Thursday, March 4, 2010

Boston's Open Spaces: The Boston Common

Boston grew up from a shipping center situated on the Harbor to a Metropolis that serves as the hub of a region. Today the Boston Common is many things. It's the front yard of the Massachusetts State House and Beacon Hill, It's the campus of Suffolk University and Emerson College. The Boston Common is the anch
or of the Emerald Necklace linear park system of Boston, which today stretches seven miles through Boston to Franklin Park.
The Boston Common was also once the edge of the city and a natural barrier to direct the flow of Boston's commercial development away from the residential neighborhoods of the aristocratic Yankees neighborhoods of Beacon Hill and also the Back Bay. Using the legislative power of the state rather than the city, the aristocratic Yankees
in Boston have a legacy of shaping Boston's physical development. When state legislation preserved the Boston Common as open space for all ime the Yankees had found a way to stop running from the commercial activity which was sweeping out across Boston.
BOSTON VS NEW YORK When Boston and New York City were both experiencing explosive growth and commercial development throughout the 19th century the residential neighborhoods were constantly getting pushed to new locations in each respective city. You can imagine this growth flowing from the ports out in each city so in Boston it centered around the harbor and especially at State Street. In New York City it began at the foot of Manhattan's 'Downtown' and flowed 'Uptown' along Broadway. Over the course of the century the residential enclaves of each city was being invaded by commercial activity which could produce more income than residential use that was also destructive to an urban neighborhood's residential nature. The story of this expansion and government intervention illustrate an interesting difference between Boston and NYC. In New York City the political will was pro-growth and the residential neighborhoods spent the 19th Century moving uptown, eventually building a residential stronghold uptown, starting along Central Park. In Boston the influential Yankee residents were able to protect their neighborhoods instead. Through the authority of the state government the Yankees preserved a residential enclave on Beacon Hill and legislation was passed preserving the open space of the Boston Common. Not only did this create a vital organ of open space to improve the quality of city life but more interestingly it diverted the flow of commercial development away from residential neighborhoods where Beacon Hill and the Back Bay still stand today, a testamant to the power of the residents over the businesses there and also of the state authority in Boston over municipal authority.
Shopping in the vibrant and teaming Downtown Crossing, enjoying Asian cuisine and culture in Chinatown, enjoying shows in the theater district, or the 24 hour life-style of the Back Bay are all just minutes walk from the Boston Common. But Boston Common is also a powerful symbol of freedom where you are sure to find drug addicts and homeless, demonstrators and street preachers, musicians, plays and movie sets. Over the years cattle has grazed there, bodies were buried there and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, has spoken.  
For night life check out 'the alley' on Boylston Street along the Boston Common. And Downtown Crossing has also began to wake up after years of quiet nights, with newly restored theaters, and and a steadily growing nightlife as a growing number of pioneers join the students and homeless in the neighborhood.

For the intellectual types, check out the monuments around the State House, the mansions of the Beacon Hill (some of which are open to the public) and best of all The 
Brattle Book Shop on West Street, the best used book store in the city where a vacant lot next to the shop serves as a open air market filled with $5, $3 and my favorite $1 books on all topics. Take note that Park Street station is the nation's oldest continually operating subway stop. Take a look at the historic churches, landmarks of medical history, and burying grounds along Tremont Street where you can follow the freedom trail deeper into old Boston.
Take a break while walking through the Boston Common at the soldiers and sailors civil war monument. The column is covered in sculpture and raises 126 feet on top of a hill, providing a great place to sit and gaze upon the city lights and sights.

When you look to your left, when you look to your right, you might find the Wicked 
 Sitting beside you.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Boston's Open Spaces: The Southwest Corridor Park

(MBTA ORANGE LINE: Back Bay Station, Mass Ave, Ruggles, Roxbury Crossing, Jackson Square, Stony Brook, Green Street, Forrest Hills)

Running From Back Bay Station to Jamaica Plain this ribbon park runs along the right of way created in anticipation of a highway project that was conceived in the 1940's and killed by the unified communities of Cambridge and Boston who opposed the highway that would destroy their neighborhoods. Although a right of way had already been razed a united association of grass roots community groups lobbied their representatives and the governor of Massachusetts to end the era of urban renewal projects which destroyed inhabited communities in Boston. They were sacrificed on the alter of highways, suburbanization, and sprawl. The dramatic Southwest Corridor battle marked a policy shift and the birth of a kind of community activism that has continued ramifications today. This battle, along with the Big Dig, was a unified expression by citizens in urban neighborhoods who knew what highways and urban renewal had meant for other neighborhoods in Boston and New York. Now their voice was as loud and important as the voices asking for growth outside of the city. These voices were asking for bedroom communities, residential enclaves, and were also engaging in speculative housing, industrial and office developments. Now the funds that had been granted for the highway would be used instead for the things that urban communities need. A huge investment in public transportation extended the orange line much deeper into the Boston neighborhoods. Deeper into Roxbury and Jamaica Plain all the way to Forest Hills along with a ribbon park and pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, a series of playing fields, playgrounds, housing developments, and a promise that the vacant lots cleared for the highway would be developed by the consent of the people and offer economic opportunities. The filling of this urban vacuum is an excellent thermometer to measure Boston's blood sport development politics. Projects conceived in partnership with the neighborhoods dominated in the early years as the Boston Police Headquarters, Roxbury Community College (RCC) and the Whittier Street Health Center, to name but a few, were conceived and brought to fruition. Housing developed by community development corporations (CDCs) was built, notably by Madison Park CDC, which symbolically took its name from the civic organ of the Lower Roxbury Community which had been removed and replaced by Melnea Cass Blvd. The properties cleared for the Southwest Corridor were divided into parcels, distributed by public agencies and in too many cases lays vacant still. Political clout, and popular support are a major factor in the development of these public parcels and so many projects have been conceived without financial viability, and in come cases built anyways. The was the case for Parcel 18 at Ruggles Station, a large swath of land that has had a master plan called Ruggles Center completed decades ago and implemented in phases over the years with varied success. First a parking garage and office building of ten stories was built on the site, before the plan went bankrupt and was bought at the request of the developers, by Northeastern University, a neighbor with deep pockets and a long term interest in seeing the neighborhood blossom. After year of wrangling, Northeastern opened a 500,000 square foot university facility with 1200 student beds, a coffee shop, art gallery on public display, state of the art cafeteria and a pair of towers rising over twenty stories into the air and marking a distinct change in the politics of land development along the Southwest Corridor. Policy has been opposed to letting rational economic forces of real estate development shape the corridor. Instead government interventions were designed to cede much control to the community and promote empowerment. In recent years Northeastern University has also developed the first housing project consisting of both undergraduate students and affordable home ownership on the same parcel, marking a first in the nation. The university has also proposed development on Parcel 3, a nine acre vacant lot sitting unused across from Police Headquarters on Tremont Street. This proposal was rejected by a community process in favor of the proposal by Elma Lewis Partners, a corporation created by the National Center for Afro-American Artists and envisioned as a mixed-use development consisting of a museum, school of fine arts, new facility for Whittier Street Health Center (currently hosted by Northeastern on Parcel 18), supported financially by retail, housing and offices. That project currently is surrounded by doubt and has become a political football. With Northeastern waiting in the wings the latest on the project is that Whittier Street health center will use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, better know as 'the Stimulus', to begin construction on Parcel 18 of a new headquarters, while the rest of the project continues to seek funding in a lending climate that isn't very favorable to mixed-use development projects. Other public parcels still in play are around Jackson Square and Roxbury Crossing and await the political and financial climate necessary for development, hopefully as beacons of sustainability and sounds policies for the 21st Century like business incubation, office sharing and to take advantage of the nearby hospitals, universities and research centers as well as taking advantage of community activism.

These are the forces that have shaped and continue to shape a large swath of Boston running from the Back Bay, through the South End, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.


Although not as grand as the new Rose Kennedy Greenway running through downtown where Route 93 stood before the Big Dig, the Southwest Corridor Park is more beautiful and pedestrian friendly along the stretch from the Back Bay through the South End and has tremendous potential along the less developed sections running through Roxbury. Neighborhoods like my own which are near the Southwest corridor are poised for a surge in popularity and price as continued development on formally empty parcels improves on the park. Northeastern's signature International Village Development opened in the fall of 2009 and included a handsome improvement to the park where it runs past Ruggles Station, creating a pleasant urban, pedestrian experience all the way to the vacant Parcel 25 across the street from Roxbury Crossing where a pedestrian is suddenly greeted with an experience reminiscent of the South Bronx in the early 80's. Clear to those who know the Southwest Corridor Park, the development of Parcel 25 is key to the future of the Southwest Corridor Park.

The pedestrian/bicycling corridor runs all the way to Jamaica Plain from Back Bay Station, although it begins to feel disjointed after a spectacular stretch that runs through the South End. First the pedestrian crosses busy Mass Ave, then after passing the Mass Ave T station spills out into a less articulated open space at Carter Park then running along Columbus Ave to Ruggles Station, where it once again becomes an intimate pedestrian experience at International Village. The newly connected segment running behind the police headquarters is quite nice, with basketball courts and a quiet half moon of amphitheater seating destined to become a hangout for students from Northeastern and Wentworth in the future. This is where the park is interrupted by the blighted and undeveloped parcel 25, which desperately needs to be developed to extend the beauty of the park that is absolutely striking where it runs through the South End and has been developed beatifically.

Like Central Park in New York, this man-made space brings a feeling of nature to the residents of the city, with an urban style and ironic beauty that, in my opinion, most natural wonders don't compare to. During the day the park offers urban dwellers grass, playgrounds, dog parks, tennis & basketball courts, gardens and views of varied architectural style from Victorian Brownstones and the meaty part of Boston's 'High Spine' of skyscrapers looming above. By night the park offers a quiet, contemplative place to walk, think or talk quietly while admiring handsome brownstones and a constellation Boston in Boston's Back Bay skyline. Of course being in the heart of a large metropolitan city you can also observe varied oddities of the city along the Southwest Corridor Park. I've seen a group of small Asian women speaking in their native tongue stripping a small, well landscaped bush, of it's leaves and stuffing them in a bag. What for I don't know, food perhaps, stuffing for a cushion? I've also encountered people who were talking to themselves, sometimes angrily, sometimes in a loud prayer of forgiveness to their lord. These interesting and unexpected encounters, along with the striking urban beauty make the Southwest Corridor Park one of my favorite spaces in Boston.

More Images from the Southwest Corridor Park, fit for cards or prints, can be found on my store...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The complexity of Huntington Ave

One Stretch of Huntington Ave, three proposed high-rise dorms, and three different sets of rules of the game for their development.

Huntington avenue tells an interesting story about Boston's character, economy and development. On one end of Huntington the Prudential Center is built on the air rights of the Massachusetts Turnpike, state jurisdiction. Just a bit further the Christian Science Center constitutes the largest privately owned open space in Boston (exempt from city property taxes). Next comes a long stretch of Huntington which is dominated by the colleges and universities of the Fenway and their students, after which you come upon Brigham Circle, where Longwood Medical Campus is packed full of hospitals and research centers on one side and Mission Hill sits on the other.

In the last ten years the development in this corridor has been marked by the institutes of medicine and higher education there. Northeastern was the first to build a highrise dorm on Huntington Ave, setting a new precedent in a tactic to remove students from the rental housing market in nearby neighborhoods, and for the developers of student housing to capture some serious bucks.

And so in the beginning of 2010 there are alot of student housing developments in the planning and approval phases. But what I've been really thinking about the last few days is the totally different planning, approval and financing process for each dorm. Three high rise dorms in pre-development on a short stretch of Huntington Ave illustrate my point. The Grandmarc at St. Botolph, currently envisioned as a 24 story privately operated dormitory for students from various institutions, the 21 story Northeastern Resident Hall K across the street, and a 21 story signature dormitory at MassArt down the avenue each address the need for student housing in an area bursting at the seams with students.

The Grandmarc is a private development subject to the BRA article 80 review process and has been scrutinized by neighborhood associations and Northeastern University, who must feel a little like private developers are coming and building a new dorm on campus. Across the street Northeastern is planning on locating student housing on St. Botolph for the first time at Residence Hall K, which is a part of the institutional master plan required by the city. Although this dorm was also subject to article 80 review by the BRA it was as a part of a master planned document for the university, which was updated with Residence Hall K along with a number of other changes the university is planning. The difference between the review process may seem subtle but it has resulted in little or no public scrutiny for Residence Hall K, right across the street from the embattled Grandmarc private dorm.

There is nothing subtle about the difference in the review for MassArt's new dorm. Since MassArt is a state college the development, financing and review of this project was subject to state legislation regulating the Massachusetts State College Building Authority, which develops the housing for state colleges. As far as I know there was absolutely no scrutiny of this student high-rise and the financing is from a bond issue, making the pre-development process smooth and inexpensive.

No doubt the revenues that can be obtained from housing wealthy undergraduate students in the neighborhood is responsible for the growing number of high rises along Huntington Ave. In the race for approval and financing of these projects it certainly isn't an even match-up. While the Grandmarc at St. Botolph has spent a lot of time and money navagating the review process and the community politics of the neighborhood (so far the related impact report of the project on the BRA's website runs to over 500 pages), Northeastern has the advantage of the institutional master planning process and MassArt has followed a state protocol which is entirely different and removed from local politics.

Take a look at the consultants listed by the Grandmarc at St Botolph from the impact report on the BRA website:

They sure are spreading a lot of money around getting this project off the ground. I can only wonder if any 'friends' of those who have some influence in the review process were recommended to the development team to serve as historic preservation consultant, or solar glare consultant? Spending so much money on the pre-development and review process not only creates an inequitable and inefficient development process, it might also create a corrupt one too.

These complexities in the development process really do make a difference. Next time you're riding down Huntington Ave and looking at the skyline growing up around you, take a minute to think about the abstract constructs of Boston real estate development that shape a small stretch of the city, and who the winners and losers might be. Ah, one of the many reasons why I love the city....