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PAUL MCMORROW

Garden Garage neighbors should be cheering for redevelopment

The burst of urban renewal construction that swept Boston in the 1950s and 1960s was supposed to modernize, and rescue, an economically stagnant city. But the buildings from that era haven’t aged well. The most significant development proposals over the past several years have been largely aimed at fixing the buildings that were supposed to have fixed the city a half-century ago.

In the West End, a plan to demolish the worst relic of that era has been foundering for years. The Garden Garage is an ugly, hulking piece of concrete that cuts the West End off from the emerging neighborhood around North Station, and Bostonians should be cheering for its demolition. But a developer’s proposal for razing the garage has struggled to gain traction because it has exposed deep fault lines within the neighborhood.

West End residents convinced city development officials that the apartment complex that was supposed to replace the garage was too big. Now, the developer, Equity Residential, is back with a new plan. Paradoxically, it’s much taller than the last plan Equity put forward, but in another sense, it’s also much smaller. The gambit has the potential to redefine Boston’s relationship with large-scale new development.

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The Garden Garage rises above Lomasney Way, behind the Boston Garden, at the edge of the line of homes and parkland that replaced the old West End. It’s a lot like the Government Center Garage and Don Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage: It feels like it was built specifically to divide areas of Boston that should be connected. The garage has always severed the West End and the Charles River from North Station; now, it’s also walling off West Enders from the developments rising rapidly in the Bulfinch Triangle and at the Boston Garden.

Down the street, several blocks of new apartments and shops are rising in the Bulfinch Triangle, on land that once sat underneath the elevated Central Artery. Boston Properties is building a massive three-tower complex next door to the Garden Garage, where the old Boston Garden once stood; the project will spread 500 new homes, office space, a hotel, and a supermarket across three towers, the largest of which will be 600 feet tall. And on the back side of the Garden, AvalonBay is constructing a 38-story tower that will hold 503 new apartments. The Garden Garage didn’t feel like serious urban blight when its neighbors were an arena and a set of highway ramps. But suddenly, the garage is in the middle of a new downtown, and setting a good urban environment matters.

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Equity Residential saw the neighborhood’s evolution coming, and the developer tried to get ahead of it. It’s been chasing garage redevelopment permits since early 2011. But neighbors rose up against a bid to replace the garage with 500 apartments spread over 28- and 21-story towers, and the plan withered.

The developer recently filed paperwork with the city to revive the redevelopment. The current plan swaps the old two-tower proposal for a single apartment tower, which would rise 46 stories, and contain 486 units.

Forty-six stories is a provocative request, given that the garage’s neighbors opposed a plan for a building half as tall. But the new proposal enables an enormous transformation at the garage site. Because it stacks two towers on top of one another, it reduces the garage’s current footprint by three-quarters. It opens up connections between North Station, the West End, and the riverfront, and frees up an acre of new open space around the proposed tower.

The new proposal actually takes much better advantage of the garage demolition than its old plan did. It’s a gain enabled by trading height for new, meaningful open space. And it shows that when tall buildings aren’t a bogeyman, they can be a financing tool for improving Boston neighborhoods. The city’s downtown is growing, and it’s getting taller. So instead of fighting height downtown, residents should be embracing it, and asking what benefits it can pay for.

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Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.