Minding the Mass. Ave./Boylston Gap

I was walking on Mass. Ave. surrounded by U-Hauls and overflowing SUVs when I found myself at the intersection with Boylston, sitting atop the gulch between the Back Bay and the Berklee/St. Ceclia area. When you peer down into this vast trench, you see cars racing inbound and outbound along the Mass Pike.

But as you pick your head up, what you don’t see is a decent bit of streetscape. You know, the kind that you’ve grown accustomed to in Boston, with great stores, restaurants, and places to sit and watch the world go by. Instead, you face a gap, whether at Mass. Ave. and Boylston, Clarendon and Columbus, or any number of other stretches of the Pike that rend the city into pieces.

The cause of these interruptions is almost always the collision of transportation infrastructure, like highways today (and rail lines before them), with the regular street patterns of the neighborhoods above them. If you want to see this very clearly, go up to the top of the Prudential Center to the Skywalk Gallery, and look down on the city below. The fracturing of the city’s tight street geometries by the long arcing lines of the highway and rail lines is very visible.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Turnpike Air-Rights development is a wonderful way to repair these expensive and difficult rips in the fabric of the city. And not only that, the enormous public benefit that comes from re-stitching these gaps together with new buildings, sidewalks, and public amenities comes at virtually no cost to the taxpayer.

Or at least it should.

Bostonians have a wonderful ability to look at major urban opportunities as a kind of plague to be avoided at all costs. Allowing developers to build over the turnpike is like having the airlines compensate you with a new apartment for an overbooked flight. It’s a little inconvenient, but the benefits are great, and they last a long time.

Here’s how it works: The state, which owns the Turnpike and the development rights above it, puts out a request for proposals seeking to generate revenue from their under-performing asset, meaning an urban portion of the highway that is set in an open trench. But that asset is also under-performing for us, the neighbors. By allowing the developer to build a large building — and yes, it will be tall because the private real estate developer who develops the property for the state, must pay the very high costs of building over the highway while keeping it in operation — the public can leverage this private investment to our collective good.

We get new streetscape connecting heretofore estranged neighborhoods (think Bay Village and South End, for example), the state gets revenue from the development to pay down the cost of projects like the Big Dig, and — now this is where people have a problem — the developer makes a profit.

Now, I don’t want to sound like a shill for developers. This is my second post advocating for tall buildings and the public good. But if the public can articulate its interest in a way other than simply saying “no, we don’t want any large buildings here, ever,” then we might be able to see some truly innovative and public spirited developments along the Pike.

The first opportunity is at Mass. Ave. and Boylston. Berklee School of Music is working with the BRA to build over that most visible hole in the city. Of course I am glad to see action there, but it is worth noting that one of the best projects ever proposed for Boston was put forward for that very site more than a decade ago: A beautiful 59-story needle-shaped tower supported three large blocks of excellent, historically-scaled, urban development. Tony Pangaro, of Millennium Development Associates of Boston, and Blake Middleton, of Handel Architects in New York, gave us Boylston Square, a stunning proposal. That project died because of a mixture of the public’s fear of height, and a general antipathy toward the then Turnpike Chair Jim Kerasiotis. The new proposals are better than nothing, but they don’t hold candle to that project. Let’s hope they can get better. We’ve waited long enough.