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Keep City Hall Plaza

Mayor Walsh has asked for help in re-making City Hall Plaza. He has resorted to Twitter to re-invent, re-imagine, re-envision #CityHallPlaza.

In letters, radio commentary and Twitter, Bostonians have chimed in. Art exhibits, a baseball diamond, a roller rink, Yo-Yo Ma’s music garden idea, trees, an inexplicable suggestion for an “enhanced multimodal hub-ness”—all these ideas are great.

Except none of them will work.

I’d like you to consider a shocking concept: there is nothing wrong with City Hall Plaza itself. It’s the edges that make it fail.

(Full disclosure: I once served on a mayor-appointed panel that heard opinions on what to do about the plaza.)

Let’s concentrate on the plaza’s pluses. Find the bird’s eye view of the plaza soon after it was completed on #CityHallPlaza on Twitter. It’s not bad. The brick looks warm. Granite steps break up the expanse. The fountain is tucked in rather nicely.

The plaza functions well for one purpose—big crowds, whether it’s for a concert or a sports celebration. (Trees, a common suggestion, will get trampled by boisterous fans celebrating the next Red Sox World Series Championship, should that ever occur.)

City Hall Plaza’s architects are said to have envisioned Italy’s great plazas when they laid out theirs. Regrettably, most 1960s architects concentrated on whatever they were designing and forgot the setting their design was in. Copying the great Italian plazas, they noted the empty space, the majestic building at one end, the limestone surface, the activity. They ignored the feature that made those plazas successful—the edges.

Whether in Venice, Sienna or Rome, otherwise cold, windswept plazas are lined with dozens of cafes and restaurants filled with people. Those restaurants open early and close late. If you’ve visited Italy, I’ll bet you’ve crossed those plazas to find a spot to sit, sip a coffee or glass of wine, and watch the activity.

So here’s my recommendation: keep the design of the plaza. Remove that awful concrete and restore the old fountain. Re-lay the bricks. Pull out the weeds that make the granite steps buckle. Care for the trees next to the JFK building and plant the pits with flowers that someone waters. This fix is cheap.

Then rezone the edges. An eyeglass shop or an office supply store has no business being on the Sears Crescent side of the plaza. Neither does a blank back entrance to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans. Instead ask the vets to enliven their entrance, perhaps with a café that they run. Persuade Boston’s best restaurateurs to set up shop and spill out onto the plaza. Let them stay open late. But that’s only one edge.

Cambridge Street presents a challenge. A roadway is a disaster for Italian-style plazas. The farmer’s market helped, and food carts or Faneuil Hall-style trinket carts could too, and once many years ago, they occupied space there and were successful.

The last blank edge degrading the plaza is the JFK building. When a hotel was proposed in the 1990s, some objected to privatizing public space. But that use would have succeeded in bringing life to that edge. The feds objected to the hotel, claiming that windows facing the JFK would make it vulnerable to bomb-throwing terrorists. We didn’t yet know airplanes were a bigger threat.

If the feds are scared of having people nearby, they shouldn’t be located next to an active plaza. It is a long shot to persuade JFK’s handlers to invite activity into its ground floor, but it is worth trying. The state successfully did this at the Saltonstall Building across the street.

Meanwhile, activate the plaza with events and all sorts of things. Because of no good edges, it will take an dedicated leader and a lot of programming.

Bostonians should take comfort. We don’t have the worst city hall plaza. Visit Dallas, or go online to view their city hall and its surroundings, brought to them by I. M. Pei, the over-rated architect who laid out our regrettable Government Center.

Dallas City Hall is uglier than ours—hard as that might be to imagine. Roadways surround that plaza, and its surface is concrete.

As to Boston City Hall itself? Plant some ivy. Let it grow up the walls. And call it a day.


Do we have any privacy?

The notion of privacy has received much attention recently. I’m still waiting for someone to draw a reasonable line about how far to go in collecting information on the world’s population.

The new handwringing about privacy began when Edward Snowden, the contractor working for the National Security Agency, leaked classified documents to the press about the NSA’s activities.

He entertained us as he fled to Hong Kong, tried to get to Bolivia and finally settled for Russia. Poor guy. And he thinks the U. S. is bad.

His present life has some compensations. Apparently his girlfriend visits him in exile. He has been lauded with a whistleblower prize, a person-of-the-year designation, a teleconferenced speech at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, Texas, and films about his activities.

I have mixed feelings about Snowden and his revelations. Mostly I sympathized with the young man’s parents, who raised a smart son with a frustrating tendency to bring trouble on himself—starting with dropping out of both high school and college. I could imagine them saying, “Oh, no, Eddie. What have you done now?”

The privacy conversation continued with the juicy revelation that we were tapping Angela Merkel’s phone. I always assumed the Germans were tapping Obama’s or maybe Kerry’s phone too.

I’ll admit I’m mostly ignorant about spying. My information comes from spy novels. If you like them too, and you haven’t tried the works of Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, in addition to old favorites like John Le Carre, you’re in for a treat. So I have always assumed everyone is spying on everyone else. It’s sort of like the doctrine of mutual assured destruction with the atom bomb. If both sides have it, no one goes too far.

But if I know little about spying, I do know about privacy. It’s not the government I’m afraid of. The government has journalists scrutinizing every move. I’m afraid of private entities, unregulated, unobserved and operating with proprietary tactics. For most people it is irrelevant what NSA does. Electronics have already blown your cover.

It’s Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. It’s the iPhone that knows your location, helpfully (and creepily) displaying the correct time in your new time zone as you step off a plane. Your laptop follows you, showing your location when you go onto Google Maps and tracking your website visits and purchases. I once called Comcast about a problem, and they knew the television program I had been watching.

When you are out and about, it’s not the NSA, it’s all electronics that record your every movement. Cameras watch people in stores, hospitals and at intersections. Other cameras take photos of license plates as cars go through toll booths. Charlie cards record the time we tap through the fare gate. Library cards confirm the books we check out. The airlines know about your vacation plans. Your Visa card reveals a lot about how much money you have to spend.

Then there are the websites devoted only to digging up your dirt. I tried one—

It was unnerving. InstantCheckmate charged me $22.86 for one-month access to its data, which it apparently collects from all sorts of websites. It knew my name, age, address and phone numbers. Moreover, it knew all about my husband and our daughters, including their married names and home addresses. I have Facebook and Linked-in accounts, but neither of those pages has much information on them. How did they accumulate so much information about me?

The site promised to show any lawsuits in which I was involved as well as any court appearances I have made or arrests I have had, although some information required more payment. I decided I didn’t get paid enough for this column to spend more money on this website, especially since I knew I had never been arrested. I didn’t look anyone else up. I’m just not that curious about any secrets my friends might want to keep from the world.

I’m certain this is only one website of many providing accurate information that might be none of your business.

I can see how such sites as this are useful. If you don’t trust your daughter’s boyfriend, you can see if there is good reason for your suspicion. If you are hiring people, you’ve got a tool to learn about secrets they do not reveal on their Facebook page. The site asks you to agree not to use the information for hiring and several other purposes, but they don’t care if you do.

I’ve known people, however, for whom such sites could be devastating. A friend suffered from a stalker. Another friend had a sticky divorce, and she did not want her ex-husband to know anything about her life without him. Electronic information could bring danger to such people as this.

I hope we can settle on boundaries for the NSA. At the same time, I hope we can make private companies do their part in keeping our information private.

Saving space

So far this year, Bostonians have truly weathered the storms. Most people have kept their cool and maintained their good nature. I have also detected a note of pride in our resilience and bravery in the face of unprecedented snowfalls.

The T didn’t work. The city’s plows and melters had trouble keeping up. But the worst outcome was the mean behavior, unworthy of a class-act city, that came from some of those who decided the parking space they had shoveled out was theirs alone.

Two factors contributed to that behavior—the physical characteristics of a neighborhood and Mayor Marty Walsh. The Back Bay, the West End, Downtown and the Waterfront usually don’t have to manage parking spaces in snow. There is off-street parking in those neighborhoods, either in alleys or in garages connected to large residential buildings.

The North End, the South End and Beacon Hill have never had a culture of saving shoveled-out parking spaces. The South End’s gurus have actually written a rule against saving a space. In the North End and on Beacon Hill, the space-saving culture never took hold. A quick survey of my favorite fellow observers pointed out a few reasons.

No one in the dense neighborhoods of the North End and Beacon Hill has ever expected to find a parking space in nice weather, let alone after a snow storm when the piles hide every car. Residents of those neighborhoods have no sense that the space in front of their house has ever been theirs. Because those neighborhoods are centrally located there is less need for a car, and many cars sit unshoveled anyway.

The reasoning is as follows. Your car is in a legal space, no street cleaner will come by and have it towed, and you don’t need it anyway. Leave it there until the snow melts. You’ll save a lot of back-breaking work.

In neighborhoods without the central location and close T stops, more people have cars. Charlestown and South Boston fit that description. There are more single family houses in those neighborhoods, and, frankly, more space. So there has been a longer practice of parking near one’s house, if not right in front.

These neighborhoods have fewer students and young professionals temporarily living there, so it is likely they will know their neighbors and their needs. One Charlestown resident pointed out she knows the car of the elderly woman who has paid to have her space shoveled out. The woman usually parks there. My informant said she would never park in that woman’s space and neither would her neighbors. Good for them.

In the outlying neighborhoods, the only option is street parking, so it might seem more valuable. Beacon Hill and North End residents have many nearby garages, said my Charlestown observer. That’s not true for South Boston or Charlestown. Charlestown’s garages are mostly in or near the Navy Yard, far from many residents and cut off by the roads to the Tobin Bridge.

The dense, centrally located neighborhoods are also more public, said one observer. They are used to having shoppers, tourists, office visitors and other outsiders parking on their streets, even though every car is supposed to have a resident sticker. This public nature further erodes any thought they have that a parking space is theirs.

Even in the dense neighborhoods, this winter brought out some viciousness. North End residents suffered from several incidents.

The mayor gave subtle permission to be aggressive about saving your space, although he wouldn’t condone slashed tires. Apparently Mayor Menino said that after 48 hours, the city would pick up the space savers in shoveled out spaces, Mayor Walsh went further. He sympathized with the shovelers. He did not send out the guys who pick up the space savers until weeks after the storms.

You can probably tell I side with those who don’t believe in saving a space. I figure if I shovel out—and I’ve done so more times than I can count—someone else will take my space, but I will take another shoveled-out space. It seems selfish to save a space—like taking more than you deserve of our limited resources. As a North End friend put it: “[Space saving] propagates the idea that parking is a car owner’s “right” rather than a shared public benefit.”

I also realized a secret. A few times when I’ve seen a piece of equipment saving a space, I have picked up the equipment, set it on the sidewalk and gone on my merry way. Who are those drivers who think they own a parking spot? I polled some observers. It turns out there are many space-saver stealers like me. And I thought I was the only one.

So if someone parks in the space you claim is yours when you have gone shopping, don’t blame the driver. It could be the posse, made up of folks like me, who are making sure the public realm stays public.

Optimism or pessimism

My friend and I recently attended a public meeting convened by the Boston 2024 Olympics Organizing Committee.

It was entertaining in so many ways. The cast of characters was impassioned, especially the opponents. One cute girl from Somerville—probably around 20 years old, not yet a woman— was handing out posters rejecting the Olympics and asking for transit and education funding instead. Wouldn’t it be nice if things worked that way?

There were the presenters, who talked about “sport” not “sports.” One presenter was more impressive than the rest. Not only was Cheri Blauwet a Boston Marathon winner and a former Olympian, but she achieved her glory in a wheelchair. And, by the way, she’s now a physician who has time to join in the Boston 2024 effort. Listening to a person like Dr. Blauwet can make everyone wonder what important thing they’ve done with their lives.

There were the elected officials who, if they run a city or a state, have lined up in support. There were the legislators and city councilors, who seem miffed that they’ve not been properly consulted in the planning. There was the audience, packed into the main room as well as an overflow room. It was one more piece of evidence that Bostonians, quirky as they can be, are deeply involved in civic affairs.

As presentations, complaints, haranguing, praise, dire warnings of fiscal implosion, repetitions, hope and general mayhem ensued, my friend and I began noticing that the enthusiasm or the dire predictions had something in common.

Most of the speakers’ attitudes toward the Olympics were not based on fact, although “facts” were cited. Instead their position corresponded more closely to their outlook on life. Pessimists emphasized each detail that could go wrong. The optimists were less specific. They just thought problems could be solved, and they appeared to trust that the people who were running the show could bring it off.

My friend and I realized we were both optimists. We liked major initiatives. We’d started a few successful ones ourselves. We liked problems. We were confident we could solve them. We trusted that smart people like the presenters could also solve problems.

We remembered a Boston Globe columnist complaining that the “elites” of Boston were pressing the Olympics on us, almost as if he were jealous. But we saw those promoters differently. The reason they were elites was that the leaders of the effort are people of achievement. They run things. They’ve made money. They’ve held important jobs. Because of their success in their work lives, they can garner support from impressive quarters. We didn’t know any of them personally, but we could tell from the presentations that they too are optimists. Remarkably, these local leaders have reputations of honesty and good business practices. What lucky people we are to have those kind of leaders. It made optimism seem justified.

The pessimists attributed the uncertainty about venues, locations and routes to a “lack of transparency,” implying that the Boston 2024 people were hiding something.

But we considered uncertainty appropriate at this stage. Planning is an iterative process, and the word iterative is an important concept. Plans get made. Then they get adjusted. Then that adjusted plan causes a future step to become clear. That step causes the planners to reconsider an earlier step.

For optimists, this is exciting. Since I’m not a pessimist, I can’t tell what feelings it might cause for that kind of person. But it could generate caution. It could cause fear. Caution and fear could mean that no steps get taken, no problem gets solved. I know a person like this, who, when she led an organization, missed several opportunities to expand its reach.

Pessimists often see themselves as realistic rather than pessimistic. But optimists can view a claim to such “wisdom” as negative, possibly delusional. Most optimists would not call themselves realistic, although their confidence and hopefulness often carry them through difficult situations.

I looked online to see what others were saying about optimism and pessimism. A wag named Gil Stern said, “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”

The columnist George Will, one of the all-time great pessimists, wrote, “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”

But we’ll have to leave it to the optimist Harry Truman to address most closely whether Boston should host the Olympics. “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities,” said Harry. “And an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

It looks as if that’s what the Boston 2024 promoters are trying to do.

A handsome building

All the news about Boston’s central business district has been about the Millennium Tower and the remake of Filene’s.

Sitting around the tower, however, is a lot of old Boston, much of it built after the devastating 1872 fire. It isn’t yet known if the tower will prove to be as handsome as some of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures near it. Look at the nine-story, 100 Franklin Street as an example of one of the best buildings in Boston.

Its materials are first rate— white marble blocks, bronze details, decorative cast iron trim and a pair of Roman centurion torchbearers mounted on either side of the main entrance. The front façade curves gracefully to match the line of the street. Every detail, from the window grilles to the fire escapes, is beautifully designed and executed. The contractor was Norcross Brothers, who also built Trinity Church.

A bank now occupies the main floor, which has suffered from modern replacement windows and a newish, banal doorway. But the building is lucky in that other classical details have been preserved.

Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, an architecture firm responsible for many handsome Boston and Cambridge structures of that era, designed the 1908 building for the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company. It cost $1.1 million to build, said Robert J. Roche, archivist and records manager for Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, as the firm is now known. The City of Boston currently values 100 Franklin (or 201 Devonshire, as listed in official records) at more than $22 million.

Its occupants have included the Boston Stock Exchange and the Vault, a group of business leaders who met there as they helped instigate Boston’s urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s. Now one of its occupants is the building’s current owner, Synergy Investments, which maintains the building at a high level. It is 98.5 percent leased, according to the CoStar real estate database.

A building such as 100 Franklin is desirable, said Kirstin Blount, senior vice president at the real estate firm Colliers International, even though it does not have the large floor plate of newer skyscrapers. It is ideal for smaller firms, she said. Many of these older buildings exist in Boston since high rises account for only 29 million square feet in the approximately 63 million square feet of office space located in Boston’s business districts. The rent in older buildings, even when they are in meticulous condition, can be half that of a high rise or a new building.

The urban analyst Jane Jacobs loved older buildings, claiming they add variety in aspect, diversity in ownership and economic vitality. She believed that older buildings were required to keep streets vigorous.

But such buildings can be vulnerable. The Shreve, Crump and Low building at the corner of Arlington and Boylston is slated for demolition to make way for the Druker Company’s new building as soon as the company signs an anchor tenant.

While 100 Franklin Street looks as if its current profitability will enable it to last, it has no protection other than its owner’s good will. It is eligible for listing on the National Historic Register and is located in Boston’s Commercial Palace Historic District, designated by the National Historic Register. But those honors are not much protection, said Lynn Smiledge, chair of Boston’s Landmarks Commission.

The state-sanctioned historic districts such as those of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill have serious protections for historic structures, but there are no such Massachusetts-designated districts in Boston’s central business district, she said.

As for individual buildings, “the bar is high and the process lengthy,” Smiledge said about designating a structure as a landmark. “A building has to demonstrate significance beyond the local level or be the finest example of its style.”

That wasn’t the case for the old Shreve, Crump and Low building, even though many preservationists objected to its demolition.

Dozens of buildings in the financial district or Downtown Crossing are fine examples of the classical revival period, so 100 Franklin, for all its beauty, has company. Few older buildings demonstrate state-wide or national significance even though they may have interesting local histories. Unless a building is threatened with demolition or significant change, it typically sits on a “pending” list for a local landmark if it has any paperwork at all, said Smiledge.

For now, such beautiful buildings as 100 Franklin Street serve proudly as contrasts to the high rises, most of which in Boston are made of lesser materials and possess little interesting detail. Perhaps the qualities of the older buildings could be the jumping off point for the design of some of the new high-rises in central Boston or the Seaport District’s mid-rises. We could do worse.