Tag Archives: Boston

Caution: sterility

Pop-up district

By now most of us are familiar with the planned Entertainment District currently rising east of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex; a night-time view is rendered above (see construction cam here). This blog has discussed the inherent risks with creating “districts” from scratch, and with single developers or entities calling the shots, as opposed to more organic neighborhoods that grow over time with multiple participants. A very interesting article in Salon takes a dim view of this type of development, and is worth a read and discussion of its points.

It fills up for New Years

The author, Will Doig, takes Victory Park in downtown Dallas, TX to task. For him this is an extreme example of how banal an instant district can be (the main plaza is pictured above).  A much bigger project than Birmingham’s (think billions instead of millions of dollars), it includes luxury apartment and condo towers, office space, a park, restaurants, retail, a W Hotel and the American Airlines Center (home to professional basketball and hockey, as well as a concert venue). It has all been built over the last 10 years.

But it’s not New Years yet

While the main plaza and other public areas fill up during game time, New Years, and other special events–the neighborhood is otherwise quiet, according to Doig: its overpriced chain restaurants drawing too few patrons, and a revolving door of retailers leaving sidewalks empty (above). Keep in mind that there is still much more development planned for Victory Park, so perhaps it’s too soon to judge. But it’s hard not to take seriously the criticism leveled by Doig about the lack of vitality in this type place.

Everyone’s inside looking at the art

Doig also describes the Dallas Arts District as a related, but distinct example of the pitfalls of “designated district” development. A massive 68 acres of prestigious fine and performing arts venues developed over the last 30 years, it includes many well-reviewed architectural works (including the Dallas Art Museum above by Edward Larrabee Barnes, the same architect who designed the last expansion of the Birmingham Museum of Art). While there is much to admire about the high quality streetscape materials and refined architecture, street life itself is muted: unless you’re walking from an art museum to a concert, there’s just not much to do. It’s a mono-cultural district that suffers from too much of a good thing.

Ah, organic growth

The counterpoint to these listless new districts for Doig is Kenmore Square in Boston, MA (above), whose slow growth over time has resulted in an eclectic, mixed-use neighborhood that feels perfectly suited to Fenway Park without being contrived. The famous Citgo sign is a microcosm of the argument: first erected in 1940, it became so beloved by neighbors and Red Sox fans that when it was dismantled as a tired eyesore in 1979, a huge public outcry led to its restoration. It’s just one more quirky layer of the neighborhood. Such a sign today would neither be allowed under city ordinances, nor particularly loved by the public: it would be too new, too crass.

Which brings us to a final point–when Kenmore Square was first built out and connected to Boston with a subway line 100 years ago, it probably had little of today’s charm. Our best neighborhoods often need time to grow, breathe, rejuvenate, go through cycles before we realize we love them. If the entertainment district is expanded, ties together successfully with our own art museum and CBD to the south, Norwood to the north, is connected to great transit, and finds the right retail mix–it may prove Doig wrong. Since we’re investing so much money and effort into the project, let’s hope so.

[thanks to Bayer Properties for the Entertainment District pic; ecrosstexas and payton chung for the Victory Park pics; tilton lane for the Dallas Arts District pic; henry han for the Kenmore Square pic]

More beantown!

It certainly garners attention

After several weeks of travel, it’s back to Birmingham for a while. This post shares some images from last week’s trip to Boston–to get us all thinking and inspired. Above is Vassar Street in Cambridge, which runs through MIT‘s campus. MIT’s Stata Center (designed by Frank Gehry) is to the left. Subject to lawsuits and other controversy, it was a bold effort on the part of the university to bring more notable architecture to the campus. Vassar, and other streets, have been improved with wide sidewalks, bike lanes (sometimes in the road bed as shown above, sometimes integrated into super-wide sidewalks), and planting that makes a pleasant walking or biking environment.

Studying for the advanced astrophysics exam can wait

The pedestrian experience is enhanced by playing fields easily accessed from the street, where an MIT-Coast Guard Academy game was observed, above. The Hancock Tower in the Back Bay area across the river is visible to the right.

Where's my Dunkin' Donuts?

The downtown Financial District, above, is a mix of old (some very old) buildings, and newer structures. On a Friday morning it felt somewhat sleepy, with underwhelming foot traffic (a lot more than downtown Birmingham, but a lot less than New York).

The British are coming

Speaking of old buildings, this beautiful old windmill (above), converted to a powder house in 1747 (and subsequently a key rallying point during the Revolutionary War) is the centerpiece of Powder House Square in Somerville, a couple stops on the T from Harvard Square. Boston is full of this sort of heritage, and has done a great job preserving, labeling, and marketing its history.

But where will we all fit?

Back down the street at Harvard Square, the Graduate School of Design was holding an open house party (above) for prospective students in its main building, Gund Hall. Designed by John Andrews in 1972 in a sort of soft-brutalism style, it was to accommodate a maximum of 300 people. That number now approaches 900 and if it felt like it was bursting at the seams already in my tenure 20 years ago–it now has reached a new crisis. Design students need some space!

Tomorrow's cities envisioned today

Despite that lack of space, GSD students continue to conceive provocative designs in studios based not just in Cambridge but around the world. A student model was on display in the lobby, above. Student projects can be great challenges to how we conventionally think about buildings and cities.

For cheap beer best to head back to Somerville

Back downtown, the above restaurant Trade was spotted: kudos for the arresting graphic including bright yellow stripes. The graphic sensibility of Boston is generally subdued, so this one stood out.

Straight out of a Woody Allen movie. Except not in Manhattan

What better city in which to enjoy a literary salon than the famously well-read Boston? Above is an event at Beacon Press on Beacon Hill, in a lovely old building. Filled with writers, poets, and editors (and a few hangers-on like your author), it was a reminder of the intellectual fabric that supports the physical fabric of this city.

All about scale

Back out past Somerville to Medford and a visit toTufts University. Above is a nicely designed new dormitory building, whose modern detailing and careful massing make for a handsome, appropriate addition to this historic campus.

How to retrofit a roof

Tufts has recently renovated the roof of their library (above) using a concept of outdoor landscaped rooms and art. It’s fantastic (and so are the views to the Boston skyline).

Not really caring what the neighbors think

We leave Boston with the above image of a house in Medford near Tufts–complete with bright blue paint, bright blue vinyl fencing, plastic flowers in the planters, and a collection of plastic and stone figurines out front. Surely grandfathered from any current Design Review guidelines, it somehow still speaks to the pride and sense of place that’s evident in the many neighborhoods in Boston…

…even if the physical resolution of that pride is blue vinyl fencing and a plastic Bambi. Have a great weekend everybody.

A possible solution

Solving this problem becomes ever more urgent

The I-20/59 interstate connector that runs through downtown (above) has been mentioned in this blog and by many over the years as a real impediment to integrating the convention center (seen on the right, or north) with the rest of downtown (seen on the left, or south). The 2004 City Center Master Plan suggests submerging this portion of the interstate, creating bridges and plazas above that would re-link these two areas of the center city.

It's an improvement, but is it worth it?

Above is a rendering of the same view, with a suggestion of possible bridges, plazas, and landscaping. While preliminary engineering shows this can be accomplished, the price tag will certainly be greater than just replacing the existing connector with a similar elevated structure (which will have to be done anyway soon, as it nears the end of its useful life). Unless the highway is mostly covered over, allowing lots of green space and buildable area, will the effort be enough?

Over at Next American City, it’s worth reading this interview with John Norquist, current CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, where he discusses the success other cities have had in submerging or otherwise replacing similar downtown highways. If anyone comes up with another, less costly solution, we are all ears. But in order for the new BJCC entertainment district and the convention center itself to reach their potential, a solution does need to be found.

Beautiful in Boston, but the Big Dig was costly in many ways

The photo above is a new park located above a submerged highway in downtown Boston: a reminder of visible benefits this sort of project can bring to a city. The huge cost overruns and corruption associated with this Big Dig project are at the same time a cautionary tale. Birmingham’s plan is much smaller and less complex, to say the least. One way or another, we need to figure this one out. It’s too important not to.

[thanks to City of Birmingham, ONB and bhamwiki for the connector images and helveticafanatic for the Boston post-Big Dig pic]