Boston Air Rights
The turnpike air rights study identified a total of 23 parcels grouped into five nodes keyed to established neighborhoods including Boston University, Kenmore Square, and Bay Village/Chinatown.
The master plan states: "The Turnpike was planned in the 1950s to revive Boston's depressed economy and provide badly needed access to downtown... But later the civic costs of the Turnpike's open cut-divided neighborhoods, the loss of badly needed land, and the introduction of pollution on the doorsteps of thousands of residents became unacceptable."
Planning officials of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) seem keenly aware of the cruel history of neighborhoods-be-damned urban renewal that took place from the 1950s through the 1970s. For example, in the early 1960s, a wide swath of residential neighborhoods called the West End was bulldozed to make way for the city's government center and assorted residential highrises.
Responding to Citizen Input
Each current and future turnpike development scheme will have its own citizens advisory committee, which will have the power to recommend to the mayor and the BRA whether projects should be approved. Committee members will be hand-picked by the mayor.
Prataap Patrose, assistant director of urban design with the BRA, reflects the city's neighborhood-centered development ethos: "Is it desirable to have the city knit back together? Yes. But at any cost? No."
So far the development farthest along in the labyrinthine approval process is that of local developers Roger Cassin and Arthur Winn, who propose a $400 million complex to be called Columbus Center, located at the nexus of three important Boston residential neighborhoods: Back Bay, Bay Village, and South End.
Cassin/Winn is the first of many developers who will be selected to build along the Turnpike Corridor. Theirs is the first of the "post Big Dig" developments, which some here call "the Big Rig."
Columbus Center will comprise two hotels, 343 residential units, parking, and street-level retail for a total of just under 1 million square feet (93,000 square meters). The developers originally put forth a vastly larger scheme but were literally booed-down by community groups.
A previous attempt to build over the turnpike on another site ended in rancor. In 1999, New York-based Millennium Partners sought to erect a similarly-sized air rights development five blocks to the west, which included a building almost twice the height of the tallest proposed by Cassin/Winn.
"With Millennium, there was no trust between the community groups and developers," Patrose says. "By taking their original project off the table, Cassin/Winn began the process of building trust."
Cassin says his firm has spent more than $5 million on the process already, including footing the bill for exhaustive environmental and project pro-forma analyses — with the consultants reporting not to him but to the community groups.
What to Build
But for all of his firm's community sensitivity, Cassin says he is dealing with a stubborn economic reality: It costs about $400 per square foot to build the massive platforms on which the project will rest. "You need 24 stories just to cover the cost of the deck," Cassin insists.
A designated developer with an approved parcel in a key Boston location would have a valuable asset; the trick is just getting to that point. Cassin and Winn still face several months of hashing out details with neighborhood and community groups before they can even negotiate a lease with the MTA.
Community groups seem to be most concerned about details like building height, number of parking spaces, and how much additional traffic will be generated by the hotels.
Stephen Hines, head of development for the MTA, says the project's scale needs to be resolved before lease discussions can begin. "It's hard to negotiate a price when you don't know what you can build," he says.
Meanwhile, some local architects are saying the Cassin/Winn vision is not bold enough. George Thrush, head of the architecture department at Boston's Northeastern University, sees a missed opportunity in what he calls the "unimaginative" civic vision.
"Instead of pretending (the Turnpike) never existed, why not view this as the single largest opportunity for a public vision?" he says. "We're missing an opportunity for a pubic representation in a private age."
Local architect and planner Wellington Reiter, who teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is considering teaching an architecture studio that would explore ideas such as making the air rights projects true gateways to the city.
"It would be nice if they could take advantage of the site, and that somehow there would be a recognition of what's beneath your feet," Reiter says. "It doesn't have to be completely covered up."
James McCown is a Boston-based architectural journalist. His work appears regularly in Boston Magazine, ArchitectureBoston and Metropolis.
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