is Boston’s most disappointing public space, the Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square (to give the park its full title) is, in my opinion, the most successful. 

Designed by Craig Halvorson of the Halvorson Partnership, the park may well be the most popular spot in Boston for office workers. The intelligence behind the design, plantings choice, and maintenance zeal show in every square foot. It has a fountain where you can get your feet wet, lots of places to sit, a cafe, ample shade, and terrific views. It is, in short, inviting - everything that the Rose Kennedy Greenway is not.

The Post Office that lent its name to
Post Office Square in 1887
What most people can’t believe (in addition to the 1400-space parking garage underneath) is that the park is just 20 years old because it looks like it has always been there.  It’s a site with a documented history going back to the 18th century, when it was where riggers made rope for the ships in adjacent Boston Harbor.  In the early 19th Century it was a prized residential area.  By the 1850’s, though, warehouses and tenements had replaced the prestigious homes. By 1866, the area was generally considered a slum.

The Great Fire of 1872 allowed the area to be redeveloped, centering on the new Boston Post Office (see photo above).  Streets were widened and extended and, in 1874, the majestic Mutual Life Insurance Company building opened on the site of what is now the park.  That building was demolished in 1945.  Nine years later, the instant eyesore that was the Post Office Square Garage was opened. 

The garage (1954-1988) that occupied
the site of the part.
I came to Boston in 1980 and my first foray into the city took me to an annual meeting held at an office building cater-corner from the garage.  I was struck by the trash-strewn parking structure’s consummate ugliness and lack of anything even remotely resembling maintenance or landscaping.  Directly across from the garage was a newly opened hotel, carved out of the 1922 Federal Reserve Bank (the photo at left would have been taken after 1980 because the bank building, visible at top right, sports the three additional 'glass' floors added when the building was converted).  The juxtaposition of something so beautiful with something so awful stuck in my mind.

It also stuck in the mind of Norman B. Leventhal, Chairman of the Beacon Companies, who had developed the hotel site and built a 40-story office tower next door.  In 1982, Leventhal created Friends of Post Office Square, Inc., with nineteen firms collectively donating more than $1 million of the initial funding needed to acquire the existing garage site and redevelop it as a park.  The garage was demolished in 1988; the new, underground garage was completed in 1990.  The park atop the garage was completed in June of 1992 at a total project cost - the park above with parking below - of $82 million.

There are three ways to look at and appreciate the park.  The first is financial, the second is engineering, the third is horticultural.


The 143-foot-long trellis sports
seven varieties of vines
The economics of Post Office Square park are not unique to Boston, but they are complex. On the one hand, Boston was given, for free, a beautiful new park.  On the other hand, allowing the park to be built meant Boston 'lost' tax revenue that would have been collected had the site become a skyscraper (at one point, a 70-story building was proposed for the site). However, it's a reasonable conclusion that the value of the buildings, shops, and hotels on and near the park has risen because of the park's presence.  It may also have kept businesses in Boston that might have otherwise decampd for the suburbs.

Although open 24 hours a day to the public, the park is private.  Revenue is driven by the garage.  In 2008 (the last year for which I can find figures), the garage generated $8.6 million of revenue, which pays debt service on the $82 million cost, a $1 million annual property tax bill, and $2.9 million annual operating budget.  That operating budget includes horticulturalists, park maintenance, security, universal wifi, and a year-round schedule of events, all of which are free to the public.  Those events range from weekly classical music concerts to daily exercise classes.


The park in fall.  If you look carefully
(double-click to see at full size)
you can see one of the air vents -
hidden in plain sight on the right.
The garage is an engineering marvel and hiding its ramps and ventilation apparatus is a feat of legerdemain.  Apart from the escalators that lead down into the garage – the ones that were mistaken for a subway entrance by the couple I encountered – there is no surface evidence that a garage is below.  Ticketing and payments are all handled underground, as is all garage administration.  Although nominally a landscape design firm, the Halvorson Partnership was given responsibility as general contractor, with the result that what would be visible above ground drove key below-ground decisions. 

The auto ramps into the garage, two up and two down, were among the greatest challenge to the park’s design. For one thing, they occupy 14% of the site. Moreover, because they squeeze the park in the middle, the ramps made it hard to unify the north and south plazas. Viewed from above, they are jarringly visible, but from within the park they almost disappear, thanks to layers of natural screening – grasses, bushes, flowers, and trees – and an ornamental iron fence.

One of the Halvorson Company’s subtlest but most satisfying solutions came about in response to the air vent challenge. A half-million-square-foot garage generates a lot of pollution and requires a continuous supply of clean air. Two vents, each 24 feet in circumference would be required to meet code, and would have to be at least eight feet tall. In short, what amounted to a pair of giant smokestacks had to be hidden in the park.  Halvorson placed them in a corner and hid them with a circle of thick evergreens. Further, instead of round holes, they are long and narrow, and fit in the space between the up and down auto ramps. Double-click on the photo above and look at the right-hand side of the park.  Even though they are eight feet high, the vents are functionally invisible; they're hiding in plain sight. 


An October Glory maple.
Trees sit in 42 inches of
rich loam.
Post Office Square is surrounded by shadow-casting tall buildings.  Also, it's a park on top of a garage - an enormous raised-bed garden.  Craig Halvorson specified 42 inches of topsoil over the whole site, a requirement that would allow trees to sink their roots into deep loam, but that would affect both the depth and the load-bearing capacity of the garage. The luxurious topsoil now supports scores of trees, some of them nearly 30 feet tall – one of the factors that makes the park seem so mature, broken in, and familiar. To make maximum use of available sunlight, Halvorson did solar studies and placed the Great Lawn and the perennial flower garden in the two sunniest locations.

The park's fountain on a spring day.
The park’s centerpiece is a walk-through sculptural fountain so whimsically user-friendly that, in summertime, office workers eating lunch often kick off their shoes to dip their feet in the fountain. A couple of yards away is a 143-foot-long formal garden trellis, supported by granite columns, draped with seven species of vines. The jewel-like Great Lawn is raised above the walkways by a granite curb, providing a relaxed retreat. There are seating styles to fit even the most finicky visitor – stately teak benches, curving steel settees, movable cast-iron cafĂ© chairs with tables, hundreds of linear feet of inviting polished granite wall, and half an acre of lawn. In summer, cushions are provided for those who want to sit on the lawn.  Here is a video about the cushions program.

Music in the park.
Post Office Square is a garden for four seasons and there are 125 species of plants, flowers, bushes, and trees in 1.7 acres. Halvorson's cultivar selection ensures that the park exhibits color every month: witch hazel blossoms in March, saucer magnolia petals and forsythia sprigs in April, numerous flowers all spring and summer, red maple leaves in October, and deep green Norway spruce needles and red holly berries in the snows of January.

Interestingly, four of the park’s largest and most beautiful trees are ‘on loan’ from the Arnold Arboretum, where they were considered ‘excess specimens’ that did not quite meet the botanical garden’s exacting standards. These trees, some of which had grown at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain for forty years, include a Hybrid Red Oak, an Eastern Arborvitae, and two Giant Western Arborvitae.  Here is a link to complete descriptions of those trees.
If I haven't made it sufficiently clear, The Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square is on my list of favorite parks in the world.  I think highly enough of it that I made it a clue to solving the mystery in 'Murder Imperfect'.  If you've never seen the park, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit.  If you live or work in Boston and don't use the park regularly, you're missing something wonderful.

November 7, 2012

Thoughts While Planting Daffodils Along the Greenway

Planting daffodils on the Greenway.
That's Betty hiding under the
baseball cap.
This past Saturday morning, Betty and I joined a group of about 20 volunteers assisting an organization called Friends of the Greenway to plant several thousand daffodil bulbs at a site on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway adjacent to Boston’s venerable North End neighborhood.  It was three hours of work for a worthy cause.  Because planting bulbs is not especially a brain-intensive task, it gave me some time to reflect on the Greenway.

The Central Artery circa 1980.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is the tangible benefit of somewhere between $20 billion and $24 billion (the number varies, but always rises) spent to place Interstate 93 below grade through Boston’s financial district.  The tunnel project was completed in 2009 and the Greenway formally dedicated in October of that year.  From the time of its inception it has been a political football and a prize.  It is a story with few heroes and a lengthy cast of villains.  Placing I-93 underground was proposed in the 1980s as a $4 billion solution to the malignant eyesore that was the Central Artery, a 1950s-era elevated highway that divided the financial district from the historic North End, South Boston, and the harbor.  The thinking was that in one act of public works, Boston would gain 22 acres of parks atop the expressway as well as a new airport access tunnel.  Under the guiding hand of then-Speaker of the House Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neil, the necessary billions of dollars were diverted to the project.

The Garden Under Glass, as conceived
by the Massachusetts Horticultural
There’s no point dwelling on the chicanery that went on underground (subtract the original price tag from the finished one and you get a good idea of what happened).  Instead, I’ll address what is occurring aboveground.  Originally, there was to have been a Center for the Arts and Culture, a YMCA, a Museum of Boston, and a ‘Garden Under Glass’, interspersed by parks.  One by one, the civic buildings were scrapped as a soured economy made would-be benefactors close their wallets.  (Incompetence on the part of fundraisers doubtlessly contributed to the problem.)  In the end, there were no museums, only a large, linear open space, all administered by an organization called the RFK Greenway Conservancy. (Rose, mother of John F., Ted, and Robert F. Kennedy is revered in Boston.  Naming the park the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway was an act of sheer political genius.)

Part of the five-acre garden planted
by Mass Hort.  I spent about a
hundred hours as a volunteer.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society was to have built the massive indoor garden.  It was formally abandoned in 2008 but Mass Hort instead built something else, and perhaps superior.  Because of a decade’s worth of mismanagement, the organization was functionally bankrupt by 2008.  However, using sheer willpower, hundreds of volunteers, donated materials, and an outstanding design from Craig Halvorson, the five acres that would have been ‘under glass’ became an outdoor garden.  I know all this because, in 2008, I was one of those volunteers. The design was a stunning success; an intelligently conceived space that invited people into it. The specimen trees were beautiful, the choice and placement of perennials exciting.  Mass Hort pulled the project together for about $750,000.

In February 2009, control of all development parcels on the Greenway passed to the Greenway Conservancy, and the Conservancy’s first action was to request that Mass Hort cease all improvements to the five-acre garden and remove anything that identified the project as having been created or maintained by Mass Hort.  Mass Hort had no choice but to comply.

Here are two blocks of the Greenway
as it is today - grass and concrete.
To judge by what has transpired on the Greenway since that date, it is evident that horticulture has always been down near the bottom of the Greenway Conservancy’s list of priorities.  The emphasis has been on hardscape – straight-as-an-arrow concrete walks, fountains, and walls.  There’s a carousel and a visitor’s center.  Where there are narrow strips of gardens, they lack imagination – think boxwood hedges with interior plantings of daylilies and echinacea.  The Mass Hort garden (now ‘the Fort Point Channel Parcels’) are poorly maintained and have been ‘improved’ by the addition of sculptures.

This is what the Conservancy has
planted... sculptures.
What the Greenway Conservancy does exceptionally well is spend money on administration. It has a budget of $4.7 million of which – as critics point out – less than $50,000 is spent on plants.  Five Greenway Conservancy officials have salaries in excess of $100,000 annually.  The Conservancy also lobbies hard for more state money (they say their budget should be more like $10 million a year).  The Conservancy also dreams of grandiose plans for various sites along the Greenway.  The plans, though, are never horticultural.  Rather, they’re for pavilions by world-class architects.

The daffodils we planted on Saturday were supplied by the Friends of the Greenway – not by the Greenway Conservancy - and the project was organized by the Friends group.  However, our work was overseen by Conservancy staff, who haphazardly threw out hundreds of bulbs into spaces that could accommodate a few dozen.  Fortunately, most of the volunteers working that day were Master Gardeners who know better.

Something has to change. 
While we were planting, Betty pointed out to one staff member that delicate, slow-growing arborvitae were being engulfed by much faster-growing yews.  The staffer – ostensibly part the Conservancy’s horticultural department – just shrugged and said that the parcel’s designer wanted contrasting texture in the hedge and that it was not for him to change things.

But something needs to change, and soon.  Four years ago, Boston received a precious gift of open space.  That space is being allowed to decay into blandness because, to the organization that oversees it, the ‘Green’ in the Greenway is money, not horticulture.