Can We Finally Save City Hall Plaza?

After 50 years, let’s revive that urban wasteland called Government Center.

Of course, his idea never took root. “We tried very, very hard to introduce the possibility of cafés and eating places around the perimeter,” McKinnell told a packed forum at the Boston Society of Architects this past January, all there to discuss the future of the plaza. “We were finally told this would not happen, because the city had made an agreement with the local tradespeople not to introduce anything into this publicly financed space that could in any way be competitive with their enterprises.”

The enormous ziggurat of concrete opened in 1969—without a rathskeller—and it immediately became the stuff of great debate, highbrow criticism, and out-and-out mockery. To many, it was ugly from the start and smacked of hubris. “I think City Hall Plaza probably in people’s minds is associated with the kind of strong hand of elitist leadership that existed in the ’60s,” Boston architect Henry Cobb, a partner of I. M. Pei, once told the Globe. “I think City Hall Plaza is perceived as an empty space left empty to make City Hall and government look grand and to make people look small.” Or as former Boston City Councilor William Foley said, “It makes Boston look idiotic.”

Still, City Hall Plaza received many rave reviews. The Washington Post’s architecture critic called it a “brawny, ebullient structure.” Renowned New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable loved the building but hated Bostonians, calling us uncouth, and decried the project for exhibiting an “architectural gap, or abyss, as it exists between those who design and those who use the 20th century’s buildings…. It will outlast the last hurrah.”

Over the years, City Hall has remained hotly debated as a public space, and the plaza never materialized as Boston’s next great gathering spot. That, however, may finally be about to change.

 

This summer, the city rolled out a thin carpet of AstroTurf on the plaza, where crowds gathered to sit in plastic lawn chairs and toss beanbags in a game of cornhole. Worn down and muddied from use, the hastily arranged bric-a-brac littering the “front lawn,” or the Washington Street side entrance to City Hall, hardly qualified as a renaissance. Still, no matter how lowbrow or simplistic, this so-called Beer Garden on the Bricks served as a sign from the Walsh administration that change was in the air.

In March, the city awarded hospitality management company and TD Garden owners Delaware North a $15 million contract to enhance City Hall Plaza. The idea of lush landscaping and trees—a mini Common—was ruled out long ago because the plaza is built on top of the Green Line subway tunnels, with less than 3 feet of dirt underneath. Nonetheless, the plan is to turn City Hall Plaza into a year-round leisure hub. Delaware North’s concept includes a sandy beach for visitors during the summer, an ice park in the winter, a full-service restaurant year round, and even a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel. The plan will likely take years. “The vision is ambitious,” the developer acknowledged in its financial filing with the city, “and several components outlined would require a commitment for a term greater than the three years outlined in the [proposal].”

I asked Dan Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff, how the city intended to succeed where others have repeatedly failed. After all, he acknowledged, it is one thing to roll out lawn chairs, and quite another to provide services that will draw millions of visitors each year. “We wanted to have a proof of concept that people would come if you built it,” he said. “People need an invitation. They need to feel that something is worth their time to go there.” The test was successful, Koh says, putting the administration one step closer to its goal of “really turning [City Hall and the plaza] into a vibrant and active new center of activity.”

But what about City Hall itself? The fact is, in recent years the building has become almost as desolate as the concrete badlands surrounding it. At one time, the lower levels teemed with people in a mad flurry of city business that could exist only in the pre-Internet days. Archived documents from 1961 reveal that the busiest part of the building was once the treasury department, with 2,900 public visits daily. Today, clerks there are lucky to see 29. Modern would-be visitors use smartphones and computers, clicking onto the city’s website roughly 23,000 times a day. As a result, the mezzanine level—designed for people to interact with counter clerks—is austere and empty.

A rathskeller could fit wonderfully here. “It is, in fact, a cellar,” McKinnell says, referring to the building’s lowest level. “So it would be perfect. It has ramps in it, so it is very easy to convert into public use.”

For the first time in Boston’s history, there are signs that the City Hall McKinnell and our predecessors always hoped for might actually be possible. The recent success of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Lawn on D, and the Boston Calling music festival shows that Bostonians will embrace these types of public spaces. Across the street, less than 100 feet away, are the thriving marketplaces of Faneuil Hall and the Boston Public Market—both desperate to expand. With 40 vendors, the public market has limited seating, and organizers struggle over whether to focus on farmstand sales or go all in as a lunchtime food court. The opportunity to extend onto the plaza and into a rathskeller at City Hall is obvious.

As one the oldest cities in the nation, Boston is fond of holding onto its past—even the gritty, unflattering parts. We’ve come to accept City Hall Plaza and its oppressive ugliness—a symbol of a time when the city was on the verge of failure—as a piece of our underdog story. Yet today we find ourselves in a very different Boston, one that is thriving and embracing change in ways our crusty Brahmin ancestors couldn’t have imagined. There’s never been a better time for City Hall Plaza to live up to its full potential: uniting tourists, townies, and transplants alike with an enticing public space and a populist watering hole. A new Boston deserves a new symbol.