Boston City Hall Plaza’s $95 million makeover is complete after two years, now featuring new event and gathering spaces, public art installations, and green infrastructure meant to “usher in an opportunity to interact with the building in new ways,” city officials said in a press release.
The city originally said the renovations cost $70 million, and then on Friday updated that figure to $95 million.
“Boston is a green and growing city today, committed to community, uncompromising on inclusion where families can thrive,” Mayor Michelle Wu said at an event celebrating the plaza’s reopening Friday afternoon. “We are really excited that City Hall Plaza has been reimagined in that spirit.”
The renovation project was spearheaded by Sasaki, a Boston-based global design firm, and Shawmut Design and Construction, a Boston-based construction company. The City’s Operations Cabinet by the Public Facilities Department managed the renovation in partnership with the Property Management Department, and management services company Skanska USA according to the press release.
“City Hall Plaza is the people’s plaza, and it is now a civic front yard that all can access and take pleasure in,” Dion Irish, City of Boston Chief of Operations, said in the release.
Daniel Abramson, an architectural historian and professor at Boston University, explained that the city’s renovation to the plaza is a diversion from its original purpose when it was first completed in 1968, according to The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
“[The plaza] was supposed to be like a European piazza. It’d be for crowds of individuals to mingle, to sit and watch each other, to talk,” Abramson said in a phone interview with the Globe. “They thought of it as a place of pedestrian passage. You were supposed to move through it from one part of the city to the next.”
The $95 million project turns that purpose on its head, Abramson said, by transforming the space into something more akin to a public event venue. Abramson said the plaza once served as a regional magnet to Boston’s downtown. But today, the space has been “domesticated,” as city officials brand the space as “Boston’s front yard,” he said.
“It’s a different conception of public use,” Abramson said. “Wanting to turn the plaza into a neighborhood park, that’s an interesting change historically from what the intentions were and how [the space] was used.”
Architects and city officials involved in the renovation said at the Friday event that they had three primary goals: to make the space more welcoming, accessible, and sustainable.
After listening to feedback from “Boston’s disability community,” city officials replaced Boston’s ankle-twisting brick plaza and inaccessible stairways with “smooth unit pavers and gently sloped walkways,” Kristen McCosh, Boston’s disability commissioner, said in a city press release.
Inaccessible stairs connecting Cambridge and Congress streets, separated by dozens of feet of elevation, have been replaced with smooth, flat, brick slopes accessible to people who use wheelchairs, scooters, or have other needs. The staircase leading to the front entrance of City Hall was replaced with a brick slope, the North entrance of the building, which has been closed since 9/11, was reopened alongside the building’s second-floor entrance, and the plaza refurbished its lighting to make the space more accessible and safe, McCosh said at the Friday event.
“Now I can say with pride, that people with disabilities are no longer limited to one path,” McCosh said. “Now they are welcome to use the whole plaza. Beginning today, they have access the same as everybody and that is a thing to be really proud of.”
Event and gathering spaces
To foster community and accommodate more events on the plaza, the renovation included the installation of seven “plug and play” locations, according to the city press release, to be enjoyed by all Boston residents and community groups. As a result of the expanded “civic event spaces,” Boston City Hall Plaza can now hold as many as 25,000 people, according to the release.
This reimagining of the plaza’s space includes “three smaller event and gathering places,” according to the release, and a new civic pavilion was erected on Congress Street equipped to support public gatherings, meetings, and events.
The plaza is now home to a “kinder-brutalist” playground, Amy Mahler, an official from the mayor’s office of new urban mechanics, said on a press tour of the plaza, offering children the opportunity to play on slides and climb jungle gyms in a space mirroring the iconic Brutalist architecture of Boston City Hall.
“I can’t wait! I’m going to come back with the kids in more appropriate apparel for the slide,” Wu said.
The plaza’s Brutalist architecture style is now complemented with inviting public art installations. After sending out a call to artists in February, the city selected metalsmith Rhea Vedro to create a sculpture. It will be on display to visitors on the north entrance of the plaza for a year starting next spring.
The city also commissioned public artist and illustrator Yuke Li to create two-dimensional graphic designs “for the new display system on the west exterior wall of City Hall,” according to the city press release, and “the wall panels near the new civic pavilion, which will also be installed for one year.”
“We are so excited about the opportunities here for creative expression and cultural celebrations that this renovation brings to the city” said Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture, at the Friday event. “This plaza needs to be reflective of all of Boston’s communities and cultures, and the arts are necessary to make this a welcoming place.”
Another main priority of the renovation was to use “green infrastructure” to help the city meet its environmental sustainability goals, according to the city release. The plaza now flaunts “permeable surfaces,” such as resin-bound pavement that will soak up as much as 180,000 gallons of storm water, which will be repurposed to water the 250 new trees and countless other plants scattered to provide shade, beautify the space, and improve air-quality.
City officials also replaced 50 lights with “efficient LED technology,” and “22,500 feet of granite and brick paving were reused or recycled,” according to the release.
“We focused on integrating sustainability throughout all aspects of the design [of the plaza],” said Sasaki landscape architect Mauricio Gomez at the Friday event. “The addition of hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs and perennials across the site provide significant environmental benefits.”