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AT ISSUE: Blurred lines

Whether the milieu is social space, the workplace, residential life, transportation, or civic territory, what arises when the public and private realms intersect? This issue of ArchitectureBoston mines the boundaries that are muddied when these domains overlap, exposing the friction, and benefits, that lie beneath.


A long and winding road

by Jesse Brackenbury

The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway is a success for all. The public loves it: 987,000 came last year for its carousel, food trucks, Wi-Fi, and events, plus millions more enjoyed its fountains, public art, and gardens. It has spurred massive investment in nearby real estate. Philanthropists have contributed $25 million to the park. But the Greenway is a public space with a complex provenance.

As part of the federal Big Dig project, its blueprint was overseen by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, reviewed by multiple city agencies, designed by six landscape architecture firms, informed by community advocates, and complemented by four nonprofits designing cultural facilities for the Greenway. Yet the nonprofit Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy — responsible for maintaining, programming, and improving the park in a public-private partnership with the Commonwealth — was not involved in the park’s planning. The ramifications of that exclusion affect the public’s experience of the Greenway today, and the lessons learned must be applied in developing new public spaces in Boston.

Elements of the original design continue to impair the park experience. Visitors are insufficiently buffered from the car and truck congestion on adjacent roads; this unpleasant experience results from wide streets (intended to prevent traffic from backing up on the ramps) and flat park terrain (chosen to improve sightlines for safety). Since the Greenway wasn’t built to accommodate bicyclists, the Conservancy struggles to keep pedestrians safe from bikers in the park who just want a safe, attractive route from North Station to South Station.

Prioritization of specific design concepts trumped many of the finishes and amenities that enhance the park experience. An example: “View corridors” (combined with cost-cutting) resulted in barren plazas in front of the spectacular Rowes Wharf arch. Consequently, the Conservancy’s first improvements were focused on adding basics: scores of movable tables and chairs, dozens of umbrellas for shade, wayfinding signage, and electrical outlets. Other items, such as potable water, are still lacking. Having the park operator involved in the park planning would certainly have helped address operational considerations: The Conservancy cares for the park out of unheated, unlit outdoor storage units located four blocks from the park.

The Greenway hosts 300 free events annually, but not as the original design anticipated. A “Great Room” between State and India streets was envisioned as an event site across two park spaces by closing a half-block, but street closure is beyond the Conservancy’s authority and happens infrequently. Consequently, festivals are scheduled in other areas in the park, but these spaces’ infrastructure (and nearby residents) did not anticipate big events. The original scheme called for a café; by accommodating innovation, the Greenway has instead become a food truck hub.

Six years of operations have been instructive. The Commonwealth has just tasked the Conservancy with care of 1.3 additional acres along the corridor. New public-realm planning is under way through the Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Plan and a ramp-parcel study. As downtown’s public space is reshaped by the development the Greenway has spurred, the recent past must instruct our immediate future. ■


Studio city

by Aeron Hodges

I live with my husband in Boston, and we share a 375-square-foot studio. That may seem small for two people, but I grew up in a tiny apartment in Shanghai. Space was in high demand in the city, and families like mine lived in a communal housing typology adapted from many early-20th-century estates. The “Shi Ku Men” housed a half-dozen families sharing a small courtyard and a kitchen, where daily gossip was exchanged and childhood friendships were made.

Several years ago, when I was working in Tokyo, my husband and I lived in a simple, well-designed 200-square-foot apartment near Ginza. Although there wasn’t much room, everything we needed was readily available. There was no wasted space. Every object, from alarm clock to rice cooker, was essential and had its designated location. I strive to practice that level of precision and discipline in my own Fenway apartment.

There are many perks to living in the city, including convenience to transportation and proximity to various urban amenities, but these perks also come with a sizable price tag. Rent costs approximately $4 per square foot in the Fenway area. We had to make a choice between renting a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment for $2,600 a month or sharing a small studio for $1,500 a month. For us, the decision was easy. We chose to save on rental costs and adopt a compact living style, ceding a measure of private space in exchange for a stake in the city’s public amenities.

Sharing a studio is not for everyone; it is a lifestyle that requires extra effort. Without a separate bedroom, we have synchronized our sleeping schedule so that we don’t keep each other up. Meticulous planning is often needed for smart use of space. We scrutinize what we really need for living versus what we can live without. If the rental cost is so high and the limited space adds constraints to our lifestyle, why wouldn’t we move out of the city? I wouldn’t be able to take a 10-minute ride on the commuter rail to work.

We would lose the convenience of a supermarket at our back door, having more than 20 restaurants and bars to choose from for a night out, and our frequent walks to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts. The city is our living room.

We are not alone in sacrificing space in return for what the city has to offer. During a focus group study conducted by the research initiative WHAT'S IN, the majority of the participants preferred to downsize their city apartments if rents could be more affordable. As living costs keep increasing in Greater Boston’s urban core, many will be priced out of the city. Could compact living be a viable solution? How do you fund enough of such developments so that they become truly affordable? How do you alleviate current zoning constraints on minimum housing sizes?

Thinking about these questions, I couldn’t help but remember moments from the Shi Ku Men: the banter of our neighbors next to the clothesline full of drying laundry, the melodic Chinese opera playing on the radio next door, and the aroma of meals being prepared and shared. Living small will require us to share with others, but that’s also how we get to experience so much more. ■


Office space, the sequel

by Shawn Hesse

When sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe the coffee shops, cafés, pubs, and public squares that are not home (first place) and not work (second place) but still integral parts of our lives, the Compaq slt/286 laptop weighed 14 pounds and cost $5,399.

A lot has changed since 1989. New technology enables us to be truly mobile (a MacBook Air weighs just over two pounds today and costs $900). Demographics have changed, too: According to an annual survey by Johnson Controls, 79 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds want to be mobile rather than static workers. No wonder the distinction between “third places” and workplaces has become so blurred. And now that Starbucks offers wireless phone charging, working from the corner coffee shop is more feasible and desirable than ever.

Still, working from a coffee shop definitely has its downsides: no conference rooms, no private phone calls, talking to others is typically limited to “Is this seat taken?” Plus you have to pay for the coffee just to get Internet access. Cue co-working spaces such as the one I work out of — Workbar. Co-working offers the opposite of the Starbucks experience: You pay a membership fee, schedule the use of shared conference rooms and private phone booths, collaborate openly with your neighbors, and drink all the free coffee you want.

Co-working spaces serve as a blend of a second and third place that meets both professional and social needs. During my search to find a location for our Cambridge branch office, I toured multiple co-working spaces throughout Boston. As an architect, I immediately noticed the way the design of the space supported (or, in some cases, hindered) the promise of co-working to provide a flexible work environment that enables cross-fertilization of companies and ideas.

Some of the less successful ones look a lot like traditional offices, with glass walled offices lining the perimeter of the floor and a large communal space in the center. Others even use traditional cubicle-style workstations (shudder). The most successful spaces create a sense of openness and equality, and the furniture supports collaboration and community by removing barriers between individuals.

As with all architecture, there is a play between the static, built form and how the space is used. When synchronized, the effects of both can be amplified. Ideal co-working spaces aren’t just designed to promote interaction; the culture of community is consciously built through events and programming. Our firm, emersion DESIGN, has directly benefited from this. We have hosted a series of events in collaboration with Workbar and other co-worker organizations to promote sustainability, civic engagement, community building, and even zombie preparedness.

According to Forbes, there are more than 260,000 people currently working from spaces just like Workbar. That number was fewer than 10,000 just five years ago. As technological advances continue to reduce the number of cables necessary for us to work at a fixed somewhere, co-working spaces seem poised to change the way we think about our traditional second place. ■


Trafficking in luxury

by Phil Primack

Compared to other states, Massachusetts has been wary of public-private partnerships to meet the transportation needs that keep growing in inverse proportion to available funding. But with proposals percolating to privatize two key traffic points, and an anything-but-taxes new governor knowing he has to find infrastructure fixes, privatization may be about to move up the Bay State agenda.

The idea of contracting with profit-seeking entities to operate roads and other public operations has been around for decades — as has the often polarized debate about the process. Supporters see public-private partnerships as an infrastructure savior, enabling the supposedly more efficient and better-financed private sector to build and even operate costly projects. Opponents blast them as tax-dollar giveaways to unaccountable corporations that fail to deliver promised financial and other benefits while enriching themselves. Each side has its poster projects: Foes point to Chicago’s 2008 privatization of its parking meters, while supporters cite the more recent $1 billion Port of Miami tunnel project.

As usual, truth drives down the middle lane. Decades of experience, positive and negative, have made both the public and private sides much more sophisticated in how they consider and negotiate these partnerships. Chicago, for example, got $1.15 billion when it leased its parking meter operation to a private company, but officials there probably now wish they hadn’t locked the city into a 75-year deal that requires it to reimburse the vendor whenever it closes a street for repairs, storms, or other purposes. Two pending proposals in Massachusetts may show how well the players have learned such lessons.

Under one plan before the state’s Public-Private Partnership Oversight Commission, created as part of the state’s 2009 transportation reform bill, private investors would collect toll revenue to build a special travel lane along nine miles of congested Route 3 between Braintree and Norwell. (The state would remain responsible for maintenance.) The other proposal — much less formed so far, and with significant public opposition — calls for a third crossing over the Cape Cod Canal. Former Governor Deval Patrick wanted to advance at least one privatization proposal before he left office, and the state Department of Transportation says it will issue “requests for information” for both the Route 3 and bridge proposals this spring, with likely support from the new administration of Governor Charlie Baker.

If they move forward, both plans will ignite one of the biggest flash points sparked by road privatization, namely that it creates a two-tier transportation system, producing better travel options for people able to afford them, whether a Route 3 “Lexus lane” or a “Beamer bridge” to the Cape. Critics also contend that policies that make driving even more attractive conflict with efforts to encourage public transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Advocates counter that all drivers, including those stuck in regular, nontoll lanes, benefit from less congestion, which also reduces pollution.

The arguments are old, but the urgency of transportation needs and the Commonwealth’s severe capital crunch are not. And that means public-private partnership polemics may soon be flying in a political theater near you. ■


Blinded by the light

by Michael S. Dukakis

Thousands of visitors coming to Boston these days remark on what a beautiful city it has become. And it is, with one conspicuous exception: We are being assaulted by a rapidly growing collection of commercial billboards, street furniture, bus shelters, and — worse still — flashing electronic billboards that seem to be a clear violation of Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act. In a city like Boston, with its superb architectural and planning communities, this is difficult to understand.

Moreover, many of the sites for this visual pollution are on public property, especially that owned by the MBTA, even when they are strongly opposed by the communities in which they are located. Several years ago the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the T did not have to comply with local zoning laws. As a result, more than 200 billboards have gone up on T property when there were none — deliberately so — when I left the governor’s office.

If you don’t believe me, drive down I-93 from the north and take a good look at the 16 massive billboards that greet you as you approach Boston. There are so many that you have to look hard to find the skyline. They aren’t there because the city of Somerville wants them. They are there because the land on which they sit happens to be T property and is therefore fair game for the T’s advertising campaigns.

Approaching Boston on the Southeast Expressway is, if anything, worse, and we will soon be greeted there — as we are now on the north — by digital billboards flashing their messages as motorists try to navigate a difficult and often dangerous route into town.

Buses and streetcars are fair game, too. I never allowed advertising on the outside of vehicles during my administrations. Now, it is often a “wrap” — the entire vehicle is nothing but a rolling billboard covered with commercial advertising.

How has this been permitted to happen in the state that led the way nearly a hundred years ago, when the 1917 state constitutional convention passed a specific amendment making it crystal clear that the Commonwealth had the right to regulate billboards? And why is our public transportation agency seemingly using every available inch of its space for commercial advertising?

A few years ago, the T even opted to cover its street cars on Huntington and Commonwealth Avenues with liquor ads, apparently designed to encourage all those students along both avenues to drink even more. Finally, then Representative Martin Walsh and Kitty Dukakis persuaded Governor Deval Patrick, to his credit, that it was time to stop. The liquor ads have disappeared, but the rest is getting worse.

We took a South Station that was falling apart back in the 1970s and turned it into a magnificently restored transportation terminal. But have you been there lately? I am honored that the legislature and Governor Patrick named it for me. But that glorious hall is now littered with hanging advertising banners. The front entrance that used to lead directly into the great hall now features escalators to a second-floor CVS, and you can’t even see the great hall from the entrance.

There are better ways to generate revenue for the T and the Commonwealth than plastering the state with this stuff. Where are Boston’s architects, and why aren’t they raising hell about this? ■