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City of Boston is working with architectural firm to rethink Copley Square

Copley Square had a major renovation in the 1980s, transforming it into more of a green space.
Copley Square had a major renovation in the 1980s, transforming it into more of a green space.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

The Walsh administration is embarking on a possible makeover for Copley Square, one of the city’s most recognizable and popular public spaces, and is soliciting ideas that range from modest upgrades to a major redesign.

Framed by some of Boston’s most architecturally significant buildings, including the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church, Copley Square is paying the price for its popularity. The pavement is cracked and irregular in spots. Many trees are in rough shape, as are parts of the lawn in front of the church. And the fountain is badly in need of modernizing.

“We have a much-loved square which hasn’t seen any updates since the late ’80s and wasn’t designed for the kind of traffic it now gets in the 21st century,” said Kate Tooke, a landscape architect at Sasaki, a Watertown-based global design firm that has been hired by the Walsh administration to design upgrades for the square.

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Sasaki has been surveying the public via an online poll about Copley’s future. Should it be an event space, or a tranquil oasis? Should it cater to the people who live and work around it, to the entire city, or even the region? And, along those lines: Should Copley just get spruced up a bit, or does it need a major redesign?

Among the most intriguing ideas to emerge: closing the section of Dartmouth Street between the library’s McKim Building and the square to vehicular traffic during certain times on weekends, creating an even larger open-air plaza for pedestrians.

The square has morphed in shape and appearance over time since it was created in 1883 out of what was then known as “Art Square.” A much-ballyhooed design contest in the 1960s — coincidentally also won by Sasaki — eventually was a bust: Copley was squared off and sunk below the street, becoming a vast expanse of concrete that failed to live up to its potential. Then, in the 1980s, came a chance at redemption: Copley was brought back up to street level, with more trees and grass.

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However, the redesigned park wasn’t built to withstand all the crowds from concerts, protests, festivals, Boston Marathons, and First Nights in the ensuing years. Sections badly need repair, and the fountain often doubles as a makeshift skateboard park when the water isn’t running.

Parks officials understood that as they renovate Copley this time, the public might want to see something more than just basic fixes.

“It’s an opportunity we have to either . . . spruce it up, or look at something more comprehensive and different,” said B Chatfield, project manager at the parks department.

Sasaki plans to develop several potential concepts alongside the parks department in early 2021. Then, taking public comments into consideration again, the city and the firm will advance detailed designs, with a goal to begin renovations in 2022. City officials have been working with an initial budget of $4 million. But any significant improvements would likely cost more than that.

Among those advocating for the weekend closure of Dartmouth Street is Dusty Rhodes, president of the event planning firm Conventures. Rhodes sees the opportunity for a space similar to an Italian piazza.

“It’s flat, it’s wide, you really don’t have much traffic interference,” Rhodes said. “You take the wear and tear off the grass. . . . There’s plenty of space to do an art show or some theater.”

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Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, said it’s possible the Dartmouth stretch could be redone with pavers to provide more continuity between the library and church if the street is shut on weekends. She noted that BPL officials are also considering upgrades to the McKim Building, and are in regular communication with the Copley planners.

“This is a great opportunity for the parks department and the library to coordinate the planning stages for a longer-term vision that would enable a greater knitting of those two places,” Mainzer-Cohen said.

She said she hopes upgrades to Copley can be made to better accommodate events, such as an improved electrical infrastructure, while still providing neighbors a place for a break in the shade.

For residents such as Elliott Laffer, the 1980s design of the square was a huge improvement over the cold concrete of the 1960s. Laffer, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, said he expects the changes this time around will be more subtle. He said he would prefer to see more of an emphasis on green space, and less on event planning.

“We would like it to be a place where people who live around here or work around here . . . find a place for respite,” Laffer said. “Don’t build a place for 10 [big events] a year. It’s too important of a location.”

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Tooke, the Sasaki landscape architect, said Copley Square has proven its importance to the Back Bay and the South End as a relief valve during the COVID-19 pandemic. The farmer’s market continued to attract crowds within new pandemic-related safety limits, while fitness classes and book clubs took advantage of the open space.

The Copley work is happening concurrently with Sasaki’s project to redo City Hall Plaza, a $70 million redesign that is already under construction.

Tooke notes that Sasaki’s design in the 1960s was regarded at the time as a beautiful example of modern civic architecture. Tastes change, and concrete-focused urban plazas fell out of favor. She said Sasaki is determined to incorporate the priorities it is hearing now into a cohesive design that can stand the test of time.

Alex Krieger, a principal at architectural firm NBBJ, said he has taught about the evolution of Copley Square over the years in his classes at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It is, as Krieger puts it, a fascinating story of how Americans are never quite sure what an urban public space should accommodate.

But Krieger adds that the 1980s design strikes a good balance. “I thought it got at that middle position, between a park and a large open space for big events, reasonably well,” Krieger said. “I’m not sure of the value of reinventing it right now because another generation later, [the debate] will probably happen again.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.