Scared of heights
Boston calls itself a world-class city, but it’s afraid to act like one
The company that is redeveloping the Government Center Garage is shaving 72 feet — a half-dozen stories — off what was supposed to be the most high-profile building in a neighborhood-defining construction project. The development isn’t getting a haircut for any good reason. It’s just that, most times, the cost of building in Boston is paid with lowered ambition.
The proposal to replace the Government Center Garage with residences, offices, hotel rooms, and retail space clamps its arms around the third rails of Boston development — parking and height — which helps explain why the project is on its second developer and fourth redevelopment plan. It’s an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. It shouldn’t be this difficult, though. The shrinking of the proposed complex is a symptom of the dysfunction that defines the way Bostonians engage new development. The city has a reflexive antipathy toward building height, whether in residential neighborhoods or the heart of the downtown. A downsized building is often the toll developers have to pay to earn neighborhood support for their projects.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The city should be looking for ways to turn private development into a tool for creating social goods. This only works when residents are willing to put down their scissors and embrace height, rather than slice away at it.
The developers of the Government Center Garage, the HYM Investment Group, are trying to build a project that will resonate across the city. The massive concrete garage spans Congress Street, cutting off the North End and the emerging Bulfinch Triangle from Beacon Hill and Boston’s downtown. It’s a holdover from the urban renewal era, a throwback to the days when cities were desperately trying to rebuild on the backs of daytime commuters. This dynamic doesn’t exist anymore. Boston is roaring back from decades of population loss. The city needs more places to live and work and shop, and far fewer concrete parking pens. The project is primarily aimed at knitting neighborhoods together.
It was an enormous project before its recent downsizing, and it’s still a huge undertaking — replacing a hulking parking structure with 2.3 million square feet, spread over six new buildings. But now, a development that was supposed to be iconic will be decidedly less so. Minus those 72 feet, an office tower that would have been among Boston’s tallest will now merely blend into the thicket of buildings along the city skyline. It’s unnecessary downsizing for the sake of not standing out, which is why it should be so infuriating. It’s downsizing for the sake of Puritan modesty.
Tom O’Brien, the HYM developer who’s the driving force behind the garage project, isn’t complaining about its new, shorter profile. He quickly scaled back his planned 600-foot tower as a way of winning over skeptical North End neighbors. But that doesn’t mean the city should be cheering.
Boston mayors once advanced bold development agendas as outward expressions of their desire to turn an economic backwater into a world-class city. Now, while Boston calls itself a world-class city, it’s afraid to act like one. Developers consistently face calls to show less ambition. The Government Center Garage gets chopped down as a matter of course. The city rises in opposition to an 18-story Fenway tower that would rise across the street from a 22-story tower. West End residents have spent years battling a plan to replace an awful old parking garage with a pair of apartment towers that would be shorter than the buildings springing up across the street. A six-story condominium building in Ashmont is an abnormality, not a rule.
A city’s architecture is an outward expression of its identity. By reflexively chopping stories off new buildings, Boston’s identity is one that puts parochialism and petty neighborhood politics above the greater good.
This parochialism has real costs. Building height can be a broad economic tool. It can generate the revenue needed to finance aggressive affordable housing targets, or subsidize innovative local retailers, or fund fine architecture. The way buildings meet the street matters far more than how tall they are. So instead of impulsively battling height, Bostonians should be harnessing it.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.