Downtown View: Boom Times Need Infrastructure

July 18, 2013
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Boston’s economy is back. People want to live in the city rather than commute from far off places. That’s the recipe for new office and residential development. But are Boston and the Massachusetts legislature ready to make it happen without burdening us with grid-lock and frustration?

A new proposal is from the HYM Investment Group. It would replace the Government Center Garage with six buildings of varying sizes offering retail, residences, offices and a hotel, while saving about half the garage.

Half the garage’s 2,300 parking spaces go unused anyway. Its bus station impedes pedestrian traffic along the Greenway. Its dark retail spaces go unleased. It creates a tunnel on Congress Street. The office space above is pretty dreadful too.

Gotta go. Most people agree it’s a detriment to the city.

Now that the neighborhood letters are in to the BRA commenting on the project’s notification form (PNF), nuanced trends of opinion have emerged.

On the positive side, most like this proposal better than the previous one, which was bigger and depended on acquiring properties the developer didn’t own. Another plus is that this project is located at a bus terminal, amid several subway stations, next to I-93 and the ramp to the airport, and about halfway between the two train stations. That means less stress from vehicles on city streets. A stack of three-bedroom rental apartments is also praised.

Some commenters like the way the proposed buildings step up from the Greenway. The green roofs, bicycle parking, an open Congress Street and a pathway connecting the Haymarket district with Canal Street are welcomed.

The complaints will not surprise you: Too tall, too dense, too much traffic generated on streets already too busy, too little planning for Government Center separate from the Greenway planning, too much construction over too long a period of time, and too much chaos from other projects.

If this project goes forward as HYM hopes, it would be built at simultaneously with Lovejoy Wharf, two projects near Causeway Street on Big Dig parcels, the Government Center T station, the Longfellow Bridge, possibly the Mass Eye and Ear garage and two towers adjacent to North Station.

Since HYM predicts it will take at least 10 years to complete all six buildings, there will be even more construction with which it will coincide.

Finally, the letters and those I spoke to worry that the pieces of the project neighbors like best—the smaller buildings near the Greenway and the open air Congress Street—are last on the list and may never get built at all.

You probably figured I have an opinion on this matter. If you read this column with any regularity, you may remember I like height and density. Maybe it’s due to origin. I grew up a couple of hours from Chicago. My favorite city in my first few decades reaches for the sky vividly and with muscle. It is also a fabulous pedestrian and transit city, especially along the lake. Inland, where the buildings are smaller, it isn’t as good.

In contrast, almost all native Bostonians I’ve known have nostalgia for the old neighborhoods, whether they’re still vibrant like the North End, or eliminated, like the old West End. They don’t like height and density. And mostly, that’s what everyone focuses on, forgetting that buildings need good tops—right now Boston has the Hartford disease of flatness—and vibrant, permeable bottoms.

But downtown Boston will never again build the Back Bay or the North End. Few parcels of land exist where small projects fit, and we’re not likely to tear down more 19th-century buildings. I had hoped for a boulevard in the Seaport District, where individual owners would build smaller buildings like those on Commonwealth Avenue, but it didn’t happen. The land in this city is too expensive. If you own a downtown home, you too benefit from high land prices because of lack of buildable space.

These projects come at a time when Boston and state government have yet to act on the demands of the next ten years, not to mention the next century. It’s all about infrastructure. Prosperity requires it.

The North End’s letter emphasizes this situation the most.

As Jim Salini, president of the North End Waterfront Residents Association, said, the subway trains he rides to work from Haymarket to MIT are packed. I-93 is backed up under and above-ground. Trains to New York are full. Cambridge Street is stopped dead at most hours of the day. (Remarkably, though, the Longfellow Bridge is free-flowing 23 ½ hours every day.) That’s what a good economy looks like if transportation needs haven’t been addressed.

The city, state and the MBTA have not prepared for this new bursting economy. In fact, the legislature just passed a timid, backward-looking transportation bill, with no funds for significant improvements. They’re afraid of raising taxes, when we all should be fearful of slowing growth.

Improvements in infrastructure are what we need, starting with transportation. Private developers can provide only pieces of this stuff. The only way to get legislators to act is for the city to give approvals to build these buildings, starting with HYM’s proposal. When it becomes too hard for Speaker Robert DeLeo, etc. to get into town, the legislature will finally provide the transportation funding we have needed for a long time.

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