Judging from several recent articles and columns that have flushed online trolls from their subterranean dwellings, there has been much interest and controversy stirred up by the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA aka BRA) approval of a pricey 220,000 square-foot, 14-story commercial and residential structure to replace the existing parking garage at Dock Square that houses the Hard Rock Café.

A recent architectural rendering, released by the development team, starkly reveals the density and massiveness of the contemplated construction. When superimposed on the existing cityscape, it reveals a dominating structure flanking the Rose Kennedy Greenway that obliterates a large amount of Boston’s Custom Tower from the visual corridor along the Freedom Trail at the intersection of Hanover and Cross Streets in the North End.

Spectacular sight lines and visual spaces reinforce the human scale, openness and uniqueness of the downtown area. They create a dramatic and striking contrast between the old and the new Boston that is so cherished by residents and visitors from around the world. This spectacular juxtaposition is about to be disturbed. It’s like sticking a stone garden dwarf in a bonsai pot.

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You might wonder why further exploration of the proposed expansion of Dock Square Garage astride Quincy Market should now lead us in search of a defunct view corridor at the front entrance to the Parker House. Please bear with me for a moment. Let’s go for a stroll along Tremont Street and see or, literally, tread upon an image of Old North Church etched in the center of a slightly raised bronze medallion embedded in sidewalk cement. Encircling the iconic steeple of the Freedom Trail landmark is a compass rose mounted on a square granite slab bearing this inscription:

Friend,
Look up and see the North Church tower
where were shown two lantern lights

to send Paul Revere on his 
famous ride and begin 
the American revolution.

This view preserved for
all future generations*by
Charles Hillgenhurst and colleagues
of the Boston Redevelopment Authority*
in the year 1960.

(emphasis added)                            

Now, following the instructions on this 59-year-old memorial marker, look down the street in a northeasterly direction towards Government Center where you’ll find the multi-story, green-colored, opaque glass structure that hovers over a renovated MBTA station. If your eyesight is good, you may spy the very top of Old North’s steeple. Under the right sunlight and cloud conditions, a person with extremely sharp vision can detect a faint, shadowy image of the remainder of the church top as if peering through a glass of limeade. But, one would have to be specifically clued in. It is not something that even attracts attention on a subliminal level.

So much for the BRA as a guardian of an iconic view “preserved for all future generations.” So, too, for the Freedom Trail Foundation, Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, and The Greenway Conservancy which have not uttered a peep about Dock Square.

Who then must speak for these types of visual–and, arguably sacred–remnants of a shared cultural heritage that inform and inspire our aspirations for the survival of a magnificent city as we encounter it today and the Boston as posterity will, hopefully, inhabit a century from now? What kind of intergenerational responsibility do we acknowledge to guard and preserve these precious markers from obliteration by a developer’s profit margin and a high-rise crane? Critics foursquare into the materialism of our current age will laugh these off as the hysterical exhortations of an old man. The vision machine, cranked up by the whiz kids on the ninth floor of City Hall will frame these words as the rantings of a Luddite. But, they have stupidly blinded themselves in their race to annihilate by over-development the view corridors and sight lines that we take for granted, collectively share in our historical memory, derive a sense of cultural identity, and cling to in a desperate longing for human scale amidst a rapidly-changing urban environment.

At the moment, city planning officials are lacking their own compass rose and sense of stewardship for the preservation of Boston’s precious architectural heritage. They have lost their way and run aground on their obligation to make Boston a livable and sustainable city. Their advanced degrees do not confer a special prerogative to blithely destroy public space, including visualspace, that links us in a spiritual sense to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop‘s vision of ‘a city upon a hill’. His sermon from the good ship Arbella, bobbing to and fro in tidal currents off the New England coast, enunciated a steadfast ideal that retains a contemporary relevance. We are citizens of the capital city of a Commonwealth, not some developer’s fiefdom. All of us share this birthright to Winthrop’s aspirations for ‘a city on a hill’ and not a city at the till.

Let us hope that the Boston Civic Design Commission and the board of directors of the Boston Redevelopment Authority can be convinced to do the right thing.

(Note: The Boston Redevelopment Authority retained a private consulting company at taxpayer expense to rebrand its image by inserting the words planning and agency onto stationery letterhead. However, the agency’s board of directors still inserts the municipal authority’s original chartered name for real estate transactions, and, along with neighborhood advocates, continues to call it the “BRA”.)

Send your comments on the dock square garage to: Michael Sinatra, Project Manager at Boston Planning and Development Agency at michael.a.sinatra@boston.gov or Elizabeth Stifel, Committee Chairperson at Boston Civic Design Center at elizabeth.a.stifel@boston.gov. With copies to: Alison Frazee, Director at Boston Preservation Alliance at afrazee@bostonpreservation.org

From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.


NorthEndWaterfront.com welcomes commentaries on community issues via email to info@northendwaterfront.com or through our Submit a Post online form. Opinions are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NorthEndWaterfront.com or other writers on this site. Responses to this commentary can be posted below in the comment section.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Tom, you are absolutely right, this building is a travesty and a total repudiation of the original BRA plans.
    I was at some of the neighborhood meetings back in the late 60’s when the architects of City Hall plaza presented their vision. One of their main intents was to preserve the iconic view of the Old North Church from Cambridge Street across the then new plaza.
    The Government Center project obliterated a large portion of Hanover Street and the view of the Old North Church was meant to recapitulate the original view down Hanover Street. It symbolically joined the old Boston with the newly redeveloped city. This monstrous building reneges on that promise. Shame on the BPDA (the new BRA) for proposing this.

  2. The Dock Square Garage 10 story addition proposal would be a blight on the neighborhood and on the spectacular views we now have of the city and the Greenway.
    Unfortunately, it does appear that developers just walk in the door of the BRA, take a ticket, present their project, and then go thru the revolving door of approval.
    Hopefully the unanimous lack of approval from the Boston Civic Design Center will have an important impact on the failure of this proposal.

  3. -How does a sight line of a historic tower reinforce human scale?
    -How does a sight line of downtown Boston reinforce openness?
    -How does a sight line reinforce the uniqueness of downtown? The streets and buildings and businesses are what make a downtown unique, if they are indeed unique streets, buildings, and businesses.
    -How can you say that the old and new Boston are cherished by residents if you have submitted an article opposing new construction? This statement is entirely contradictory.
    -Why does a contemporary view of the Old North Church steeple from Tremont Street need to be preserved when, historically, that view did not exist until the buildings facing Scollay Square were demolished for a windswept void?
    -Why does the Freedom Trail Foundation need to defend a view that is not historic?
    -How is a view of a once-federal tower that is now a Marriott Vacation Club Pulse a “remnant of our shared cultural heritage”? The view of the tower may become more obstructed than it is today, but the tower isn’t being torn down.
    -How does opposing a project that would ameliorate North Street, JFF Surface Road, and Clinton Street improve life for my generation and the generations to follow?
    -A Luddite is someone who opposes new technology, not new buildings.
    -As someone who supposedly lives in the North End, you should understand that the “over-development” of this neighborhood between 1800 and 1950 was what helped to make it so special and interesting in a country whose cities are now mostly sprawl. If you want Boston to be unique in a country whose cities are riddled with parking garages and useless empty spaces, you would encourage this kind of development.
    -Why should a sight line that is entirely contemporary–not historic–be preserved? The current view we have of the Custom House Tower from anywhere on Cross Street or the Greenway did not exist until the southern portion of the North End was demolished for the elevated highway.
    -How does building condos on top of a 1979 garage mean that city planning officials are not preserving “precious architectural heritage”? Again, the view of the Custom House Tower from anywhere on Cross or the Greenway is not historic.
    -How does allowing a project that would make North Street, JFF Surface Road, and Clinton Street more pedestrian friendly make Boston less livable?
    -How does reducing the number of parking spaces downtown and increasing the number of walkable housing units downtown make the city less sustainable?
    -John Winthrop’s sermon about “The City upon a Hill” was about Puritanical superiority and creating a religious model for others, not about limiting a property owner’s ability to build upon his land.
    -Living in Boston does not mean that you are more entitled than residents of other Massachusetts cities to oppose housing projects.
    -It is called the BPDA, not the BRA. Taxpayers do not fund the BPDA. The BPDA is funded by the revenue it collects on its land holdings.
    -Yes, the view of the Custom House Tower from the Greenway right by Hanover Street is beautiful during the summer because the leafy trees slightly block the view of the Dock Square Garage and the JFF Surface Road. But have you “viewed” the Custom House Tower from any other perspective along Cross Street, Blackstone Street, North Street, or JFF Surface Road? Or how about from that same spot but during any other time of year? This view that everyone is “protecting” is only from one spot during one season of the year. Why should we oppose an opportunity to ameliorate an existing building that is ugly, pedestrian-unfriendly, and an inefficient use of space in the middle of the city just for a contemporary view we now have only because the southern half of our neighborhood was demolished in the 1950s?

    • Maxime, the word of the day is “succinct.” You may want to familiarize yourself with it.. It will do wonders for your future comments.

  4. Mr. Schiavoni, you eloquently make your case here. Very well written. Especially your incredible invocation of John Winthrop, truly riveting prose.

    Just some quick fact checking, your first paragraph states: “Judging from several recent articles and columns that have flushed online trolls from their subterranean dwellings, there has been much interest and controversy stirred up by the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA aka BRA) approval of a pricey 220,000 square-foot, 14-story commercial and residential structure to replace the existing parking garage at Dock Square that houses the Hard Rock Café.”.

    Fact Checking:
    The BPDA project site with all information and public documentation on the Dock Square project is located here (along with all current and former BPDA projects): http://www.bostonplans.org/projects/development-projects/dock-square-garage

    Nowhere, that I can find, does it state, after cursory research of City and BPDA records, that this project has been “Approved” as you state above. According to the BPDA (the approval body) it is currently still under review and was most recently rejected by the BCDC on March 12th, 2019.

    If you, or another reader, has additional information about an unannounced or pending approval, please provide sources and or documentation.

    Additionally, the link above to the BPDA site leads you to the project fact sheet (as of Jan 2019) which states: “The Proponents propose to build an approximately 220,000 sf, seven-(7-) story vertical addition to the existing building, and adding another approximately 30,000 s.f. of residential space to the lower floors by a combination of horizontal expansion and conversion of parking area.” AND “The total gross floor area (“GFA”) of the Project is a maximum of 520,000 sf, with a maximum floor area ratio (“FAR”) of 10.2. The Project will have a building height of up to 14 stories and 160 feet.”

    These facts are not entirely contradictory to your assertion, the garage is not being replaced but rather added onto, and the addition itself is 220,000 SF but that does not encompass the entire project. It might seem like semantics, but, when discussing potential projects, it is important to be accurate so that the discussion remains grounded.

    As a former North End (currently West End) resident invested in this neighborhood and this parcel/development’s outcomes – whether or not one agrees with some or all of your positions in this article, it would be helpful to remain accurate when citing the easily accessible facts of the project. Thank you.

  5. Thanks Thomas. When our children and grandchildren ask us why we didn’t do more to prevent the worst effects of climate change, we can tell them that we chose to protect views created during 1960s urban renewal instead of building homes in the one of the most walkable and transit-accessible parts of the United States.

  6. Thanks, Jared. Excuse me if I can’t see how building investment units for the 1% addresses the worst effects of climate change. And please spare me the trickle-down theories which seem to be trendy in planning circles these days. Knowing something about planning doesn’t mean that one knows anything about community.

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