Sure. I have some feelings about Boston’s City Hall Plaza. I like parks and I like outdoor activities, concerts and World Cup celebrations. I like a good City celebration as much as the next guy, but I can’t stand City Hall Plaza and I won’t be happy until every square foot from Congress to Cambridge, from the Sears Crescent to the JFK building is ground down to powder to feed concrete for something better.
I walk across the gross expanse of CHP every day, kicking aside syringes and plastic nips. I keep a tally in my head of the familiar faces who wake up there when the weather isn’t sub-arctic and worry about each blanketed soul who claims one of the 50 odd concrete benches as a bed. I count the scofflaw parkers that dot the front of City Hall, and pity each pedestrian who has to dodge broken bricks and standing mud lakes to traverse the bleak tundra to the other side. The common thought is like a tragic breakup: “If I can just get through it.” And aside from the occupation by the Big Apple Circus, a couple of food fests, an occasional Scooperbowl, and the ongoing construction du jour, neglect is the watchword. That is the reality. Spin it how you will.
More reality… When the plaza was built, Boston was scared. It was losing population quickly. It decided to take some federal money to get rid of the “blight” of Scollay Square at a time when nobody wanted our urban real estate. Buildings were getting hacked down for parking lots and to dodge tax payments. Fast forward 50 years and the value of each foot has bounced back with a vengeance. Everybody wants a part of this city. But we hang on to the half-million square feet City Hall Plaza. At $500 a foot, I am at a loss for words as to why. The Fear must remain, or some twisted nostalgia. Like the city doesn’t want to let go of the remnants of that awful time when people didn’t value it. Personified, the city suffers a crippling insecurity, not knowing how beautiful it can be. It’s holding on to a dated wardrobe and it just doesn’t go with anything. Call the networks – this girl needs a makeover.
And no, contrary to the tone and focus of the Mayor’s RFI, I don’t want to dress it up in green. I don’t want a park there. No amphitheater. No pubic events space. Nothing like the soft BS wish-list we return to again and again. No. I want the whole broken and cursed mess of City Hall Plaza gone. Bulldozed. What I’d want instead? I want to slice it up into small blocks and build a street grid that connects to the world around it. I want to open it all up to closely coached developers. I want to build a new larger, more versatile City Hall higher up the hill. I want to pay for it with the taxes from the new tenants in the new buildings that will be on the extension of Hanover Street, as well as the new (old) streets of Bowker, Cornhill, Marsh, North and a clutch of micro-streets named after the people who got screwed when their homes were taken from them by imminent domain. I’d like us to take an honest look back, to pay homage to the displaced, acknowledging the hasty mistakes we’ve made as a city. I’d build a future in a pedestrian friendly mix of modern businesses and new housing. New design and materials with pre-war density and human scale mixed zoning. In short, build something that works for Our New Boston, without ’60s fear and fatalism. The best of history with the optimism we deserve. A neighborhood built for living, not annual visits from interloping suburbanites. The programming they’d visit can easily be moved to the Greenway, The Common or on the Waterfront.
Events space! Bah. Lets expand the dialogue and talk about bringing what we need to Boston’s City Hall Plaza. We need to bring Boston.
Matt Black lives in Boston’s North End and is the owner of 100K Design.