Developers proposing $4 billion Boston garage makeover
Want to turn hulking garages downtown into elegant skyscrapers of homes, offices, stores — and some parking
Call it downtown Boston's $4 billion garage makeover.
That's how much developers propose to spend redeveloping parking structures from North Station to Winthrop Square. They want to replace the hulking concrete eyesores with sleek new skyscrapers featuring ground-floor stores, hundreds of homes, office space, and new connections between city neighborhoods.
All of those plans would take years to complete. But the effort amounts to a privately financed rethinking of the urban renewal era, which spawned most of the garages, and gives Boston a new shot at changing the way parts of the city look and function.
"We have a chance to repair the scars left by the automobile era of the 1950s and '60s," said David Hacin, a principal at Hacin + Associates, an architecture firm. "We can move past that time period to build something denser, pedestrian friendly, and more attractive to people as a place to live and work."
Urban Renewal led to the construction of parking garages in downtown areas across the country, where they often improved rundown blocks and commercial buildings. In Boston, the garages brought development at a time of economic distress, providing thousands of parking spaces to serve businesses and their suburban-based workforces.
"They brought cars into the city and rescued Boston from becoming an economic backwater," said Mark Pasnik, a principal at the architecture and design firm Over, Under. "A lot of them are intelligently produced works of architecture, but they are wrong for today's urbanism."
The properties up for redevelopment include the Harbor Garage on Atlantic Avenue, the city-owned Winthrop Square Garage, the Government Center Garage, the Garden Garage at North Station, and the garage attached to the MBTA's Back Bay Station on Clarendon Street.
Completed in 1970, the Government Center Garage was crafted by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, the same firm that designed Boston City Hall. The two bulky structures, both designed in the Brutalist style, rose as part of a sweeping redevelopment of Scollay Square — considered seedy at the time — as a new home for governmental offices.
The Harbor Garage was designed by the Hancock Tower's architect, Henry N. Cobb, whose firm designed a waterfront development that included the two Harbor Towers condominium buildings. The project transformed what was then a rough-looking district of old warehouses and parking lots.
Before it was condemned in 2013, the Winthrop Square Garage was one of two city-owned garages that served downtown, including the financial district. The other, in Post Office Square, was redeveloped as a public park, with 1,400 underground parking spaces.
Though they still serve the needs of commuters, the massive concrete structures act as barriers in the city and limit retail and pedestrian activity on local streets.
Under the redevelopment plans, most of the existing parking would be moved underground or hidden by the new buildings, helping to emphasize modern ways of living and working in the city.
Eight development teams are seeking to replace the pill box of a garage in Winthrop Square with a skyscraper that would include some combination of commercial and residential space, as well as ground-floor shops.
"In Winthrop Square and at all these sites, it's about making new connections and bringing the property back into the public realm," said Hacin, who is working on a proposal for the square by Accordia Partners LLC.
Among the most important and politically delicate projects is redevelopment of the Harbor Garage.
Developer Donald Chiofaro has battled with neighbors for seven years over his plan to build a towering complex of new buildings — two skyscrapers centered over retail shops and a large public corridor between the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the harbor.
Chiofaro has said he needs to build taller buildings to support the cost of putting the garage's spaces underground. But some neighbors insist the project would create a larger barrier than the garage it seeks to replace.
Proposals have been approved for a towering development of six buildings at the Government Center Garage site, but plans remain up for debate at the nearby Garden Garage and at the Back Bay Station garage on Clarendon Street. At the Back Bay garage, Boston Properties is exploring plans for a large mixed-use development that could include an overhaul of the nearby train station.
The apartment builder Equity Residential is proposing to replace the Garden Garage with a 46-story tower with about 485 residences and a ground-level public park. All of the current parking — plus 180 new spaces for the residences — would be put underground.
As potentially transformative as the garage projects are, some observers say the opportunity will be squandered if city officials don't deliver on their promises to push for architecture that's more innovative — and for mixed-income housing.
"This is a chance for Boston to build something better than what it's been building lately," said Pasnik, the principal at Over, Under architecture and design. "The mayor's got a good vision, but how he does in delivering a better quality of design is a big question mark."