Back in the 1960s, local architectural firm Sasaki helped create the modern-day Copley Square, by converting what were essentially traffic islands into an Italian-style piazza.
It must have looked good on paper. But the mini-canyon of asphalt that resulted was widely considered a failure, and two decades later city officials sought a redo, making the square level with the street, and much greener.
Now, Sasaki has a shot at redemption. The firm has put the finishing touches on Copley Square 3.0. The changes for the two-acre square will make maintenance easier and balance the demands to serve as both a neighborhood park and a gathering place for big events such as a recurring farmers market, First Night, the Boston Marathon, and the occasional protest or Celtics playoff watch party.
Striking that balance has not been easy. After numerous community discussions, Sasaki thought it had a final plan ready to go a year ago. But a few concerns among neighbors remained, namely over the future of the fountain and the amount of lawn area. So the park’s designers went back to the drawing board again.
This time, they say, it’s for real. They say the final plan aims to enhance what works about the current layout and fix what doesn’t, instead of a dramatic redesign. Construction on the yearlong project, which got its start under the Walsh administration when the city’s parks and recreation department hired Sasaki in 2020, will begin soon after next April’s Boston Marathon. The final design takes into account input from roughly 2,000 people, from the city and from the suburbs.
The square’s main lawn and hardscaped area will be flipped, with the lawn going next to Trinity Church, and the paved area on the Dartmouth Street side. Much of the corner of Dartmouth and Boylston streets will feature a deck with concrete panels, shaded by trees, a “raised grove” to protect the roots underneath. Speaking of trees: There will be almost twice as many as there are today, though less open grass. Fans of the fountain will be happy to hear that the new iteration will look (and sound) quite similar to the one that’s bubbling away today, but it will be shallower and feature more places to sit alongside it. Other seating options will include picnic tables among the tree groves, traditional benches along the paths, and some seats that are integrated with the deck.
With all this rearranging, it will be easier to integrate the park with temporary closures of Dartmouth Street alongside Copley, essentially extending the space to the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building plaza on the other side. Last month, city officials experimented with this closure for 10 days, with mixed results. Rerouting traffic caused tie-ups, but it also showcased how the library plaza can expand Copley Square. Expect more temporary closures in the future, though it’s hard to imagine the street closing permanently to cars.
The redesigned park will be better equipped to guard against the wear and tear brought about by its many uses, and the electrical infrastructure will be updated to better accommodate demand from big events. But B Chatfield, the parks department’s program manager overseeing the Copley redesign, said the park is not actually being armored to accommodate more gatherings than it already supports. City officials, she said, do not expect a meaningful increase in events there once the project is done.
That will be welcome news to Elliott Laffer. He’s chair of the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay, which worried Sasaki and City Hall were more interested in tearing up Copley Square than fixing it. Add too much hard surface, Laffer said, and Copley quickly loses its park-like feel. He considers the latest iteration an improvement over the year-ago version.
Most big civic events, Laffer said, could be held at City Hall Plaza, which can better support large crowds and is getting its own Sasaki-led facelift. What really needs to happen at Copley, he said, is more staffing by city personnel, including security. But that is beyond the scope of this construction project, which is estimated to cost the city $12 million, or $15.5 million once the design costs and a contingency amount are factored in.
In the 1980s, the business community played a key role in prodding Copley’s redesign along. This time, the Back Bay Association business group eagerly awaits the next upgrade. President Meg Mainzer-Cohen said Sasaki and the city did a good job striking a balance between the neighborhood’s interests and those of the broader city. She still dreams of the day when Dartmouth can be closed for musical performances, with musicians playing outside the McKim and audiences sitting in Copley and appreciating the city architecture around them. She’s thinking along the lines of the Boston Pops, not Bruce Springsteen. With this redesign, that day draws closer.
For the architects and engineers who worked on the project for Sasaki, it feels good to finally reach the finish line of this marathon. They said finding this happy medium has been a challenging but fun process. If anything, it has underscored the importance of this modern-era addition to Boston’s parks system to such a diverse audience of users — just like any great urban park.
Copley’s basic footprint is essentially all that remains of the original Sasaki design, the one from the 1960s. And it’s just a coincidence that the firm — which is preparing to move from its longtime Watertown home to downtown Boston — got the job this time around. But it will be a sweet vindication for the firm if this iteration of Copley Square is embraced for decades to come.