Looking Out: Measuring The Greenway’s Success As Gateway To The Waterfront

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Greenway District Planning Study: Shadow Study--Based on Utile May 2010 massing.
Information courtesy of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Graphic by Jesse Costa/WBUR.

BOSTON — At one time in Boston’s history, the harbor was the city’s commercial and cultural center — crowded with shippers, fishermen and people doing business with them. But what is Boston Harbor today? In the first of a summer-long series that takes a fresh look at the waterfront and islands, “Looking Out: A New View Of Boston Harbor,” we start on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

The Greenway is the crown jewel of the Big Dig. It was supposed to be many things: A parkway, a museum center, a tourist mecca. And it’s envisioned to be the gateway to Boston Harbor.

But, many years and millions of dollars later, is it meeting that promise? We went down to the fountain on the Greenway and asked: Does this feel like the gateway to the waterfront?

Here’s the sort of thing we heard:

“Yes, because of the breeze. But I wouldn’t say you can actually see it.”

“You can’t see much. You can hear the horns of the boats.”

“You can smell it. It’s in the air. Whether you can see it or not.”

Feel it. Hear it. Smell it. But we didn’t hear anything about actually seeing it — the blue water, with boats sliding by. Which left us wondering: Exactly how much water can you see from the Greenway?

We asked city officials. They said they never studied it and didn’t know. So we decided to find out.

Kairos Shen, Boston’s chief city planner, looks at plans for the Greenway in his City Hall office. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

We bought a measuring wheel — one of those rolling sticks that police use to calculate distances. We can’t exactly vouch for its accuracy, as it cost us a whopping $10, but we figured it would at least give us some sense of how much or how little water view you get from the Greenway.

And we started walking … and wheeling. Starting outside South Station, we measured the distance to the North End, at Christopher Columbus Park, where there are no doubt great waterfront views.

Here’s what we found: There’s a lot in the way. Office buildings, a hotel, a garage, the stockade fence in front of the Harbor Tower, even trees can really block the view. Over the course of our journey — 3,474 feet — only one-fifth of the time did we have any kind of view of the water. And for less than 150 feet did we actually get a good, steady view of the harbor front.

Kairos Shen, the chief planner for the city, admits there is a lot more to be done. “We have to, wherever possible, expand the openings to the harbor,” he says.

But he says there is a prime piece of real estate on the waterfront that could be developed to open up the view. The Harbor Garage, right next to the New England Aquarium.

Developer Don Chiofaro stands on the Greenway near the Harbor Garage, a structure he hopes to tear down and erect two tall towers in its place. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

The developer has a plan to tear it down and build two huge towers in its place, with a walkway running between them to the harbor. In the developer’s words, “the opportunity here is to create a large opening — a hundred-foot wide opening — that draws people through the building so that you can find the water and you can use the water.”

Sounds almost perfect. Except the developer is Don Chiofaro, who is white hot as far as city officials are concerned. He’s earned a reputation for treating real-estate development like a contact sport.

In fact, Chiofaro has ruffled the feathers of Mayor Thomas Menino to the point that the mayor wasn’t even willing to discuss the matter with us — much less engage with Chiofaro himself.

Which is too bad, from the perspective of people we met on the Greenway, looking over at the old garage. As one woman told us: “I wouldn’t tear down any historical buildings. But, go ahead, get rid of the garage. Nobody really cares about a garage. I know there’s not a lot of parking in Boston, but…”

The complaint from city officials is that Chiofaro wants to build too tall. His plan calls for twin towers reaching up to 625 feet — so tall, officials say, that they’ll cast long shadows on the Greenway.

Chiofaro calls the shadow argument a red herring and says the city is missing an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. “We’re going to change the view from the harbor as you look back to the city,” he says, “we’re going to create an iconic structure that’s going to help define, symbolize what the city is.”

“When the state was doing the Big Dig, they told us the Greenway would be Disneyland and the Champs-Élysées.”
– Peter Meade, Greenway Conservancy chairman

But Shen, chief city planner, says iconic or not, he has no intention of letting one developer hijack Boston’s skyscape, even if it opens up a water view.

That’s why Shen asked us not to measure the success of the Greenway in inches and feet alone.

“The notion here is not how many feet of opening you would get of the water’s edge,” he says. “The question is where are they and are they in the right places. In some cases, tight but very, very appropriately located openings can have much greater impact.”

Peter Meade, who watches over the park from his perch as Greenway Conservancy chairman, takes it further, saying it’s not even necessarily about people seeing water. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be a gateway and it can’t be a place where people stop to get to the water,” he says.

Most importantly, Meade says, people need to stop thinking about the Greenway as the harbor gateway, and start thinking of it as a gateway.

“There’s been too much put on the Greenway,” he says. “When the state was doing the Big Dig, they told us that the Greenway would be Disneyland and the Champs-Élysées. We can’t be the only gateway to the harbor. There have to be multiple gateways to a great harbor that we have.”

Use of the Greenway is on the rise. Praise has been heaped on the new food vendors who recently opened shop, Wi-Fi access is coming and soon there will be new outdoor furniture.

You’ll never dip your toes in salt water there. But the Greenway’s success is growing, inch by inch.

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  • Phil Celeste

    Your presentation of the Greenway piece was quite unfair, as it cast Don Chiofaro in a very negative light – implying he is unreasonable and giving an unfounded presumption of a negative relationship with Mayor Menino.
    Furthermore, you failed to mention that Don Chiofaro, at great risk and effort, built both International Place Towers – two architectural marvels and outstanding additions to the Boston skyline. As for the shadow on Don’s proposed project – most of it will fall onto the bay, and the benefit to Boston will far exceed any negative of a project of this height. I have listened to other pieces on WBUR on Don Chiofaro and I sense a distinct prejudice towards this man, that would not be given another developer given the same circumstances. I could actually imagine WBUR supporting this project as brilliant and beneficial, if the developer was not named Chiofaro. Why is this? Perhaps you have friends in Harbor Towers, the 600 pound gorillas in this project whose towering condominiums already obstruct Boston Waterfront for the benefit of a few luxury condominium owners. These condo-owners who are vehemently opposing Chiofaro’s project did not think provide a street-level gateway to the waterfront when they built their boxy monstrosity.

  • EIO Boston

    Amen to that

  • Bob Hebeisen

    Measuring the success of the Greenway by adding up the views of the harbor seems pretty silly and arbitrary. I find it to be a nice place to walk around and people-watch. And it certainly is a dramatic improvement over what was previously there: the hulking, rusting structure of Rt 93.

  • BOS

    You should have used Google Earth to measure linear distance. You could have saved $10. But then your report would only run half as long.

  • Charlie

    So the BRA & the city would rather a garage than a major development in this prime location. That makes alot of sense. Who cares about shadows. This is the city. Shen couldn’t plan a two family unit in Somerville never mind the Greenway.

  • Webb Nichols

    The attached article was written for the Boston Globe in June 2004:

    Rose Kennedy Greenway (D3)

    Set aside for good the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Everybody is trying too hard to make something work that wont. It is not a real urban open space opportunity. This opportunity should not be there in the first place. It is an after thought resulting from the brutal imposition years ago of an elevated vehicular expressway which required the wholesale demolition and removal of significant and vital parts of the heart of Boston.

    The proposed Greenway is not the result of great civic intention. It is clumsy remediation at its best and that is why so many capable, talented, and experienced people are struggling over what has become an artifact of
    a project without a sustaining organizing premise. Open space is not the answer.

    Given the scar left after the removal of the expressway, two major competing organizing ideas exist for the treatment of the residual space- One, to insert structures compatible in height and location with the texture and mass of the surrounding city in a way which reinforces the existing street patterns and the sense of progression and extension toward the water’s edge and two, to see the residual space as an opportunity for a grand boulevard or open space hopefully embodying the ethos and spiritual significance of the Esplanade and the rest of the Emerald Necklace.

    The first organizing idea makes sense. It repairs the scarred and severed tissue of the original city and elevates the importance of the water’s edge. The second organizing idea, although more compelling in its apparent power and simplicity at first blush, relies heavily on wishful thinking as the Greenway open space
    will in fact continue to sever not link the communities of buildings and their inhabitants on either side and continue to present to the viewer the ragged and random edges of the old meandering right of way, the remaining scars of the Expressway.

    What is important to and about Boston is its water’s edge. It was said once” Water is the best edge a city can have. It creates at the same time a barrier and a sense of unlimited space. It reflects by night and cools by day. “

    A waterfront is any city’s most valuable asset. We are drawn to it in ways we do not fully understand .A Greenway would also diminish instead of enhance the benefits and impact of the waterfront by drawing attention away from Boston’s watery boundaries by its mere presence.

    Those upon whom the Central Artery decisions truly rest might consider this modest proposal:

    - By consent, throw out all legal constraints regarding open space requirements but save those
    requirements regarding building height, massing, and material color.

    - By consent, place buildings in the Expressway right of way which reinforce those streets which
    lead to the water’s edge.

    - By consent, build small, internal, visually separated and contained, multi-accessed local urban public
    spaces which recognize important buildings and neighborhoods along the right of way.

    - By consent, change the idea of the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the Rose Kennedy Livable City
    Project and build multi-use structures for people to live and work in.

    - By consent, use the development and tax revenue from the Rose Kennedy Livable City Project to
    - fund over the years other city and state urban improvement projects.

    The idea of naming the Central Artery Project, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, always smacked of an attempt to bring consent and closure to an unending public debate and struggle through the implied power of and sentimental attachment to one of Boston’s greatest families.

    Somehow it was believed, it appears, that nothing could stand in the way of the finish line now that the Kennedy name was invoked.

    Now, invoking that famous name seems more exploitive than fair, more simplistic than thoughtful.

    I suspect that if Rose Kennedy were asked whether she would like her name attached to an open space or to a new community containing places in which to live and raise families, places in which to work and play, bringing lasting life to the city she loved, she would choose a new community.

    We might consider doing the same. In point of fact, rebuilding the central artery is more appropriate in terms of economic development, social responsibility, and urban design.

    Rose Kennedy cannot encourage us to do the right thing. We have to use judgment that prefers results over means, assistance over authority, and shared commitment over special interest.

  • benster

    so let’s take down all those buildings and trees so bob oakes can see the water.

  • Anne Michelle Lowe

    “You’ll never dip your toes in salt water there. But the Greenway’s success is growing, inch by inch.”

    No you won’t dip your toes in the water there, and why would any person want to? This water is the Boston Harbor, not a recreational beach. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a vast improvement and a work in progress. This is a bizarre expectation of a location that was once a highway.

  • Tom Palmer

    If you want views of the Harbor, you should have called for the old elevated Central Artery highway to be retained and rebuilt — drivers had some great views while sitting in traffic. No one ever said the Greenway was going to provide views of Boston Harbor for pedestrians. It’s the proximity that’s important The promise of the Greenway — 100 percent fulfilled already — is that it would reconnect the downtown portion of the city with the harbor, whereas the elevated highway had placed a forbidding wall between them.

    Further, if line-of-sight views for those on foot are important, please note that the state’s Chapter 91 law says that, in any redevelopment of the Harbor Garage (or any waterfront site), 50 percent must be open space. No covered atrium lined with pastry shops between two towers even comes close.

    Finally, thank you for posting the BRA’s shadow study. It shows dramatic new darkness on key spaces of the Greenway (like the fountain) for hours at a time — and that’s if a developer were allowed to build to 200 feet. Just imagine the impact if the height were more than 600 feet.

  • http://johnakeith.com John A Keith

    ” … just imagine the impact of a 600′ tower.” Yes, I have and I imagine it would have the same net effect on the Greenway as a 200′ tower would have – how would a higher tower have any additional affect since it would only hit the Greenway at the exact same times as the 200′ tower.

    Mr Palmer should be ashamed of himself for making comments on this board without identifying himself as a shill for the owners of condos in the Boston Harbor Towers at 65-85 East India Row.

  • MRT

    Boston will never be a world class city as long as people want to keep development down. Between Mumbles’ private vendettas and overly powerful neighborhood associations (back bay I’m looking at you), very little gets built here. There’s a housing shortage that benefits nobody except the wealthy, which keeps neighborhoods from growing and developing. I moved here thinking Boston was a dynamic place, but I was wrong. It’s not awful, but it seems like those in power only want the status quo.

  • M T W

    You forgot something here. The rest of my short conversation with Lisa where I told her sure tear down the parking garage but NO don’t build another monster
    tower.We need more green space and SMALLER buildings.
    I thought an interview with WBUR would be forthcoming.
    You cleverly omitted the rest of my words. Perhaps you did
    this because most of the people you have spoken with
    don’t want to see more irresposible development in Boston.
    Mr. Shen is correct in his approach.

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