Why Did the Building Cross the Road?

By Paul McMorrow | Boston Magazine |

Because for developers with projects on Boylston Street, one side is very different from the other.

It’s boom time for the Back Bay’s Boylston Street. The Mandarin Oriental is almost open, and developer Ron Druker is seeking to demolish the old Shreve, Crump & Low tower and build an office complex in its place. Yet amid all this, a much smaller project—Apple’s three-story glass store, set to debut this year—has caused the most controversy on the strip. Why? It’s on the other side of the street from the big projects. And on Boylston, that makes all the difference.

Border Dispute
Boylston has long been caught between preservationists and ambitious developers. The north side abuts Newbury and lies in the prudish hands of the Back Bay Architectural Commission, which dislikes demolition and mandates that all new development look and feel like the existing squat brick buildings. (The Apple project, which called for razing the Copy Cop store in favor of a modern structure, required lots of compromise.) The south side is far less restricted.

A Call for Tall…
City officials didn’t always see much worth in Boylston. A 1969 memo called it the "more marginal area of the Back Bay"; five years later, after the newly built Pru inspired more development, the city made Boylston a designated place for building big, thereby sparing the blocks of brownstones nearby. But there was a caveat: Because the northern part looked cohesively historic (as opposed to the south, which now had the Pru), the city started setting up architectural limits to ensure new buildings there would fit in.

…Then Recall for Small
In 1986, with Newbury solidifying its status as a retail mecca, officials were worried that shadows cast by north-side Boylston’s buildings would carry a block over and dim the shops’ glam. The solution? Even more vigorous restrictions on building heights there.

Road Sharing
Boston is notoriously preservation-obsessed, which irritates modern-minded architects. But some embrace the Boylston split: "It’s a proving ground for merging the best of modern design with older buildings," says Bob Miklos, founder of DesignLab Architects.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/03/why-did-the-building-cross-the-road/