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Downtown View: Fear All Around

It is surprising that Bostonians are such a fearful lot.

West Enders have so effectively communicated their fears about crossing on foot at Leverett Circle to their local politicians that we’re going to waste millions of taxpayer dollars building a pedestrian overpass that will, unless you hit every don’t walk sign, take longer to walk over than the crossing at street level. Never mind that this intersection never shows up on a list of Boston’s dangerous ones. Most pedestrians feel as safe here as they do crossing any other street. But the overpass’s replacement was a Big Dig promise long before urban planners realized that such overpasses make the crossing at grade level more dangerous. The good news: the overpass will look good since local architect Miguel Rosales will design it. The bad news: few will use it.

Parents are also afraid. Who puts 10-to-14 year olds on the subway or a bus to go to school?

Well, actually I did. And so does my daughter who lives in New York City and has children who just turned 12 and 14 years of age. Our grandchildren’s classmates are all traveling by subway too. When did traveling on public transportation become something middle schoolers couldn’t handle? Some of our favorite city councilors voted against the mayor’s budget, which cut school bus funding, because their constituents apparently got to them with their terror. Some parents said they were afraid of the gangs. But the gangs could just as well be on the school buses too. Come on, parents, be brave, and teach your children how to get along in a city.

Fears of density are curious too. Recently the Chiofaro Company presented its plan for the Harbor Garage site on the Greenway to a generally pleased, perhaps even delighted, audience. One woman, however, said she feared the numbers of new residents, office workers and hotel guests who would become part of the neighborhood if this project goes ahead. “Density affects the quality of life,” she said. “Go to New York City and see that people have paid a huge price for it.”

Funny, I hadn’t noticed New Yorkers thought they were paying much of a price except for their living quarters. Most New Yorkers love the density. They seem proud of being in their situation together. There is an unusual spirit of cooperation along their sidewalks that must be partly the result of density. The benefits of density are also that every product and service you will ever need are within a few minutes walk from your front door. Density saves time, energy and gas, since you don’t need a car and won’t be stuck in vehicle traffic when you live in a dense neighborhood.

The Chiofaro Company’s presentation rarely mentioned Harbor Towers, but many of those buildings’ residents were in attendance. Since I’m a great fan of the waterfront, I walked around the area a bit before I went for dinner at one of the outdoor restaurants there. The Chiofaro Company’s plans trade height for open space with sight lines to the sea. The plan is to welcome the public on all four corners, as well as through the middle of the site.

What a contrast with Harbor Towers. Along Atlantic Avenue, the Harbor Towers site is walled off with a big, unfriendly, impermeable wooden fence. (I think the residents’ swimming pool is behind the fence.) Is the fence there because of fear? Privacy concerns? That doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the waterfront.

Although you can walk around the towers along the HarborWalk, there is no connection between the Greenway and the harbor at that point, as there would be in Chiofaro’s plan if it is approved and as there is at the Rowe’s Wharf rotunda. It’s a curious situation.

At every public meeting, Boston’s industrial, civic, financial and real estate leaders and even members of the audience mention the words “World Class.” We’re never going to be “World Class” until we get braver that we now appear to be.

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


One Reply to “Downtown View: Fear All Around

  1. This comment is by Patricia Sabbey:
    Comparing the latest Chiofaro proposal near the Aquarium to Harbor Towers is like comparing apples and oranges. Harbor Towers was built in 1971 in response to the need for affordable housing. This blighted area of unused wharfs was cut off from the rest of the city by the elevated expressway. The 400 and 396 foot towers made sense at the time as did limiting access to the development from the rest of the decayed area.
    Comparing the Chiofaro plan to The Boston Harbor Hotel at Rowes Wharf is a better comparison. The harbor area was being increasingly developed by the 1980’s, and the BRA stipulated some requirements for the project including mixed use, public access, and the ferry terminal. The highest sections (182 feet) and the open rotunda area create a stunning visual gateway.
    While the Chiofaro plans include mixed use and public access, the height of the towers at 600 and 550 feet respectively are potentially overpowering. For comparison purposes, the height of One International Place is 600 feet.
    The proposed plan may be appropriate for this space, but I am concerned that many people are looking at the street level amenities and not putting the tower heights positioned by the waterfront into perspective. Cities need to develop to meet current needs. The question becomes whether we put business needs over public benefit or find a way to serve both.

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