Boston doesn’t build tall buildings very often, so any proposal to erect a cluster of them is an anomaly. The towers slated to rise above the Government Center Garage and the old Boston Garden site stand out even more because developers are clamoring to erect some of the city’s highest buildings in a neighborhood that was, until recently, a backwater.
The proposed 600-foot towers will put multiple exclamation points on the Bulfinch Triangle’s emergence from its pre-Big Dig shadows. Seen from the harbor, the two mega-projects will extend the Financial District’s cluster of towers out of downtown, and to the foot of the Zakim Bridge. But the towers — which are using height as a tool for advancing the streets around them — don’t represent an extension of Boston’s downtown, but rather, the triumph of its Back Bay. With the towers, the mixture of significant height and fine-grain neighborhood streets that enabled the Back Bay’s success now spreads to the rest of the city.
The High Spine saved the old Back Bay from the wrecking ball. City planners had seriously considered bulldozing large sections of Commonwealth Avenue, and inserting modern apartment towers among the historic brownstones. They flirted with demolition because they were desperate to pump new life into what was, in the 1960s, a shabby, deteriorating neighborhood. The Back Bay’s towers — led by the Prudential Center and the the John Hancock Tower — represented a way of investing in the Back Bay while preserving the old neighborhood.
The line of new Back Bay towers lifted destructive development pressures from the Back Bay’s historic brownstones, while the enormous investment that created the city’s architectural spine spilled over into the shops and restaurants that sprang up in the blocks around the towers. Massive office towers and low-slung residential neighborhoods now sit cheek-to-jowl. The result on the street is a jumbled mixture of residents and office workers and shoppers that create a vitality the downtown can’t match.
The Garden and Government Center garage mega-projects are ambitious variations on the same theme, at sites that have long held wasted potential.
The Causeway Street site that Boston Properties and Delaware North are now teeing up for redevelopment has been a fenced-off parking lot since the old Boston Garden came down 15 years ago. The property, once the center of a dark, beer-stained, part-time corner on the edge of town, is now teeming with activity. The Big Dig, the demolition of the elevated Green Line, and the expansion of North Station have combined to open up a neighborhood penned in by hulking transportation systems. New residences and offices are now springing up on three sides of the Garden site. The proposal for replacing the old Garden with 1.7 million square feet of new homes, offices, hotel rooms and shops — punctuated with towers that could match the tallest buildings in the Financial District — would anchor all this new development.
The Government Center Garage project is even more ambitious. It would transform a nine-story, 2,300-car garage that spans Congress Street into a five-acre, six-building complex. The garage is the last of a number of urban renewal-era parking structures that the city sold in the 1970s and 1980s to be slated for redevelopment. It has deadened the surrounding city blocks and walled off the downtown from the Bulfinch Triangle for roughly half a century. The garage’s developer, the HYM Investment Group, wants to cut the garage in half, wrap its blank sides in shops, offices, and homes, add new structures along the Greenway and Haymarket Square, and top the garage’s western half with a pair of significant new towers.
The garage redevelopment and the Garden project are both large, expensive, and unusually tall for their part of town. In each case, the height isn’t an end to itself, but a way of paying for the retail and street level improvements below. And the shops at the base of the developments are aimed at reinforcing the activity that’s already happening in the low-slung neighborhoods next door, in the North End and Beacon Hill and the emerging Bulfinch Triangle. It’s the High Spine extended into North Station — height, density, and low-rise neighborhoods all working in harmony.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.