The Ever Changing New Boston

Boston, today, is seen as one of America’s best cities. But this latest incarnation of what John Winthrop called the “City on a Hill” is a fairly recent one. The “New Boston” only came into being in the second half of the twentieth century. The “Old Boston” was described as a “hopeless backwater” and “tumbled-down has-been” of a city.

Credit for building the New Boston usually goes to a small group of “city fathers,” but credit should also go to the many residents who, in the 1960s and 1970s, engaged in a period of activism the likes of which Boston had not seen since perhaps as far back as the American Revolution. That sometimes rowdy activism even spread to two of Boston’s more sedate neighborhoods–Back Bay and Beacon Hill–when a proposed massive development project threatened to leave those neighborhoods, quite literally, in the dark.

The project was called Park Plaza and when it was unveiled in 1970 it was described as “a city within a city.” The proposal called for building a six-million-square-foot wall of mid-rise and high-rise apartment and commercial buildings along the south side of Boylston Street, topped by 650-foot-tall hotel at the corner of Arlington Street. The plan won the immediate support of government officials, the business community, organized labor, and the city’s newspapers. Because the Park Square area that would be redeveloped was not a residential neighborhood, initial opposition came only from the owners of the buildings that would be taken and torn down and their commercial tenants. It wasn’t until the newly-formed group called the Friends of the Public Garden got involved that opposition began to grow.

Concerned at the effect that Park Plaza would have on the Public Garden and Boston Common, the Friends, led by Henry Lee, joined a coalition that included the Park Square building owners and tenants, the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Back Bay Civic Association, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, and others in an attempt to modify the size, design, and impact of the project.

In 1971, when the city council held hearings on the Park Plaza plan, Henry Lee suspected that most of the councilors saw the Public Garden as just a neighborhood park for the very well-off. So in his testimony he introduced a newspaper photo of two kids returning to the North End after a day of skating on the frozen lagoon. But the most powerful argument against the Park Plaza plan were the conclusions of two environmental reports commissioned by the Friends. The first study showed that the shadows from the proposed wall of tall buildings would keep most of the Public Garden in the shade during most of the day for much of the year and the second showed those buildings would create a “sail effect” that could generate winds of as much as 60 miles an hour. “In terms of impact,” Lee said later, “it was the same as putting Mount Monadnock next to Central Park.”

In 1972, the Massachusetts Department of Community Affairs rejected the plan, in part because the developers had failed “to safeguard effectively the Public Garden and Boston Common.” A somewhat downsized version of the plan was also rejected. A third, somewhat smaller version was rejected by the new state Department of Environmental Affairs. In 1976, a final plan, in which the size of the project had been reduced from 6 million to 2.3 million square feet and the height of the hotel from 650 to 350 feet, was finally approved. But the developers then pulled out of the project, apparently deciding that if they couldn’t build it the way they wanted to, they wouldn’t build it at all.

The Park Square area was eventually redeveloped, but by various developers, in stages, and at a scale and in a manner that reflected the community’s concerns. The battle over Park Plaza showed that, in building the New Boston, the people of the city didn’t have to go along with every plan that was put in front of them. It also left the Friends of the Public Garden with a reputation as something of a giant killer. Some years later, Henry Lee got a phone call from someone in New York who was a member of a group trying to stop a massive project being proposed by the same developers in mid-town Manhattan. Lee recalled that the man said, “‘We have Robert Redford and Mrs. Onassis with us.’ Then he asked me, ‘Who did you have?’ I told him, ‘Oh, just a few tulip lovers.’”

(The above is an edited excerpt from the new book, A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel. It is reprinted by permission of the author and by the publisher, University of Massachusetts Press

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