There are certain challenges that all big-city mayors face: fixing struggling schools, luring high-paying jobs to town, battling a deadly drug epidemic.
But leading the city of Boston brings with it a challenge all its own: figuring out what to do with City Hall, a cement colossus on a red brick expanse that could fill six football fields.
For decades, the Hub’s mayors have tried in vain to bring life to the civic center that many residents know as a place to pay taxes, challenge a parking ticket, or register to vote. But no mayor has focused so much on revamping City Hall and its plaza as Martin J. Walsh, according to political observers and community historians.
And by many measures, they say, he’s had success. From Boston Winter’s ice skating, to public events on City Hall’s recently renovated mezzanine, to the picnic tables and bean bag toss on the artificial green, Walsh has accomplished what no other mayor has — turning City Hall and its surroundings into a gathering place.
On Friday, the city plans to host the third annual summer kickoff, “Plaza Palooza,” with lawn games, music, and food on what organizers have come to call Boston’s “front lawn.” Over the weekend, the plaza will host the Boston Pizza Festival — a first for the venue.
“There’s a lot to celebrate, the fact that people are coming more and more,” said Christine Cousineau, who lectures on urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. “It’s even more exceptional when you know the history of all the efforts to improve City Hall Plaza because almost as soon as it was built, people started hating it.”
Built in 1968, City Hall is often named one of the least attractive public buildings in the United States, despite the raves from design experts who have hailed it as a prime example of Brutalist architecture. When City Hall’s plans were unveiled following a competition in 1962, then-Mayor John Collins was reportedly befuddled by the design, and one person in the room reportedly exclaimed, “What the hell is that?”
Decades later, former mayor Thomas M. Menino, who once called the plaza a “wasteland,” launched a contest for ideas on how to enliven it, though nothing came to fruition. He also pitched selling City Hall and building a more modest home for civic services, and some city councilors still embrace the plan.
Walsh had a similar idea in 2013, when he campaigned on a proposal to demolish the building, sell the land, and have Boston reap the profits, with City Hall moved to a leased property elsewhere. But in a recent interview, he backed away from the idea of tearing the building down, saying it is not economically realistic or a priority.
Instead, Walsh said he has focused on renovating and revitalizing the building and its space. He stopped short of calling his efforts a major accomplishment for his administration, but he said they were needed.
“How do we bring people to this part of the city and bring the plaza to life, and really make something out of the building?” he said. “We’ve made the decision to try and make some investment inside the building, make it more energy efficient, make it more user friendly on the inside, and on the outside make it more welcoming, giving people a reason to come to this space, another open space in the city of Boston.”
Michael McKinnell, one of City Hall’s original architects, said the original intention behind the building’s design was for it to serve as a gathering place.
“I’m very glad that, 50 years later, these things are happening,” he said. “These were [ideas] we’d hoped the community would take to that building, cherish it, and I think that’s what’s happening.”
The new draws under Walsh include the Donna Summer Roller Disco Party, where hundreds skated on the plaza in honor of the late Dorchester disco queen, and Boston Winter, a seasonal marketplace that lured hundreds of thousands of people with ice skating and shopping.
On weekdays, people gather for lunch in Adirondack chairs, eat on the picnic tables, or stop to toss a beanbag on the turf laid over red brick. At night, hues of red, white, blue, and green from 325 light fixtures radiate from City Hall and welcome pedestrians from surrounding areas, including Faneuil Hall.
Inside, the city has embarked on a $2.1 million revitalization effort, part of a “Rethink City Hall” campaign that included renovations to the third-floor mezzanine. One of the first things residents see coming into the area is a new coffee shop, which already has lines in the morning. The building has new signage and featured art exhibits. Walsh said he hopes more advocacy groups use the mezzanine area to stage rallies or similar events.
The city has also partnered with Boston Garden Development Corp., a subsidiary of Delaware North Cos., which owns and operates TD Garden, in a separate campaign to enliven the plaza. The company has a three-year contract to introduce amenities such as Boston Winter, though some proposals — such as the “observation” wheel with enclosed gondolas and the beer garden — have been scaled back (there were logistical challenges because the plaza is over a subway station).
Under the contract, the Delaware North company pays all upfront costs for the events, and will either pay the city a flat fee of $50,000 a year, or a cut based on its financial performance, whichever is greater. The city’s out-of-pocket costs range from $3 million on the lighting project to just over $2,000 on the green turf, and $800 on the chairs.
Former city councilor Mike Ross, who ran against Walsh in 2013 and has made public calls for a revitalized City Hall and plaza, endorsed the city’s “proof of concept” strategy to gradually roll out programs, no matter how minor, to lure people back to the plaza.
“I like that they’re taking chances, and putting things out there,” he said in an interview, but added, “What they need to do is go big with it. They’re ready to do it. Tell us what’s going to happen next in general . . . How big is this vision going to be?”
On a recent afternoon, Jay Meattle enjoyed the plaza’s offerings with other denizens as he ate lunch while sitting in an Adirondack chair. Meattle said his business, Shareaholic Inc., recently moved across the street.
“What I like is the consistency, just having this area where people feel comfortable to just hang out,” said the 34-year-old, who has had lunch there a few times in recent weeks. “It feels more like a gathering place.”
Rudy Graham, a 63-year-old who grew up in Grove Hall, said he recently returned to Boston after 10 years in Virginia and noted a difference on the plaza.
“I’m seeing interactions, with communities coming in to the inner parts of the city,” said Graham, who had stopped at the Veterans Services office by City Hall Plaza before he sat down to soak in the crowd.
“This is nice,” he said.