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Winter gardens sprouting in new Boston buildings

Developers say public yearns for more places that can be year-round urban oases

Alexandria Real Estate Equities has completed most of the work on its 6,000-square-foot winter garden at 75-125 Binney St., the future home of Ariad Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Alexandria Real Estate Equities has completed most of the work on its 6,000-square-foot winter garden at 75-125 Binney St., the future home of Ariad Pharmaceuticals Inc.Payette Architects

Prodded by tenants, residents, and city officials to create more parks and open spaces, developers are resurrecting an old architectural idea to beautify new buildings: “winter gardens.”

Several developers have incorporated or proposed multistory, glass-enclosed spaces that would feature various plantings, including trees and ivy, along with benches, cafes, and other features designed to provide lush, sunny parks all year round. These indoor oases would be open to the public.

“We’re trying to create more of a community space,” said Tom Andrews, executive vice president at Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which is building a winter garden at the site of a new office-and-laboratory development in Kendall Square in Cambridge. “It’s going to be an appealing and attractive architectural component of the project.”

The concept of winter gardens has been around for centuries, first adopted in Europe by aristocrats who wanted to show off exotic indoor gardens, said Prataap Patrose, deputy director of urban design at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

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Locally, one of the earliest and most famous examples of an interior, year-round garden can be found at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.

Alexandria has completed most of the work on its 6,000-square-foot winter garden at 75-125 Binney St., the future home of the biotechnology company Ariad Pharmaceuticals Inc. Landscape designers have planted English ivy and various tropical plants, such as pothos, in anticipation of Ariad’s moving into the office-lab complex early next year.

The space will also have a café, park benches, and bathrooms available to anyone who strolls through the front or back entrances. The indoor garden will be connected to an outdoor park that California-based Alexandria is building behind the Binney Street complex.

 Boston Properties has proposed an indoor garden at the site of an old garage off Broadway Street in Cambridge.
Boston Properties has proposed an indoor garden at the site of an old garage off Broadway Street in Cambridge.Boston Properties/Sasaki/Sasaki

Also in Kendall Square, Boston Properties has proposed an even larger indoor garden, at 10,000 square feet, at the site of an old parking garage off Broadway Street. Boston Properties wants to build either residential or office space above the North Garage, with a glass-enclosed winter garden facing Broadway, according to its preliminary plans.

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If these spaces prove to be genuinely attractive and inviting to the public, Cambridge officials said, the city might encourage developers to incorporate similar winter gardens in future buildings.

“We want to see how this works,” said Iram Farooq, acting assistant city manager for community development in Cambridge. “We’re cautiously optimistic it will work.”

But Farooq acknowledged that similar plans haven’t been successful in terms of creating new spaces for people to gather.

Recent construction at Cambridge’s Broad Institute and David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT created handsome new lobbies with scientific exhibits and art. Both lobbies are open to the public, Farooq said.

But they’re not places that members of the public are going to regularly because they’re too small and isolated, she said.

“People have complained that they haven’t gone far enough,” Farooq said, noting people want more open space, tables, and tranquil settings.

Farooq and others emphasized that winter gardens, or other grand plans for publicly accessible atriums, are not substitutes for outdoor parks and other outdoor open spaces. Nothing beats fresh air and lounging outside on real grass under real trees, she said. “They’re complementary,” she said of interior public places.

In Boston, the huge lobbies in International Place and the Prudential Center are probably the closest the city has to gathering places that are truly public and have many plantings within office complexes, city officials said.

Don Chiofaro is planning to build a glass roof over a garden-like setting between two towers on the site of the current Boston Harbor Garage.
Don Chiofaro is planning to build a glass roof over a garden-like setting between two towers on the site of the current Boston Harbor Garage.The Chiofaro Company

Developer Don Chiofaro is proposing an ambitious plan to build a retractable glass roof over a garden-like setting, between two towers he hopes to build one day at the site of the current Boston Harbor Garage, near the New England Aquarium.

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Though Chiofaro Co. officials are not calling it a “winter garden,” city officials say that’s effectively what it would be: a year-round garden area open to the public during mostly daylight hours.

That’s assuming the towers are ever built; Chiofaro’s project has been met by sometimes fierce opposition from nearby residents.

Rob Caridad, a project manager at Chiofaro Co., said the vision for the garden area between the proposed towers is driven largely by increased demand for public access to Boston Harbor, which is now blocked by the concrete garage.

“We’re connecting it to the community,” he said. “Old single-use developments, like office buildings, are not what people want today. They want more.”


Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.