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Shock-and-Awe at the BRA: The Vision Machine

BRA Model of Boston (close)
BRA Model Room (Image by Flickr’s MizzD and shared under this Creative Commons license)

(In this updated adaptation of past commentary in the former North End News, Thomas F. Schiavoni examines public review of massive development proposals for Government Center Garage and North Station.)

Hidden deep within the recesses of the Boston Redevelopment Authority on the 9th floor of City Hall is a windowless space with an incredible view of the Athens of America. On guided tours, BRA staff introduce visitors to the model room, but it should really be called the ‘shock-and-awe chamber’. One is stunned by the unexpected size and grandeur of a sprawling diorama of downtown Boston and the surrounding neighborhoods. The ivory color of scale-model buildings beside the bluish hue of the Charles River and Boston Harbor gives the impression of a radiant metropolis tinted in the soft glow of a sunset. Iconic landmarks such as the Bunker Hill Monument, Zakim Bridge and Custom House create a breathtaking panorama more beautiful than Dorothy’s Oz and capture, in 21st century fashion, John Winthrop’s ideal of a ‘city upon the hill’.

A visual sweep of the model room reveals Boston present and future through the eyes of planners intent on transforming a reverie into reality. But something is missing in this grandiose scene: no cars, trucks, buses, commuters, office workers, apartment dwellers, or signs of humanity to clutter a noiseless tableau. There is a subtle disconnect between the city as a living organism of people in motion and the metropolis as a physical environment bathed in silence. Here developers get an opportunity to conceptualize their high-end, high-rise dreams of glass and steel. With the help of camera crews, they strike entrepreneurial poses beside scale-model projects prominently sited on the BRA’s diorama. News features following such photo-shoots give the impression that groundbreaking ceremonies are just around the corner even though community meetings for thoughtful review of controversial proposals have yet to be scheduled. The subliminal message is this: If the project has made it onto the cityscape of the model room, it must be built – it will be built. Such is the BRA’s vision machine.

Once the public relations spigot has been turned on, developers and BRA planners leave the seclusion of City Hall’s top-floor and gird themselves for the smell and grit of public hearings at ground level. They roll out dog-and-pony shows like carnival hucksters, pitching their Powerpoint fantasies to the locals. With studied detachment, ‘facilitators’ surface at neighborhood meetings where distraught residents are fed bland assurances that a mega-development will not dislocate their lives during a five to seven-year construction window. There are passing references to other jaw-dropping projects anticipated down the street, but that’s someone else’s venture and has no relationship to the business at hand. An observer might get the impression that no one really has a clue about the cumulative shadow, wind, commuter, sightline and traffic projections, but why let a little thing like that stand in the way of progress that will ‘knit back together the fabric of the neighborhoods’. These sessions reveal the fault lines between the redevelopment authority and the people who live in Boston’s celebrated neighborhoods. Something’s got to give. So ‘the city upon the hill’ has now become ‘the city at the till’.

The BRA is building and marketing a ‘New Boston’ while residents watch their beloved neighborhoods morph into noisy late-night entertainment districts of raucous bar-restaurants, absentee landlords, affluent transients and visitors who are lured downtown not as engaged citizens, but as consumers. It’s small wonder that during election season, critics chum the water with pointed questions about Boston’s one-size-fits-all combined planning and development agency, and speculate about who might replace the authority’s outgoing chief at the changing of the guard in January.

Every mayoral and council candidate should spend a quiet moment of reflection in the model room for inspiration. Then they can return to the campaign trail with their eyes on the stars but their feet on the ground as they search for a way to balance economic development with the preservation of the neighborhoods of a great and livable city.

Thomas F. Schiavoni is a North End resident who writes about neighborhood life and city living.

3 Replies to “Shock-and-Awe at the BRA: The Vision Machine

  1. What a terrifically written Oracle. I am haunted by the prospect of what the next mayor might accept as “an acceptable” waterfront tower proposed for the Harbor Garage. Mr. Schiavoni sounds the alarm.

  2. Tom, Terrific description of the BRA’s “Shock and Awe” machine. Never trust an architect’s rendition that lacks cars, trucks, buses on streets where there are cars, trucks, buses, and where there will be many more cars, trucks, buses when the project is complete.

  3. There is a lot of truth in what Tom says even if his polemic is a bit one sided.
    I especially like his comment about neighborhood “facilitators” showing up at meetings at the behest of real estate developers.
    I remember attending a neighborhood meeting many years ago where the Big Dig project was being presented. The suits from City Hall were all lined up telling us how this monstrous project would be minimally disruptive and actually improve the quality of life in the North End. I was surprised when a young man I grew up with approached the microphone. I thought he would echo many of the concerns we residents had but instead he ranted on about how we shouldn’t stand in the way of progress and how many jobs the Big Dig would create. I was shocked until I learned he had been hired by one of the big construction companies to be a neighborhood liaison.
    The real issue is we live in a city where all power is concentrated in the mayor’s office. Neighborhood councils have limited oversight, except for Beacon Hill/Back Bay, and developers can go directly to City Hall for their permits.
    We’ve been fortunate that for twenty years we have had a mayor who is concerned about the neighborhoods and has limited high rise development to appropriate areas. The new mayor may not be so inclined and that’s why this next election is so important.
    You will notice that I have a Charlotte Golar Richie sign on my building.

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