On moving City Hall

Plus, Jimmy Carter chickens out after laying a rotten egg
By EDITORIAL  |  December 20, 2006

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Boston Mayor Thomas Menino may fancy himself an urban mechanic, but we’re beginning to suspect that he has an edifice complex.

Early in his administration, Menino staked much on the construction of the new waterfront convention center, which astounded skeptics with its distinctive yet practical design. Its lack of parking is a very real problem, but a solution is being planned.

Menino, who has a widely recognized capacity for obstruction, earned high marks for his role in helping to relocate and facilitate the construction of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s internationally acclaimed new home not far from the convention center.

And the mayor’s idea — more of a trial balloon, really — to get a good old-fashioned, for-profit developer to build an 80-story office tower in the Financial District is not only provocative, it’s, well, visionary: good for the economy (jobs), good for the tax base (new revenue), good for the skyline (needs drama). With the right market conditions and a proper review process, it could be a winner.

The jury is still out, however, on his idea to sell off the current city hall and build a new one on the waterfront. It is understandable that Menino has the waterfront on his brain. History will hold its transformation and development as being not only synonymous with his mayoralty, but probably his most enduring legacy.

Before the public sees fit to issue a giant check, it is important to keep this administration’s complete record on development in mind. It’s mixed.

The convention center, admirable though it may be, has yet to realize its promise. The rejuvenation of Fenway Park owes nothing to the mayor. Market forces, not municipal foresight, are what are transforming the larger Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood. (In retrospect, Menino and the legislature look either downright foolish or desperate in their one-time willingness to use a guarantee of taxpayers’ dollars to bail out the Red Sox’ previous dim-witted management.) And the city’s conceptualization of how to best use the downtown greenway made possible by the Big Dig has not been a profile in imagination. So let’s go slow with the idea of moving Boston City Hall.

Boston College professor emeritus Thomas O’Connor, the closest thing this city has to an official historian, noted in an essay published earlier this week how central City Hall’s historic location is to the life of the city. We would add to his thinking the idea that the open space of City Hall Plaza, as brutal and as under-utilized as it may be, nevertheless has calculable value as urban open space.

Open space is one of the things that make Boston so appealing, so livable, so humane. From Franklin Park to Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace of fens and marsh and parks that culminates in the drama of the Comm Ave Mall, the Public Garden, and Boston Common, Boston is — as cities go — an ecological delight.

Can City Hall Plaza ever be delightful? That is, admittedly, a tall order. But it is possible. Why not plant grass? Create a second Public Garden? Get funky: contemplate a downtown apple orchard. Follow the example of Paris: cultivate a world-famous flea market. With all the brainpower concentrated in Boston — and across the Charles River in Cambridge — it’s hard to believe that innovative and transformational ideas have been exhausted.

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