Don Chiofaro will unveil his latest plans for demolishing the wretched Harbor Garage on Wednesday, and the first thing anyone will want to talk about will be the size of whatever Chiofaro wants to build in the garage’s place. It’s a natural reaction. Since Chiofaro rolled out his first scheme for redeveloping his 1,400-car waterfront facility more than five years ago, Boston has been conditioned to scoring his plans based on the height of his proposed buildings. That’s because Chiofaro’s running feud with former Boston Mayor Tom Menino was ostensibly a fight over how tall developers could go along Boston’s waterfront.
But height isn’t necessarily the enemy at places like the Harbor Garage; it is a tool for paying for badly-needed improvements on the ground. As Boston gears up for another round with Chiofaro and his architectural renderings, the battle lines shouldn’t form over an arbitrary, inviolable height limit.
The wrangling over Chiofaro’s garage has always felt more personal than it should be, and Boston’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, has worked to soften City Hall’s caustic relationship with him. Chiofaro was one of two developers Walsh mentioned by name at a Chamber of Commerce speech two months ago. For his part, Chiofaro, a man who is used to traveling through Boston’s buttoned-up development world like a linebacker, has worked hard to mind his manners and keep his face out of the news.
The Harbor Garage is a terrible concrete cube squatting on some of the best real estate in Boston. The garage rose alongside the neighboring Harbor Towers condominiums to form a suburban fortress in the middle of a crumbling city. It was built for a version of Boston that doesn’t exist anymore. The city is now young, healthy, and growing rapidly. The garage sits between a clean harbor and a sparkling line of new parks, walling off the water from the rest of the city and forming a long, solid concrete barrier that deadens what should be one of the busiest sidewalks in the city.
It’s the state of the sidewalk, not what’s above, that really matters. Chiofaro has other options, short of demolishing the Harbor Garage and starting over. He could keep the garage, slap a new facade on it, and plunk some expensive condominiums on top. He could work on getting more exciting retailers in the base of the building. But even though those steps would be improvements, neither would address the fundamental problem with the garage: The sidewalk doesn’t work, because there’s no open space at the site, and no way of seeing the waterfront, let alone getting to it.
The decision to wipe the slate clean and start over could yield enormous public benefits by opening up new, usable public space at a site that has none, and opening new connections between the harbor and the downtown. Such a decision doesn’t come cheaply, though. Chiofaro has repeatedly pegged the cost of burying the Harbor Garage’s parking spaces at $180 million. Space that any developer opens up on the ground floor has to be paid for above, and the more space a developer turns over to the public, the higher the floors above will get.
There are real tradeoffs at play at the Harbor Garage — whether we value low buildings so much that we’re willing to leave a wall up between the city and the harbor, or how far we’re willing to go to open up the waterfront. These real tradeoffs deserve a real debate, about whether the benefits that new height would buy are worth it. In the five years Chiofaro has been pounding away at the Harbor Garage, this debate hasn’t happened yet. But it’s one the city deserves, and it’s one that goes a lot deeper than one height figure.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.