Commentaries Government Real Estate

Downtown View: Fix the Edges

Sorrowful, unloved City Hall Plaza. Broken bricks, a fountain filled with concrete, parked cars, a bunker of a T station and a dreadful-looking JFK building looming over it all. At least the bunker will soon disappear. As part of its two-year upgrade of the station, the MBTA will build a new, glass headhouse. It’s a box with square corners on a curvy street and plaza, but maybe it will be okay.

It’s the first change to the plaza since those strange, tall, useless lighted poles with a canopy were installed. They were also set in a straight line next to a curvy street, perhaps because the architect was pretending to be cutting edge, clashing with adjacent features. The farmer’s market set up next to the poles. Naturally, the lights are usually not functioning.

It’s not only architects who fail with CHP. Sophisticated Bostonians are rendered just about speechless when asked what they’d do to make the place better.

Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, gave it a try. She was after better maintenance—bricks you don’t trip over, good snow shoveling, well-kept trash cans. She would also welcome playfulness—weird climbing sculptures, piles of shoveled snow for sledding down to Congress Street, ice cream stands, a Hyde Park speakers’ corner, and an electronic billboard with information about public meetings and events.

Wendy also wanted shade.

She might get it too. Halvorson Design Partnership has designed a landscape plan with several straight rows of trees and water-permeable bricks to be installed in 2016 when the station construction is finished. The trees are not supposed to interfere with events like celebrating the Red Sox’s World Series wins.

But given what fans did to the plantings in Cambridge Street’s median, one wonders what will happen when they climb into the trees to get a better look at the team. While Halvorson is an excellent landscape architecture firm, their plan is only the latest of an endless series. Remember Yo Yo Ma’s music garden? Still, this one might come about.

Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, sounded as if she had given up on the plaza. She suggested it would be more lively as a hub for trolleys and tourist vehicles. She wanted grass, with criss-crossing pathways like a college quad or Harvard Yard.

That was the original idea, according to Henry Cobb, whose firm, now known as Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, did the 1961 site plan for Government Center. Cobb recently wrote in the Architect’s Newspaper blog, “we envisioned the space between Tremont Street [Cambridge Street, he means] and City Hall . . . as a quiet lawn crossed by footpaths and populated by deciduous trees . . . a New England town green.”

Liz Levin, a management consultant from Charlestown who has long been active in transportation and environmental matters, wants to keep the farmer’s market, install food shops, and create places for a drink or to sit while chatting or listening to a concert. She also suggested that one city department be responsible for programming the space, so activity is guaranteed.

These suggestions are all good—even basic. No mayor has taken care of the plaza in any of the ways these women suggest. When the fountain broke soon after it was installed, Mayor White saw no need to fix it. Mayor Menino convened several committees to address the plaza’s shortcomings, but gave up. Confession alert: I sat on one of those committees. The feds objected to a proposed hotel, since they feared it would endanger their building. (If the JFK building is so vulnerable, they should relocate it rather than putting us all in danger.) Some citizens cried foul at “privatizing” the space, although they presented no better idea.

The Halvorson plan, if it comes to pass, may improve things. “When you’re out there, there’s no canopy and there’s no ceiling,” Halvorson’s president, Robert Uhlig, was quoted as saying. (His office did not return a phone call, so I’ll go with quotes.) “It’s so vast . . . We hope to bring the scale of that area down and give the feeling you’re in a room within that overall open space.”

I hope that happens. But there is one big problem with all the architects’ plans. Think of the great European plazas, upon which CHP was supposed to have been based. Siena’s Piazza del Campo and the Piazza San Marco in Venice have no canopy or ceiling. They have rough stones, no greenery, blazing sun, nowhere to sit, and they are loved.

The reason for their success? Their edges. They are lined with dozens of restaurants and bars, serving alcohol from 8 a.m. in the morning until the wee hours. What does CHP have on its edges? An eye glass store, a gym, other lackluster shops, and the grim JFK lobby.

Nothing will work on this plaza until the edges bring people in. There should be new zoning and incentives for restaurants. This plan is even cheap. Then maybe someday we’ll call it a piazza and it will be loved.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at