Friday, June 25, 2010

Don Chiofaro going at it again: building on the Greenway?

For some observers, Don Chiofaro is a character out of Ayn Rand, the larger-than-life developer who muscles aside naysayers to create huge and exciting structures that fulfill his vision. For others, he is simply a bulldog, who insists on doing things his way, a person who, as WBUR radio put it yesterday, sees “development as a contact sport.”

He certainly is one of the more interesting characters on Boston’s landscape. Son of a cop, one-time captain of the Harvard football team, it's a good story line. The developer of International Place, who almost lost his building to his lenders, now wants to build twin (600’) towers on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, as squat and ugly a building as exists on the Greenway. Whether Mayor Menino objects to the substance of  the proposal and/or the proposer (the Mayor's press secretary denies the latter), the city insists the towers be just 200’, a zoning standard expected to be adopted at the BRA's July 20 board meeting. Obviously, if something were to be built, the answer lies somewhere in between, balancing aesthetics with economic feasibility, and Chiofaro would have to seek a variance from the zoning.

The monetary case for the proposal is clear: city and state tax revenues, linkage money, thousands of jobs. But dollars alone shouldn’t dictate what you build in a newly available precious space that could dramatically improve people’s quality of life and enjoyment of the seaport area of the city.

On its surface, the idea of building twin towers on the Greenway seems to contradict the very idea of what the Greenway was supposed to accomplish, replacing the Central Artery with open space and access to the harbor. But Chiofaro’s design has much to recommend it. The towers are sleek and bold, and, as architects observed in the Boston Globe, they have the drama and energy one sees in buildings springing up in Asia.

He’d provide an 88'-wide opening from the Greenway to the Harbor between the buildings. That's 70 percent wider than the path to the Harbor at Rowes Wharf. Chiofaro plans to create an enhanced pedestrian plaza between his site and the New England Aquarium. And, if he gets to build on the garage site, which he now owns, Chiofaro should be expected to take more than a passing interest in the ongoing enhancement of the Greenway. That would be a plus: the Greenway Conservancy needs all the help it can get.

For now, it’s one step at a time. Chiofaro is dealing with shadow studies, wind and other impacts. He is trying to convince people that his design can humanize the landscape and create a path to the sea. Kairos Shen, the chief planner for the city, says, according to WBUR, he has no intention of letting one developer hijack the skyscape of the city. But where was the Boston Redevelopment Authority when the mayor contemplated a since-aborted 80-story building over the Federal Street wind tunnel, adjacent to Winthrop Square? Meanwhile, the BRA requested data (a so-called scoping determination) from Chiofaro last summer and has yet to receive it. So the process isn't dead.

A multi-use development of the scope that Chiofaro proposes only happens with transparency and robust discussions involving city officials and community. Unless the city has a better alternative, Menino and Chiofaro need to drop the Hatfield/McCoy posture, roll up their sleeves and work together to make something happen.


  1. The state of public space preservation and building is so bad in the city of Boston, there is so much mistrust between the city government and the population, not to mention between the population and real estate developers and architects, that your call to get together is way too early.

    The population rightly distrusts the real estate interests as well as academic architecture which has been used to put a Harvard-type gloss on some really terrible buildings -- buildings which to judge by their results were designed by people who hate Boston and its residents.

    The public also realizes that if there is enough money behind a project, it will get through the government in spite of public opposition.

    All these things add up to paralysis and it will take not only a major effort in transparency in the planning process, as well as exposure of the money and favors trading hands, but also period of confidence building measures by the entire growth industry towards to general population.

    Total arrogance and disregard for the people was what led to the central artery as well as acres of high-rise building on top of populated neighborhoods. Maybe if development on the Greenway got away from this arrogant, top-down attitude some things would get done.

  2. This blog, while thoughtful, is poorly researched and reads like a press release from the Chiofaro Company - the fact that an 88' wide privatized slot through these monstrous buildings would be celebrated by the writer illustrates that she didn't bother to look at the existing zoning and state laws governing development on the site before leaping to the conclusion that Don Chiofaro is trying to do something good for the public realm.

    In fact, both existing zoning and state law requires development on the Harbor Garage site to leave 50% of the site area as public open space once redeveloped. Don Chiofaro's proposal would leave less than 10% of the site as open space, totally violating city and state law and doing nothing for the public realm by comparison. How does this meager slit through these towering, totally non-contextual monoliths qualify as a laudable public benefit when the developer is required to dedicate fully half the site over to public use with no towers on it? Also, the author seems to ignore the fact that the existing city zoning and state law limits the height of buildings on this site to 155 feet, only about 1/4 of what Don Chiofaro is proposing. Since when does violating the zoning law and corresponding state law by four times qualify as a public good?

    The author's suggestion that this is a simple quarrel between Don and the Mayor is ill-informed and ignores the facts, because the 155' height limits that Chiofaro is butting helmets with were in place before Tom Menino became mayor, and the most stringent laws prohobiting this kind of overdevelopment are state laws, not city laws. How come no reporter has treated this as Don vs. the Governor? Because none of them seem to have yet had the time or inclination to learn the facts before they take out their sensationalistic pens and try to drum up a contrived and highly over-simplified - as well as inaccurate - story.

    Marjorie, please - you're better than this. Learn the facts about the site, the zoning, and the state laws before you fall into the same trap as so many other reporters in town who take DOn Chiofaro's press releases as gospel and ignore the facts of the case. Thanks.

    -A longtime fan who values the truth over the headline

  3. My figures on existing zoning and what the Boston Redevelopment Authority is expected to do re: height limits comes straight from talking to the B.R.A. I don't think the proposed buildings are "monstrous." I think they are sleek and graceful, albeit too high. By contextual, do you mean that they have to look like every other brick building in the area? By contrast, I think that, on a smaller scale, they would add some of the vibrancy you see in Chicago's architecture. P.s. I've not seen Chiofaro's press releases and have not received a single one on this proposal. Please let me know what section of state law you think I would benefit from reading.

  4. I grew up in the 50s, awed by the Customs House as my skyscraper. I remember when the Prudential tower went up and was wowed by its height, visiting its observation deck many times. Height no longer impresses me, even from towers that might have the "drama and energy one sees in buildings springing up in Asia". I am concerned about a wealthy developer grabbing the waterfront for his profit by going after its view and light, even if he claims to be providing unparalleled access to it for the public. We spent a lot of years walled off from our harbor, and hidden under the shadow and noise of the elevated Central Artery. We should fight, long and hard, before we build another wall in our newly recovered area.