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06.17.2014
Big Time in Bean Town
New Boston mayor opens floodgates on development.
Boston Landing by Elkus Manfredi Architects.
Courtesy Elkus Manfredi Architects

Red brick Boston may be finally shaking off the vestiges of its architectural Puritanism, which was best captured by the outcry against the glass-sheathed John Hancock Tower designed by Harry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in the 1970s. After various holdups under former mayor Tom Menino, a new generation of megaprojects is taking shape under new mayor Martin Walsh, a former construction union leader who campaigned on infrastructure improvements and reforms to the city’s zoning code.

 
Millennium Tower.
courtesy handel architects
 

Ground broke this past December on the Millennium Tower development designed by Handel Architects in Downtown Boston. The new mixed-use project, which includes the preservation and restoration of a nationally landmarked 1912 Filene’s department store designed by Daniel Burnham, will be the tallest residential building in the city. Boston regulators also recently approved tax breaks for the $550 million Fenway Center, an immense mixed-use development that is slated to straddle a section of the Massachusetts Turnpike near Boston’s Fenway Park. In addition, the new mayor reportedly has allocated city money for demolition of a large parking garage in the heart of Boston’s Financial District, which, along with the financial crisis, had been an impediment to former plans for the site involving a 1,000-foot-high office tower designed by Renzo Piano.

Many of the developments now moving forward were approved in the final days of the Menino administration, but the election of the new mayor appears to have spurred optimism about the future. “Menino was interested in making sure that development didn’t happen for development’s sake—making sure that developers acknowledged their role in the large context,” said Emily Grandstaff-Rice, president of the Boston Society of Architects, “but this frustrated developers because they thought the approval process was rigorous and undefined, so there is hope with the Walsh administration that there will be more transparency.”

According to Handel Architects partner Blake Middleton, building in Boston is not necessarily more onerous in terms of the approval process, just different. “If you are building in any location in Boston that is overseen by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, you have to go through design review and then you have the Boston Civic Design Commission,” he said, adding, “an unseasoned developer might find it a challenge.”

Some of the projects that stalled under the former mayoral administration include an earlier plan for the Filene’s site by Vornado Real Estate Trust that fizzled after the company tried to extract tax concessions from the city by reportedly threatening to keep the site undeveloped. Middleton said that new plan with its focus on preserving and restoring the historic Burnham building is a vast improvement over the Vornado plan, which in addition to putting a hole in the landmarked building had the new tower cantilevering over it.

   
Boston Landing.
 

Among the reforms under the Menino administration that have made new development in Boston more challenging are new sustainability standards to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and new resiliency measures to protect against storms. In addition, as part of an agenda to cut greenhouse gases by 2020, Boston has implemented a building energy reporting and disclosure ordinance requiring the city’s large- and medium-sized buildings to report and make publicly available their annual energy and water usage.

Another feature that should substantially reduce energy usage is that the new megaprojects are primarily located near public transportation nodes. At the $500 million Boston Landing Project in Brighton, a 14-acre mixed-use development that broke ground under the Menino administration, the project’s developer, New Balance, is paying for the building and the maintenance of a new commuter rail station.

Along with the sustainability initiatives, Bostonians finally appear to be embracing changes to their built environment from which they once recoiled. “It seems as though there is less fear about building tall and that we now recognize that density can be an advantage to many different realms, such as economic development and keeping people in the city by expanding the housing stock,” said Grandstaff-Rice. And while the new developments are massive, in several instances on the scale of entire new neighborhoods, they still pay homage to certain of the city’s architectural traditions. “There is a longstanding history here of place-making and these are a modern version of it,” said Grandstaff-Rice. “It is continuing a long tradition of having local places where people can gather.”

Alex Ulam