One of the knocks on Boston’s building boom is that it hasn’t led to the kind of great public spaces many residents and visitors treasure.
Yes, there are a few small parks in the Seaport, and several buildings along Fort Point Channel have public lobbies or observation decks. But there has been nothing built on the order of Boston Common, the Esplanade, or the Christian Science Plaza — grand places that feel open to all.
Some blame the high price of land, the fact that much of Boston is built out, and developers’ desire to maximize profits by building as much as they can.
Others say that the city’s parcel-by-parcel approach to planning discourages big bold spaces, and that the Boston Planning & Development Agency doesn’t push developers hard enough.
Whatever the reason, Boston officials these days are trying to make up for lost ground, pushing developers on a few big projects to create more and better places for people, while they still can. The current rate of construction activity will someday subside, and when it does, the chances to wring public benefits — like parks — out of private developers could well diminish.
“We have to be really creative and give open space the attention it deserves,” said Brian Golden, director of the BPDA. “Wherever we can leverage private property and private resources to the public benefit, it’s incumbent on us to do that.”
A century or more ago, many of Boston’s cherished public spaces were funded by major public investment, and carved out of a still-growing city. Those opportunities are harder to come by in built-out Boston, though the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit that operates parks statewide, is aiming to create a large open space along Boston Harbor.
Still, there’s a growing desire for lively open spaces of all sizes, especially in emerging neighborhoods such as the Seaport, said Kathy Abbott, chief executive of Boston Harbor Now, which advocates for increased public access to the waterfront. That often means complicated negotiations with private investors who own the land and want city and state permits to build on it, Abbott said.
“You’re creating a situation where you’re asking a business to provide a service that’s not quite what they do,” she said. “It’s inherently challenging.”
Lately, the city has been telling private owners to do better at creating public space. On several projects, the Boston Planning & Development Agency has pushed back on plans it says could feel exclusionary.
The agency also wants to raise awareness of the city’s many existing public spaces that already have been incorporated into private buildings — a collection of lobbies, courtyards, and observation decks designed over the years. They want property managers to take simple steps, including adding better signs, to indicate that all are indeed welcome.
“We need to do a better job of that,” Golden said. “You should feel the publicness of these places.”
Creating good “privately owned public space” is part science, part art, say architects and landscape design experts. How a park or walkway is envisioned matters, of course, but so do day-to-day management and monitoring for years after a space opens.
“You have to be really smart in terms of design, operation, and public information,” said Jerold Kayden, an urban planning professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design who has long studied privately owned public spaces. “And you have to be aggressive in thinking about it up front, so you don’t look back five years later and wonder what happened.”
That’s what the BPDA is trying to do now, especially on two major projects it’s reviewing.
In April, the city told Millennium Partners to improve plans for the “Great Hall” that would be the street-level centerpiece of a skyscraper the developer envisions for the site of the Winthrop Square Garage in the Financial District. Staffers urged a closer look at design of the place, and more details on how it would be used every day. The Great Hall could be “an important civic — and perhaps cultural — space in downtown Boston,” the BPDA wrote, but it cautioned that “retail uses alone do not achieve the distinction of a great civic amenity.”
Likewise, the BPDA last month pushed back on WS Development’s Harbor Way at Seaport Square. The three-block promenade — not to be confused with the separate Harborway walking route — would supplant a more traditional park included in earlier versions of the project’s plans. WS must make sure the thoroughfare, which would stretch from Summer Street toward the water, connects better with nearby streets and doesn’t feel like a private shopping mall, the agency said. As designed, the BPDA wrote, Harbor Way “is not fundamentally public open space.”
The emphasis on public spaces comes as the city becomes more densely populated and demand grows to keep substantial public spaces intact, said Jon Greeley, the BPDA’s director of development review. But with developers eager to build in Boston, he said, city officials have leverage when it comes to asking for more public space in their projects.
“We’re much more focused on this now, and more deliberate about it,” Greeley said. “We see a lot of need.”
Developers say they get the message.
Blake Middleton, the lead architect on Millennium’s Winthrop Square tower, is designing a mammoth doorway to the Great Hall — perhaps 20 feet tall and 25 or 30 feet wide — which would remain open most of the year. The idea would be to blur the distinction between the street and the hall itself. That’s key to making a space that welcomes people in, Middleton said.
“From Federal Street, it’ll be really obvious that there’s something special going on in there,” he said. “And if we can create a physical sense of openness, that helps to break down the psychological barrier of ‘Can I go in there?’ ”
Seaport Square’s Harbor Way is outdoors, so the challenge is a bit different. WS, the firm behind the Seaport Square project, is a retail developer, so it wants to encourage foot traffic, but not just shoppers: Welcoming everyone, even if they’re not spending money, is key to making a space feel truly public. One thing to help achieve that is simple, said WS senior vice president Yanni Tsipis: chairs.
That has worked well at nearby Seaport Common, which WS also operates, he said. This spring, WS bought 100 red bistro-style chairs, along with some tables, and watched as the formerly little-used space drew a crowd. In fact, it’s become so popular that they added more.
“You don’t have to buy anything. You don’t have to do anything. You can just sit there and take in the scene,” Tsipis said. “It sounds so simple, but these small visual cues are ways a public place can roll out the welcome mat.”
Such cues are key, said veteran Boston architect David Hacin, and they can cut both ways. Some public spaces send the signal that only some of the public is welcome — not, say, teenagers, poor people, or the homeless. That’s something to guard against as more of Boston’s public space becomes privately run, officials and urban design experts say.
There’s also the question of jurisdiction when it comes to policing behavior. Can a private developer decide what kind of behavior is out of bounds and oust someone from a public space?
“It’s a much subtler and more complex issue than simple design,” Hacin said. “We have a problem in this city that there are large communities of people who don’t feel welcome in places that are ostensibly public.”
That’s fundamentally a management challenge, Kayden said, one that can be addressed with signage, monitoring, and a commitment by the city to hold developers — and future owners of properties — to the public-space deals reached when a building is permitted. If the days of large-scale publicly funded parks are in the past, he said, at least the city can demand a lot of private developers.
“In today’s world, that’s the model we have,” Kayden said. “You’ve just got to be vigilant about it.”
Public perches offer views, respite from the streets
There is no comprehensive list of privately owned public spaces in Boston, but here are a few of the better-known sites:
Tim Logan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.