November 7, 2014

They Pulled Down a Parking Lot and Put Up Paradise

This post originally appeared on November 17, 2012.  I reprint it today because I learned that the Norman B. Leventhal Park at Post Office Square, the subject of this essay, was just chosen as the 2014 national winner of the Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.  The prize is given for "a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community."  In my humble opinion, no park I have ever visited so perfectly matches that description as does this one.

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 the Rose 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 park
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.

Financial

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 decamped 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.

Engineering


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. 

Horticulture

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 café 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 bright yellow 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.

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