Archive for the ‘Ideas, Opinion & Commentary’ Category

Improving Public Space at Boston City Hall Plaza

The City of Boston has recently put out a call for ideas to re-envision City Hall Plaza.  Boston City Hall is a controversial building, a mid-century modern example of Brutalism that some people call the ugliest building in Boston.  I’ve even heard it called the ugliest building in the world!

There are some cool things I’ve learned about the architecture of the building such as the honeycomb of windows on the top floors indicating where the city worker bees have their office being joined to the public on the ground floor by the large shapes of the Mayor’s Office and City Council chambers.  The “brute” in Brutalism comes from the shape of the raw concrete that makes up the bulk of the building resting like a sculpture on a brick base.  I think the unadorned concrete’s aesthetic difficulties are what leads to City Hall’s reputation as ugly.

Nevertheless, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder and while I will not offer an opinion on the attractiveness of City Hall, I do believe that it fails as a public space.  Some of these failures can be addressed by modifying the building. For example, the entrance from the plaza is hidden and unwelcoming and should be redesigned.  The gaping auto entrance on Congress Street should only exist at a suburban office park, if anywhere, and not opposite Faneuil Hall, one of the city’s most historic places.  The lower floors in the interior are also dreary and cavernous, with a long line of glass-plated counters along the far walls adding to the general unfriendliness of the building.  Architecture fans want to preserve City Hall and taxpayers appreciate not spending money on a new city building, but I believe these problems should be addressed to make City Hall feel more like it belongs to the people.

The biggest problem for City Hall, I’ve long felt, is not the building itself by the massive 200,000 square foot plaza that surrounds it.  The architects wanted to send a message by having their Brutalist sculpture on a plinth surrounded by open space providing a panoramic view, yet to many Bostonians that message is an extended middle finger.  The open space accentuates the inaccessibility and unfriendliness of the building making it feel more like a fortress than a Palace of the People that it ought to be.  While the plaza is sometimes used for concerts and public events, it is a generally empty with no protection from the elements.  I remember once attending the Scooper Bowl and had to give up because there was no escape from the hot sun.  That’s right, City Hall Plaza made free ice cream not fun!

So my idea for revitalizing City Hall Plaza is to fill it up with small-scale buildings broken up by winding alleys and parks spaces.  When I catch a glimpse of City Hall from Washington Street or from the alleys of the Blackstone Black, I’m impressed by how interesting and attractive the patterns of its structure look at the end of the street vista.  Since City Hall looks best in small bits rather than all at once, my plan would emphasize its architectural strengths while also bringing it back to the city from its island of isolation.  Filling the plaza would also allow for a variety of landscaping, architecture, and activity that will make the area around City Hall a welcoming and attractive place where people will want to linger.

I below I’ve drawn a quick and dirty plan I drew on a Google Map of what the new City Hall neighborhood could like. A more detailed explanation follows after the illustration.

chp

 

Green Space

On the map above you will notice that there is still a considerable amount of area dedicated to open, public space. These areas are indicated in green above. Unlike the sun-scorched, wind-swept City Hall Plaza of today these public spaces will be planted with trees, shrubbery, and flower beds as well as various fountain, sculpture, and other public art.  Benches and picnic tables will encourage visitors to linger for a while.  There are four distinct types of public space:

  • The Triangle – Beneath the overhanging balcony of City Hall is a triangular space which would have less landscaping and more open space (kind of smaller version of today’s plaza) that would encourage a gathering place for public demonstrations, celebrations, and street performance, as well as provide a perspective to view City Hall.
  • Promenades – three promenades lead to the Triangle: one from the MBTA station, one from Cambridge Street (and the Center Plaza complex opposite), and one to the federal building complex.  With landscaping to provide shade and beauty, these promenades provide a visual link among the architecture of the are.  They also are functional walkways providing direct routes for the 20,000-30,000 pedestrians passing through the area each day.
  • The Circle – a green area surrounded by buildings near the JFK Federal Building that can serve as a lunch spot for local workers and respite for tourists.
  • The Amphitheater – the stage on the north side of City Hall used for summer concerts and festivals will be upgraded into a permanent venue for live music, dance, theater, and public addresses.

The narrow alleys that wind among the new buildings will also be an important public space.  My hope is that a person wandering along the alleys will see something at each turn that will surprise and delight and be encouraged to linger.

Buildings

The black shapes on the map above represent the footprints of small buildings on the scale you may find in the heart of an ancient European city or more close to home, the Blackstone Block across Congress Street.  I drew 16 different buildings, which may be too many, but whether it’s 16 or 12 or 10 or 8, I believe there should be several buildings intersected by winding ways that prohibit motor vehicles. It is my expectation that these would be small-scale buildings, ranging from about 3-6 floors in height.

While there would be a master plan specifying general rules for design, I would like them each to have unique architecture.  Instead of one big project by one big architectural firm and built by one contractor, the land should be parceled out to multiple firms each creating their own building.  Participants in construction would be encouraged to experiment with architectural styles and materials, blending and contrasting with the variety of buildings already surrounding the plaza.  This smaller approach also means that many smaller local and minority-owned architecture and construction firms can be encouraged to participate instead of big companies that typically get to work on a project like this. In fact, a different building could be built by companies representing different neighborhoods of Boston, emphasizing the centrality of City Hall to this great city.

The ground floor of each building will be dedicated to retail space – restaurants, bars, and cafes (with tables spilling out into the alleyways and promenades in pleasant weather) and shops of all kinds.  As a contrast to Faneuil Hall Marketplace which features more tourist-oriented and high-end shopping, some effort should be made to have shops and services that meet the needs of Government Center employees and residents of adjacent neighborhoods with things like a dry cleaners, delis, or even a child care center in some of these ground level spaces.

The upper floors of the new buildings would be primarily office space, although I suppose one may make an argument for residential apartments or even a hotel in some of the buildings.  I imagine that some buildings could be joined together with a picturesque bridge over an alleyway connecting upper levels of the buildings to allow for larger companies.  I think a brilliant idea though would be for the city to retain hold of some office space.  The city can help fulfill its initiatives for innovation and small businesses by providing low-rent incubator space to innovative local companies.

My idea is a big idea but Boston is a city that has a history of building on big ideas – from filling Back Bay to building America’s first subway to the Big Dig. There would certainly be a considerable investment that would have to go into bringing this idea to fruition, and yet the new buildings would also provide a new source of taxable income.  And yet even with the income, I believe my idea would provide many tangible benefits to the city, including:

  • vibrant, multiple-uses of underutilized public space
  • preserve unique and varied architecture of City Hall and surrounding buildings in a way that shows of their best side
  • create a new city center where people come together to work, shop, dine, drink, and play.

I hope this plan would help make the greatest city in the world an even better place. Let me know what you think about my plan, and any ideas of your own in the comments.

Retropost: Let it Snow x 3

With another foot of snow falling on Boston today, I thought I’d dig up this old post from 2008 about winter songs.  Sometimes you need to sing to keep from crying.


 

You may not believe it, but I spend inordinate amounts of time surfing the web. One day idly paging through Wikipedia’s list of Number-one hits, I discovered that the song “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow” performed by Vaughn Monroe was the number one song in the USA for five weeks in 1946. This surprised me for two reasons. One, I never thought of this little ditty we sing at Christmas time as hit record material. Two, the song charted in the weeks from January 26 to February 23, well after the Christmas season was over.

Listen to Vaugh Monroe perform “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”

Of course, if you look at the lyrics for “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” as written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne you’ll realize that the song has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. It is merely a love song set in wintertime. I’ve long wondered why so many songs we sing at Christmas time have nothing to do with Christmas at all. “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Marshmallow World,” and perhaps the most ubiquitous “Christmas” carol of all “Jingle Bells.” It’s become a cliche to add the notes of the “Jingle Bells” chorus to the end of a recording of any Christmas song, but there’s nary a mention of Christmas in the lyrics. Couldn’t one enjoy a vigorous sleigh ride through the country in January, February, or even March?

That many popular Christmas songs of the 20th century were written by Jewish songwriters may play a part in the emphasis of winter imagery over baby Jesus and Santa Claus. But I think that at one time people liked to sing songs about the winter. If you think about it, the way these winter songs have been typecast as Christmas carols would be kind of like only playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the 4th of July with patriotic songs like “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”

So I’ve come up with an idea. Now that we are a week past Groundhog’s Day*, why don’t we have a national celebration of wintertime by singing and playing these old classics. It could be an annual tradition every year from February 9-15 to acknowledge that whether the groundhog saw his shadow or not that we can make the best of what remains of winter in a joyous carnival of singing.

Who’s with me?

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

* Note: I also have a great carol for Groundhog’s Day.

Massachusetts – Public School Kids Really Need Your Help!

MASSACHUSETTS Supporters of Public Schools‬ URGENT HELP NEEDED! You do NOT need to have a child to do this!

Lobbyists paid for by funding through the Walton (Walmart), Gates, Broad and other 1% backed Foundations are hard at work trying to gain more of your tax dollars by lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts.

If you feel you need more information, details on how Charter Schools hurt Public School funding can be found here and here.

Tell our elected leaders that if you lift the charter cap, it will close good public schools.

 

If you have a few minutes – and we hope you do!

Help Massachusetts Public Schools receive the funding they need.

Here are a few simple things you can do.

 

Please act quickly. The lift the cap bill maybe voted on as soon as Wednesday, July 16th.

 

  • Call your Senator and ask them to vote NO on Senate Bill 2262. Senator contact information can be found here. (If you’re not sure who your senator is, you can search for the answer here).  All you have to say is: “I am calling to urge the Senator to Keep the Cap On Charter Schools in Massachusetts and vote “NO!” on S2262.”
  • Sign this petition, asking Senators to  “Keep the Cap” on Charter Schools
  • Post a link to this page on your facebook page. Ask your friends to help too! (copy/paste – it works!)
  •  If you want to be a total hero, and again, we hope that you do, you can call all of the senators.

 

 

 

Massachusetts: Don’t Lift the Charter Cap

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

From: Citizens for Public Schools in Massachusetts:

Update: Senators to Vote Tomorrow on Charter Cap Bill!

We’ve learned that House Bill 4108, which would, among other things, lift the cap on charter schools in so-called “underperforming districts” is scheduled to come up at a caucus of Democratic senators Thursday (that’s tomorrow) at noon.

Votes can still change after that, but if you have an opinion on this and you haven’t talked to your senator yet, today would be an excellent day to call. Talking with an aide is fine too.

CPS’s June 2013 report, “Twenty Years After Education Reform: Choosing a Path Forward To Equity and Excellence For All,” includes a full chapter devoted to the facts on charter schools in Massachusetts. Click here to download the full report. (See Chapter 4 for information on charter schools.) Click here to download the executive summary.

The report found that Commonwealth charter…

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Remembering Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou died this week on May 28th.  You’ve certainly heard the news and read many tributes, but I wanted to add one more.  I think Angelou was one of the most significant Americans of the 20th century in all her influence as a poet, author, activist, spiritual leader, teacher and all the other things she accomplished over her long life.

On the day she died, I remembered on social media that I’d heard her speak once at the College of William & Mary Convocation ceremonies in August 1993.  I thought it was the most inspirational speech I’d ever heard.  Other friends shared their own memories, some who were also at the Convocation event and some who were in other rooms with Maya Angelou and some who even met her.  All the memories were positive with a mix of awe and inspiration from her wisdom.

Anyhow, one friend found an article about the Convocation address and another posted a recording of the speech, so I thought I’d share them here.

angelou

So long, sister Maya.  Your wisdom will continue to inspire down the generations.

Related Post:

 

 

“Zombie” bill angers public school parents

Liam:

It’s really brazen how the representative of a tony, mostly-white suburb has done an end run around compromise and democracy to force this bill through the house. I really can’t imagine that the citizens of Wellesley see it in their best interests to underfund public schools in urban areas. More likely, Peisch is not representing the interests of her constituents but those of hedge fund managers like DFER and billionaires like Bill Gates and the Waltons. If only more elected leaders were as brave and honest as Sonia Chang-Diaz.

Originally posted on Parent Imperfect:

zombie bill The Parent Imperfect took the time this past Wednesday to write that no deal had been reached on the bill to lift the cap on charter schools in our state. Normally, the failure of a bill to get a positive recommendation from the relevant committee would be the kiss of death, at least for the current session. But this is not just any bill. As many feared, the failure to gain the support of the Joint Education Committee created only a minor annoyance for the drive to create open season on charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

Little did I know that the people in the Massachusetts Legislature who feel that lifting the charter cap is the critical next step in educational reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wait 24 hours to resurrect the idea. Before Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz could even communicate with her constituents about what had happened, her illustrious Joint…

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A “Third Way” or the charter way?

Liam:

More thoughts on the current BPS Budget Crisis and the effect that the proposed charter cap compromise may cause.

Originally posted on Parent Imperfect:

Chicago charter poster The Parent Imperfect has a strong sense that the fix is in on lifting the cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. I fear that the fix will leave public school districts with less resources to educate the vast majority of students in the state that will always attend traditional public schools. As always, the kids will pay the price of a bad “compromise.” The Dorchester Reporter reported yesterday that Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes have reached a compromise to lift the current legal limit on charter expansion (the charter cap).

It’s important to note that this is a compromise between two legislators intent on raising the cap, and charter boosters in the community, like the Mass Public Charter Schools Association and Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation. I have nothing against either legislator: It just seems important to be honest about what has happened. Parents, teachers…

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