The final design for what will be Copley Square’s biggest face lift since the 1980s is aimed at balancing the demands placed on the much-used, two-acre park in the heart of the Back Bay.
One of the biggest changes on tap: The existing brick plaza area and the main lawn will essentially trade places. The switch means more grass by Trinity Church and a “flexible hardscape” along the Dartmouth Street side. The hope is to better accommodate concerts and other events, particularly those that could be staged across Dartmouth Street on the steps of the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building if the street is temporarily closed to vehicles for such events.
The Boston parks department and its landscape architectural firm, Sasaki, have finalized a new look for the square, one aimed at accommodating neighbors’ respites, tourists’ visits, the weekly farmers market, and the occasional big event. The new design concept was presented during a public meeting on April 14.
“This is a square that has to balance those neighborhood uses that are important to people, … but also the big events,” said Kate Tooke, a landscape architect at Sasaki. “The square needs to balance both of those things elegantly. The challenge is that it hasn’t been as resilient to the higher traffic events as it needs to be.”
Indeed, the revisiting of Copley Square was born of a need to address crumbling and buckling pavement and struggling trees at the site, and to support plant growth there. The designers say this massive renovation of the square, budgeted for $15.5 million, will do this, and much more. More greenery will be planted along Boylston, and a raised platform will be built on that side of the park. The dilapidated fountain will be reconstructed. More shady spaces to gather and relax will be created.
The layout has been crafted to best draw attention to the historic architecture that surrounds the square: the McKim library building, Trinity, the Old South Church, the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel.
“This is a huge improvement to Copley Square, and long overdue,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, a business group. “The way the park is used, it’s just not achieving its highest potential right now.”
Sasaki and the parks department have been seeking input through online polling, including a survey open through May 6 on the final design concept. Construction is expected to begin after the Boston Marathon is held next spring and will take about a year.
“We want this to be a bustling place of positive activity,” said Ryan Woods, the city’s parks commissioner.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect is technically separate from the park redesign itself: the potential for more closings of a block of Dartmouth to vehicular traffic for large events that would spread across the street to include the area outside of the library.
City officials are considering whether to study brief temporary closures of the Dartmouth Street stretch, similar to those that take place around the Boston Marathon. The city’s Dartmouth Street study, subsidized with funds from the public-benefits package paid by the developers of the Winthrop Square tower in the Financial District, would likely start in late summer or early fall.
Elliott Laffer, chairperson of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, sure hopes the Dartmouth Street closures aren’t too frequent. The square is near a major exit off the Mass. Pike, and Dartmouth is an important road into the neighborhood. Laffer said he’s OK with the occasional closures, such as for the marathon or for First Night festivities, but the street’s role in the local traffic grid needs to be taken into consideration.
Laffer said he remains optimistic that city officials will add more lawn area to the design he has seen for the new Copley Square, and shrink the amount of hard surfaces.
“We want it to feel like a park … as opposed to an events space,” Laffer said. “Will there be events there? Of course. But it should be a park. Design it for the 340 days that you don’t have the events, not the 25 days that you do.”