NEW YORK, New York -- Boston is a spirited city, but it has a few problems. Here's an interesting story about Beantown that spins three of the city's biggest problems together:
1) Firstly, the city has never really recovered from its brush with "urban renewal" in the 1960s, which saw about 1/3 of the downtown core of the city demolished to make way for ... (you'll love this!) ... an elevated highway in the middle of the city; a "development" of two apartment buildings with big, pointless lawns (left), parking lots, Brutalist government buildings on a vast empty plaza and a hospital building, which now take up a large chunk of downtown and look like a slice of Moscow on the Charles; and a second highway cutting through the city center. So much of Boston, despite its fame as an historic, colonial city, looks like shit.
2) A second problem is that Boston thinks of itself as a small city. New York is the closest big city, but Boston obviously can't compete on size. So it gets Napoleon where it can, and picks fights over insignificant thinks like baseball. Where it counts, Boston thinks very small, very unambitiously. The Big Dig (which did nothing more than sink a half-mile of roadway) aside, the biggest the city wants to think is when it builds a branch library in the Mattapan neighborhood.
This may be due to the self-esteem issues of the city. Just 15 years ago, Boston was the headquarters of at least 6 substantial regional, national and international banks: BayBank, Bank of Boston, Fleet Bank, Shawmut, First Boston, and State Street.
BayBank and BoB merged, as did Fleet and Shawmut. Then the two combined banks merged. Then Bank of America, of North Carolina, swallowed them all. Nazi gold looters Credit Suisse ate up First Boston. State Street remains, but is rumored to be a target for bigger banks, perhaps the one that helped Boris Yeltsin steal international development money.
Moreover, local industrial giant Gillette was bought by Ohio's Proctor & Gamble a few years back. Mergers generally aren't very kind to the hometown of the company that gets eaten, and lots of Boston companies have been eaten in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the hot new life sciences and tech companies in the area are generally based in the suburbs, where large floorplans (the better for labwork) are easier to come by, and cheaper.
For whatever reason, Boston seems to be dead-set on being a small city. Even though much of its area riiiight outside the city center is decidedly suburban -- and not exactly thriving economically -- the city stubbornly refuses to build these areas out more densely, with areas a mile from the city center as densely built as the outskirts of Helena, MT. That results in the area's 6 million people sprawling out to Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Boston is the big city that wants to be a county seat.
3) Mayor Tom Menino is the third big problem the city has. Boston is known for its role in fomenting the American Revolutionary War. John Hancock, Sam Adams and Paul Revere sparked the independence movement in this onetime hotbed of democracy. And yet its politics are orders of magnitude less democratic than that of other US cities (e.g., New York). The mayor has almost unchecked, arbitrary say on whatever he wants, neutered City Council be damned. (Here and here are the latest stories about the man.) And Hizzonah Tom "Turkmenbashi" Menino has almost never seen a real challenger in his nearly 20 years in power.
In a city known for its high level of education, Menino appears to be functionally moronic, to boot.
Why such political malaise? Take some machine politics, add voter apathy, and subtract any reform-minded outsiders or businessmen who might give the mayor a run for his money. (Note to Mitt Romney: If you care about doing good for the state you live in more than you do about being an attractive version of Rush Limbaugh, run for mayor of Boston.)
With those three elements in place, the story, as promised, goes like this:
Given its small-town mindset and autocratic mayor, it may come as no surprise that real estate development in Boston is controlled by a cabal of developers close to the mayor.
One of them, Ronald Druker, builds lots of garbage "landscrapers." That means buildings that are very long while at the same time not very tall. Sort of like fat-kid buildings, or choad buildings. This is okay, though, because Mayor Menino wants to make love to Mr. Druker (or perhaps he actually does make love to him), and nobody's opinion about what happens in Boston matters but the mayor's.
Enter developer is Donald Chiofaro. He's a bit of an ugly duckling because the mayor is said to hate him.
Both of these developers now have projects they're proposing. Mr. Druker wants to raze a 100+-year-old building across from one of Boston's most famous, historic and photographed spots, the Public Garden. It was the first public park in the country. The Arlington Building he wants to raze is considered by architectural historians around the world to be a unique example of Beaux-Arts neoclassicism mixing with a nascent Art Deco -- the first beginnings of one of America's most original and successful styles. A group of neighborhood supporters and architecture fans (full disclosure: I am among them) have tried to prevent the destruction of the building.
Mr. Druker, in the best tradition of Boston razing its beautiful old buildings to build shit, wants to put up a "landscraper" that he promises will be the "most expensive office space in Boston." It will also serve as a parking garage for hundreds of cars. He argues that he is compelled to build this new building because the Art Deco building is in a state of disrepair and can't be used. It is probably no coincidence that he has owned this building for years and coincidentally didn't invest in its upkeep; nor is it a coincidence that he raised rents on his tenants to kick them out in a recession, later saying that he "couldn't find" any tenants after the rents were raised to exorbitant levels.
Mr. Chiofaro, on the other hand, recently bought a parking garage near the harbor. This parking garage was built in the 1980s, when the area was right next to the elevated highway and no one wanted to invest in an office or residential structure in the middle of an exhaust cloud.
Today, Mr. Chiofaro wants to build a set of skyscraper residences on the site of the parking garage. The towers would be near the park that has replaced the elevated highway. What's this about a park, you ask? Rather than sew up the old neighborhood that was razed in the '60s by allowing stores or homes on the area, a park was built, and the city also bought up lots of adjacent land to have as more parks. Mayor Menino is currently determining what height limits there will be for buildings around the park, since wee, small little Boston can't have shadows over any grassy areas. But since there are few buildings around the park that aren't parking garages, there's little reason to go to the park. And since the only scenery around the park is more parkland, it's a pretty boring, standard park. So it's almost always empty (see below).
Mr. Chiofaro's idea seems pretty good. Boston has almost no residential skyscrapers, and building a few would meet strong existing demand (at least not during economic collapse). It would also help bolster Boston's wimpy skyline to supply a more cosmopolitan, big-city feel that might help attract businesses and more residents from out of state looking to live the city life. And luckily, Mr. Chiofaro's development doesn't involve destroying any of Boston's history or aesthetic ensemble.
Mr. Druker's idea, on the other hand, is atrocious. He wants to raze a beautiful, landmark structure (in a historic zone designated by the National Historic Register), and put up a squat landscraper in its place. I'd say that Mr. Druker's proposal belongs in a suburban industrial park, but that's what Mayor Menino seems to want Boston to be.
Of course, this being Turkmeniston, the mayor has been pulling for his pal Druker's little piece of "urban renewal" while impartially and diplomatically telling the Boston Herald that Chiofaro's project has the chances of "an 80-degree day in January" of getting built. What do you think will happen, dear reader? Well, we're dealing with an autocracy run by an incompetent fool. Since 1776, Boston has gone from one of the largest cities of the New World to a sorry little suburb. It has few scruples about wiping out its historic and architectural integrity. And it's ruled by a man with Turkmenbashi's iron (or gold-plated?) fist, though arguably without the intelligence it takes to run a Central Asian satrapy into the sand.
I hate to sound pessimistic, but here's my likely outcome (at least there aren't any shadows on the lawns):
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