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Boston embraces the age of the skyscraper

CBT Architects

Once openly hostile to tall buildings, Boston is finally embracing the age of the skyscraper.

From North Station to the Back Bay, towers are being planned that would stretch the city’s boundaries, both vertically and culturally. In some cases, the projects would demolish overbearing developments from the past that sapped life from core neighborhoods and commercial districts.

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On Wednesday, a developer proposed replacing the hulking Government Center Garage — a universally derided structure on Congress Street — with a huge complex of high- and mid-rise buildings, including a 600-foot office tower that would be one of downtown’s tallest.

At the Christian Science Plaza in the Back Bay, another developer is pitching a 700-foot hotel and residential building that would bring a new level of height to the edge of an iconic, if outdated, civic space.

And several other skyscrapers are under review or being constructed near North Station, Copley Square, Downtown Crossing, and Chinatown.

“The city is more open to tall buildings,” said David Dixon, principal of the architecture firm Goody Clancy. “There is a much better understanding that height and density in the right place can pay dividends in terms of vibrant streets and the kind of life in the city we value so much.”

Many of the proposals, including the Government Center Garage project, still need approvals from City Hall, but so far most have provoked few major objections.

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Indeed, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino signaled tacit approval of the plan for the garage site when he said Wednesday that it would bring “a vibrant new pair of blocks” to downtown.

“The redevelopment of the Government Center Garage site has been a long time coming, and the 771 units of housing that will rise at that location will provide a more people-friendly environment in the heart of our city,” Menino said.

The current view of the area.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

The current view of the area.

The sheer number of skyscraper proposals around the city is partly due to the rising economy.

But commercial real estate veterans also speak of a broader shift in mentality in Boston, where an influx of residents and cutting-edge companies is inspiring plans for bolder, taller buildings that would include lively new civic spaces, stores, and restaurants.

In past decades, Boston was often hostile to towering new buildings, fearing they would mar the city’s historical character, or cast long shadows.

Often, those concerns were well founded, as Boston suffered grievous development mistakes in the Urban Renewal era of the 1950s and ’60s, when neighborhoods such as the West End and Scollay Square were demolished to make way for nondescript concrete buildings, including the massive Government Center Garage.

Today’s greater acceptance of high-rises is due in part to the fact that they would replace many of the most objectionable buildings from the past.

The Government Center Garage project, proposed by HYM Investment Group LLC, would demolish much of the original Brutalist-style garage to make way for six new buildings with 771 residences, 1.3 million square feet of office space, 1,100 parking spaces, and 82,500 square feet for stores and restaurants.

In addition to the 600-foot office tower, the proposal includes a pair of large residential buildings, one 470 feet and another 275 feet.

The three buildings would be situated on the uphill side of Congress Street, closest to Government Center.

Across Congress, HYM would build a 275-foot hotel and condominium building, additional offices, and stores that would form a new public square along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

HYM has estimated the project will cost $2 billion.

At full build-out, according to HYM, the project would produce about $11 million annually in tax revenues and about 6,000 permanent jobs. It would also provide 2,600 jobs during construction.

If approved by Boston regulators, construction could start late next year, according to HYM, whose managing director is Thomas N. O’Brien, who was head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1990s.

On Wednesday, O’Brien said that height has not been a major part of his discussion with city residents, in large part because the plan is smaller than a prior proposal and comports with the city's zoning guidelines for properties near the Greenway.

“For almost 50 years, this garage has been a barrier between Government Center and the North End and West End neighborhoods,” O’Brien said. “It was a mistake from the beginning, and replacing it allows us to create a place that really works for people, with retail on the first floor and new spots to shop and eat.”

The site, 4.8 acres bounded by New Chardon, New Sudbury, and Congress streets, is one of the last major development parcels near the Greenway.

The project would be close to a section along the Greenway that the city wants to make a food-market district that would include a permanent public food market, restaurants, and specialty shops.

In the adjacent West End, there are a half-dozen large-scale buildings in the works; combined they would bring hundreds of residences, stores, offices, and hotel rooms.

The Government Center Garage, built in the late 1960s, has been targeted for redevelopment since 2007.

A prior plan by developer Ted Raymond for two office skyscrapers, stores, and residences failed to gain traction in City Hall.

O’Brien was then tapped to replace Raymond as development manager and has spent months crafting a new plan for the property.

Construction of his proposed buildings would come in phases, starting with the 470-foot, 45-story residential tower, which would include both apartments and condominiums, followed by the 600-foot office building, the hotel, and some additional offices, residences, and stores.

The project would retain about 1,100 parking spaces in a portion of the existing garage that would be tucked behind the new buildings. It would also have storage space for about 850 bicycles and a Hubway rental station.

Given its size and complexity, it would probably take many years to complete.

The firm is also lead developer on the 5-million-square-foot NorthPoint development in East Cambridge, as well as a partner on Waterside Place, a 20-story luxury apartment complex under construction in the South Boston Innovation District.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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