It was a great Marathon Day today in Massachusetts.
Makes me nostalgic for my old home town (although I probably can’t afford to live there).
JAMAICA PLAIN There’s nothing ordinary about Jamaica Plain, or JP as it’s called, a dynamic Boston neighborhood located southwest of downtown. The commercial district, along Centre and South streets, reflects Jamaica Plainâs eclectic community of artists, writers, musicians, activists, young families, and indie-business owners. Fine dining and casual restaurants serve foods of Cuba, Scotland, India, Lebanon, Cambodia, Japan, and other international fare. Boutiques sell everything from kitchen gadgets to funky vintage attire to one-of-a-kind artisan crafts.
My home. The last sentence reads: “It’s challenging to experience all that Jamaica Plain has to offer in one visit or even two. It’s a neighborhood made to return to again and again.” I’ve lived here for nearly 7 years and haven’t been to all the places mentioned.
But Boston has changed tremendously since then. The city is growing rapidly, and getting younger. The new residents elbowing their way into town are choosing urban living — crowded, noisy, and exciting.
Boston can’t physically allow every resident and worker to drive around town like it’s Interstate 495. The roads couldn’t handle the traffic, and there aren’t enough parking spaces to go around. This is why the city has a hard cap on the number of public parking spaces allowed downtown, and why it expects many of the workers in newly built office towers to arrive by public transportation.
When it comes to new residential developments, though, City Hall is still largely grounded in the 1970s. It requires housing developers to build minimum levels of parking, regardless of whether building residents actually have cars to park.
Parking minimums aren’t policy, so much as they are a political toll that developers have to pay to win local approvals. And in Boston, nothing drives politically active neighborhood groups crazier than parking and traffic. They believe as an article of faith that new apartments and condominiums equal new cars, and demand that these new cars not compete for on-street parking with existing residents. So the cost of Boston development permits is paid in expensive, empty parking spaces.
City officials have gradually been letting the quantity of parking extracted from developers slip, to a ratio of three spaces for every four new housing units, and sometimes less. This is a level of parking far below what suburban communities demand from housing developers. Still, even in Boston, city policy assumes that all new housing developments create significant new parking headaches.
That assumption just doesn’t square with reality. Census data show that more than half of Boston residents currently take the T, bike, or walk to work. There are now 27,000 more car-free workers living in the city than there were a decade ago. This doesn’t mean that the Boston Redevelopment Authority should forcibly seize minivans from West Roxbury families. But it does mean that developers should be able to build car-free communities downtown and near transit. Building regulations should square with the way people actually live."
That means encouraging density and development in the neighborhoods, where “the financials” aren’t quite so enticing for developers. Forty percent of Boston’s children are concentrated in just two neighborhoods: Dorchester and Roxbury. Most live in single-parent households, and nearly half have at least one foreign-born parent. Immigrant families have always been a vibrant force in urban growth, but they needn’t be isolated in one district, where their concerns can be out of sight for much of the population.
There’s also no reason why families with children can’t live in dense neighborhoods of brownstones or even properly designed high-rises; Vancouver, Tokyo, and New York City do this well. We need more housing in Dorchester and Roxbury, but we also need more children in the South End, Brighton, and — why not? — the waterfront.
Happily, both finalists in this week’s mayoral election seem ready to address the demographic divide. “Boston is growing and attracting new people, but the high cost of living makes it hard for seniors and middle-class families to stay in the city they know and love,” said Marty Walsh on election night. John Connolly lamented that Boston’s children “are living in two different worlds” — one that is healthy and safe and one that is not. Both candidates have committed to improving the schools, and that ought to include new schools that can grow as they attract families to non-traditional neighborhoods.
The next mayor needs to nurture the growing appeal of Boston to newcomers — of all races and backgrounds, yes, but also of all ages. Boston is a wealthy city, but without lots of thriving families with children, it’s not as rich."
6/6: Boston embraces age of the skyscraper
The Garden and Government Center garage mega-projects are ambitious variations on the same theme, at sites that have long held wasted potential. It’s the High Spine extended into North Station. 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."
This plan looks awesome. I hope NIMBY’s don’t nibble it to death.
Built in 1895, the McKim Building is massive and delicate at the same time. To its right is the 1972 Johnson Building, simplistic and gloomy. Thus we have Boston City Hall (voted the world’s[!] ugliest building by the website virtualtourist.com); the massive, meandering State Health, Education and Welfare Services Center on Staniford Street; the three JFK federal buildings across from City Hall; and the behemoth, view-blocking Congress Street garage.
Sometimes it’s money that keeps them in place; tearing down and rebuilding is expensive. Sometimes ugly seems to become its own virtue (a piece not long ago in the Globe was titled, “In praise of ugly buildings”). Then too, preservationists and others who should know better treat buildings like inviolable artworks.
The difference, of course, is that a bad painting can be put in storage. There’s nowhere to hide a bad building.
If you’re familiar with the buildings in my list, you’re probably aware that most of them are from the 1960s and 1970s. They were designed by some of that era’s best-known names, including Gerhard Kallmann, Michael McKinnell, Paul Rudolph, and Walter Gropius.
Philip Johnson was also one of those talents. A productive designer who lived and worked well into his 90s, he created some great buildings — just not in Boston. To a degree, the BPL project forced some tough constraints on Johnson, including matching up the new building’s height to the much beloved McKim. What we ended up getting with Johnson’s building was a dumbed-down echo of its predecessor (it even uses the same shade of granite). One engages the eye and entrances the mind. The other stupefies.
So what went wrong? Blame the era, perhaps, one of turmoil and change that rejected the past and celebrated a coarse modernism. Blame also the power of government to force its will and a near-disdain for community involvement.
Architects have learned a lot from those days. Current design more consciously cares about users as well as the relationships buildings have to each other and the street. Then too, it’s hard to imagine any of the buildings on my list of uglies getting approved today; the outcry would be too much. That’s a good thing. It means we aren’t necessarily doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, it does seem our doom that the mistakes of the past are too often part of our present."
A great analysis of the failure of public architecture in some of Boston’s most noted buildings.
I can’t explain, but I won’t complain, I only know that I love trains.
Discuss: Is the state starving the MBTA?
House approves $500m transportation finance bill
Cities that once fell victim to crippling suburban flight are booming, thanks to a surge in residents who value walkable streets and lively neighborhoods over large suburban home lots. Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are growing more quickly than the state as a whole; they’re also young and getting younger, even as the rest of Massachusetts ages. And employers are following them into the urban core, paying huge markups to operate in Boston and Cambridge, rather than in a low-slung building at the bottom of a highway off-ramp. This shift has come to a head as Massachusetts moves out of recession. Post-recession booms usually start in the suburbs, where builders stalk cheap land and bargain-hunting corporations. But that isn’t the case this time around. Instead, companies are seizing the city center. Biogen has ended its flirtation with the suburbs and is expanding in Cambridge instead. Pfizer, Novartis, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, the Broad Institute, Amazon, and Google are all growing around Kendall Square. Vertex Pharmaceuticals is headlining the buildout of Boston’s Seaport. Converse is swapping its North Andover headquarters for Causeway Street. State Street is giving up a series of suburban properties to construct an expensive new complex along the Fort Point Channel. And as companies chase young talent in the urban core, the region is making moves to grow even younger and denser. Builders are lining up thousands of new housing units for Downtown Crossing and the Fenway. Cambridge’s Central Square, Somerville’s Brickbottom and Union Square, and Boston’s Fairmount corridor are all being up-zoned to accommodate new development. New residences are clustering around Alewife and Wellington Circle. Entirely new neighborhoods are springing up in Quincy Center and Somerville’s Assembly Square. The common element in all of this is mass transit access. Residents and companies crowd into Boston and Cambridge to feed off the cities’ connectivity; continued transit access is at the heart of the business plans allowing these places to grow denser still. It’s not reasonable to expect that all of State Street’s employees are going to rent apartments on A Street. But it is reasonable to expect that if State Street is recruiting young, mobile, urban employees, a decent chunk of them are going to be riding subway cars and buses to Fort Point from the Fenway or Somerville or Charlestown. The MBTA is already straining to keep up with its current users. Its core stations — Kendall, Park Street, Downtown Crossing, and Copley Square — are above capacity now, even before accounting for the tens of millions of square feet currently in the construction pipeline. At the same time that the system is being pushed toward its breaking point, it’s being starved financially. Forget about running the Green Line to Somerville: The Legislature is now poised to advance a $500 million transportation tax plan that would leave basic maintenance for the aging transit system, like new buses and subway cars, unfunded. Just as infrastructure investments enable private investment, so too will public disinvestment put pressure on the huge sums firms are now sinking into the city. The biggest potential drag on the region’s economy isn’t developers’ ability to find customers for all the apartment towers and office buildings they’re erecting; the constraint is their ability to move around town."
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