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.
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:
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 email@example.com or Elizabeth Stifel, Committee Chairperson at Boston Civic Design Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. With copies to: Alison Frazee, Director at Boston Preservation Alliance at email@example.com.
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.
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