After decades of loathing from public officials and the public alike, Boston’s City Hall Plaza is finally poised for a makeover, courtesy of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency has selected City Hall Plaza as one of five winners of its new Greening America’s Capitals program, which will annually award design assistance grants for green makeovers of dysfunctional sites in state capitals.
When City Hall Plaza and the government building within it were built by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles in the heyday of urban renewal in the mid-1960s, they were envisioned as a grand civic ensemble. Instead, the plaza’s seven acres of concrete and brick have primarily served as a daunting interruption of downtown Boston’s tight-knit fabric. “We thought Boston City Hall was a fabulous candidate for the program,” said Rosemary Monahan, the EPA’s Region 1 smart growth coordinator. “It’s a barren, windswept, desolate place. In the winter, it’s like trudging across Siberia.”
The redesign will focus on defining the edges of the plaza, softening it with greenscape and trees, and incorporating sustainable elements to generate energy and capture stormwater runoff. The EPA issued a request for qualifications, which closed on October 1, to select a firm with expertise in urban design and landscape architecture. The winning firm will work with the agency and the City of Boston to lead a series of charrettes in November to settle on a preliminary plan for the plaza.
The timing for Boston is also right to help integrate the plaza with the surrounding city. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is in the middle of a renovation of the Government Center subway station at City Hall. “This is a unique opportunity to integrate it with the pedestrian corridor that crosses the plaza,” said James Hunt, Mayor Thomas Menino’s chief of environment and energy. Additionally, the charrette will examine the possibility of extending one of the main arteries of the North End neighborhood, Hanover Street, which currently dead-ends at the plaza.
“No one used to think about that because I-93 used to go through the city, but now that’s been depressed by the Big Dig. Making that connection may or may not make sense, but we’ll take a look at it,” Monahan said.
Although many have been hoping that the Brutalist City Hall building might one day be demolished, this project is a strong signal that the idea is off the table. “I think the mayor is committing to keep the seat of city government here,” Hunt said. However, some preservationists are optimistic that the unpopular building might acquire some residual benefits of the plaza redesign.
“It is an unfriendly and difficult-to-penetrate building,” said Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, “but there might be some ways of dealing with the plaza that could start to create a context for the building itself that would make people understand and appreciate it more.”