News
05.03.2010
Seeding the Greenway
Boston masterplan to guide development along new park
A new planning study hopes to reshape the Greenway, including the Harbor Garage (next to the I.M. Pei-designed Harbor Towers at left), where a developer wants 625 feet of development but the city prefers a 200-foot cap.
Jim Diorio

When Boston tore down the Central Artery and replaced it with the Rose Kennedy Greenway—the culmination of decades of work on the notorious Big Dig—it transformed downtown in innumerable ways. With the uninviting overpass gone, the city was once again connected with its waterfront and the attractions thereon. People and buildings that had long turned their back on this mile-long stretch in the heart of Boston discovered a new vantage, but also a void, one that the city seemed ill-equipped to fill.

Now hoping to reverse the fate of faltering cultural projects in the area, out-of-scale new development, and a park that remains relatively empty, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has just completed an exhaustive Greenway District Planning Study that makes recommendations for the future development of parcels along the greenway, with an emphasis on regulating building heights and density.

The city's proposed limits for roughly two-dozen development sites along the Greenway. (Click to zoom)
Courtesy UTILE

In many ways, it is an unusual effort for Boston, where development tends to take place in a piecemeal fashion, with each project being negotiated on its own merits directly with the redevelopment authority and the local community. But the greenway has proven to be a special case.

“There was so much political capital spent on getting the greenway built, I think there was a real sense that we could not simply proceed with business as usual, that this demanded a real plan with a real vision,” said Tim Love, a principal at UTILE, the local design and planning firm charged with developing the study.

The plan was effectively finalized at an April 29 public meeting, though its details were first unveiled in March when final height limits were set for roughly two dozen potential development sites. They range from four- and five-story buildings bordering historic districts like Chinatown and Quincy Market to 600-foot towers nearer to the Financial District.

Though the plan has been criticized for being too low density, the designers point to certain sites, such as the "Richardson Block" where tall buildings are encouraged, in part because of their limited impact on the park and their denser context.

But the design process involved much more than matching cornice lines. UTILE undertook a detailed study of microclimates with a heavy focus on shadows cast on the greenway to determine the best densities for each site. “Could you have your cake and eat it too? That was the gist of it,” said principal Matthew Littell. “How do you maintain the greenway and the value of the parcels around the greenway? How do you create that value but not so much that you’re chasing your own tail?”

Tail-chasing may have been inevitable, though, as the development community has come out in opposition to the plan, particularly on the harbor side of the greenway, where development has been capped at 200 feet. This flies in the face of one project in particular, the Boston Arch, a pair of towers proposed by developer Don Chiofaro and designed by KPF. Chiofaro’s original project called for a 40- and 59-story tower joined by a skyframe at 770 feet.

The plan limits Chiofaro's garage site (center, in brown) to 200 feet, though he would like to build three-times as tall.

Chiofaro has already agreed to reduce his project, to 625 feet, but he has said he can shrink it no further, in part because of the $155 million he paid for the parking garage he hopes to replace. “It’s a critical parcel, that I won’t deny,” said Kairos Shen, Boston’s chief planner. “I think everyone would like to see that as something beyond a garage, but not at the cost of the entire greenway.”

Still, it appears most of the city is pleased with the new plan, including Richard Garver, a retired planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority who directed its greenway work. “You don’t often find people saying, ‘Wow, that BRA is good,’” Garver said. “But this time, talking to the people who have been involved, I’ve heard so much praise for this plan. And that’s a man-bites-dog story right there.”

Matt Chaban