Greater Boston has a history of creating complete new neighborhoods in relatively sudden splurges. The South End, the Back Bay, the abandoned landfill that became MIT. Even Beacon Hill was a profit-making spec development.
There’s another one now, in South Boston. It’s called the Innovation District — the late mayor, Thomas M. Menino, coined the name, hoping for an inventive mix of business and technology to rival Kendall Square — and it’s rising so fast that every time you visit, another building seems to be erupting out of the ground.
A lot has been written about the Innovation District from the point of view of business and real estate. Not as much has been said, though, about what it is like as an experience for the people who work and will live there. Dare we use the word charm? The Innovation District has all the charm of an office park in a suburb of Dallas.
If you cross the Moakley Bridge and walk east along Seaport Boulevard, with the harbor on your left, you’ll note a Silver Line T station, some humongous (but now shrinking) parking lots, and new high-rise buildings, with more under construction. At the eastern end, near the D Street corner, are the World Trade Center, the Seaport Boston Hotel, and a scattering of bars and restaurants.
The problem is that from a town planning perspective, good cities are made of good streets. As far as urban design is concerned, the buildings are there to shape the street space and energize its edges with interesting and useful things to see and do. The streets create the public world.
In the Innovation District, by contrast, there are too many isolated buildings on empty lots facing streets that are too wide to support a vigorous pedestrian life. This is a suburban world, just at the moment when center cities, with their street life and density, are coming back into favor.
One street epitomizes the problem. It’s Seaport Boulevard, the main drag. It should have been designed as a busy Main Street that would have sewed the district together. Instead, it looks like a misplaced fragment of the interstate highway system.
Some of the district’s problems are the result of a process that was out of sync. State highway engineers were laying out the streets of the future South Boston waterfront a generation ago, when nobody, including the city’s planners, had yet produced any clear idea of what they wanted this place to become. In the absence of guidance, highway engineers designed highways. Later planners and developers were stuck with the problem of fitting a human neighborhood into a world of industrial-sized parcels.
Most of the new architecture, too, feels wrong. The towers look about as interesting as up-ended packing crates. They’re stunted because they are not allowed to penetrate the flight path to and from Logan Airport. That rule limits most building heights in the Innovation District to around 250 feet. Such a limit could be a virtue. But it isn’t, because developers compensate by packing as much profitable space as possible into these crop-top edifices. They do it by making the floor areas as large as possible, in some cases as much as 30,000 square feet or more (that’s about three-quarters the area of a football field).
Short, fat buildings are the result. Standing on their separate parcels, they look like a row of isolated actors, each standing in lonely splendor on a different stage. Like teens with smartphones, I suppose the inhabitants of these buildings communicate electronically. In their sealed boxlike buildings, they certainly don’t get out much to meet one another, given the district’s barren lack of lively public space. Call it selfie architecture.
Other factors are at work. A building’s developer wants to maximize profit. One way to do that is to cut the cost of construction. That natural desire can lead to buildings that look like clones, as some do in the Innovation District.
All these forces, public and private, make it tough to get any interesting architecture. Architects give up and settle for tiny gestures. In the district, you might see a few stories of a building bumping forward, like a box hung on an otherwise flat facade. Or there may be a vertical slash of glass cut into a facade, like the leg slit in a fashion gown. This isn’t architecture. It’s accessorizing.
There are some bright spots in the Innovation District, and they speak of lessons learned. One is the four-story cluster of restaurants at Liberty Wharf, the most visible of which is Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill at Seaport. Here there’s sidewalk life, human scale, and a visible presence of the harbor. Liberty Wharf is the work of developer Ed Nardi of Cresset Development. And Eastport Park, at the corner of D Street and Seaport Boulevard, is a landscape gem that sits atop an underground garage. Thick foliage and well-positioned sculptures shape a variety of open spaces. The designer was Halvorson Design Partnership.
The best architectural move to date, though, is District Hall. It’s a one-story loft, built with both public and private funding. The hall is an attempt to supply what’s missing in the Innovation District. That fact makes it a visual diagnosis of the district’s maladies. Open 16 hours on weekdays, its purpose is to be a meeting place where people in the isolated towers can collide with one another and maybe spark creative ideas. There are leasable meeting rooms of different sizes and shapes, a bar, a cafe, an outdoor terrace, white walls you can mark up, an atmosphere of informality. The architect is David Hacin.
To be fair, not many new developments look good until the cranes go home. But after you’ve made all the allowances you can, you’re still stuck with the fact that the Innovation District is a serious failure of urban design.
As the district grows, we can hope for improvements. Soon there will be a lot of new housing. The new residents will populate the streets. They may even alleviate traffic congestion, because they will not need to be commuters. Many will choose to live where they work and walk or bike to the office. That’s the urban, as opposed to suburban, way to build a city.
Other kinds of diversity must happen. Diversity of new and older buildings. Of street widths and block sizes and parcels. Diversity of architects, instead of the tiny few who now get a lion’s share of big commercial jobs. Diversity of building materials, most of which, except for glass, are now often unidentifiable.
Where is the conservatory or experimental theater that will fill the streets with young people? The Institute of Contemporary Art is a start, but only that. Institutions such as Berklee and Emerson have rejuvenated neighborhoods. No school of any kind is planned for the entire South Boston Waterfront.
The Innovation District raises one central issue. In a competitive scrum of developers, lenders, officials, citizens, and architects, who holds out for better design? It’s the mayor’s voice that usually matters. Mayors should not let themselves be bamboozled by single-issue experts with fancy computer printouts. A mayor is a surrogate for the general public.
By better design, I don’t mean architectural “statements” by so-called starchitects. Good design for the Innovation District is architecture that supports public life, neither more nor less.
Can the Innovation District eventually become more of a Boston neighborhood and less of a Dallas office park? That will depend on whether we’ve learned the lessons the district has offered so far.
Boston in the past was pretty good at providing a public realm alongside new development. The owners and speculators who fashioned the Back Bay were building for themselves, just as we are today. But they cared just as much about creating a shared public world for future generations.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at email@example.com.