Tag Archives: boston

Better skyscrapers

Consider Los Angeles. It’s enjoying an upgrade. With refurbished hotels, new residential buildings, a spruce-up of its gorgeous library and all the services and restaurants that come with a dense population, LA’s downtown is finally full of vitality.

It also looks good. One reason is the tops of some of its new buildings. In 2014, after much complaint from Angelenos about the city’s boring skyline, LA officials rescinded an ordinance that required its skyscrapers to have flat roofs to accommodate a rooftop helipad.

What’s Boston’s excuse?

Now consider Chicago. As much as Boston boosters brag about the many cranes dotting this city, Chicago is on steroids compared to Boston. Fifty-two high rises, such as the stacked Vista Tower, are under construction, and other gems —River Point and Aqua, for example—have recently opened.

The Second City has a reputation for gun violence. It is second, I’m told, not because New York is first, but because Chicago had to be built a second time after Old Ma Leary’s cow kicked over that lantern and burned the place to the ground.

But guns and its 19th-century rebirth are not its whole story. It’s the many beautiful new buildings, sculptural, reflective, light-filled that spread through the Loop and beyond. One building perches on a thin, horizontal line on the ground, with support beams rising at angle. It looks as if a toddler on a ladder could push it over. Even the Trump building, whose developer is not known for his aesthetic, is beautiful. Not all the buildings have interesting tops, but some do. I don’t know how Chicago seems so light and airy with all those tall buildings, but it does. From afar, part of the reason is its varied tops, some featuring steps, others points, some crowns.

Now consider Boston. Flat tops everywhere. Recently when I quizzed friends about a Boston high rise they liked, they came up with nothing.

We can do little about the buildings already built. But we can insist that buildings now proposed do better at the top.

That’s why I want to bring up Millennium Partner’s Winthrop Square project. The controversy over this building has been all about its shadow. But now that the Boston City Council has sent a home rule petition to the legislature that would exchange this building’s shadow for the shadows in the shadow bank, it is one step closer to being built.

If the legislature changes the shadow law, we’ll have little time to consider what has been ignored so far—the design—a clunky, rectangular box with a flat top scored by vertical protrusions. Surely, there are no helicopters in its future, so why must it have a flat roof?

Millennium uses the same architects, who employ glass and slight angles on the tops, over and over again. Some of the vertical setbacks on the new, dark Millennium Tower are nice touches, but this third tallest building in the city does nothing for the skyline. If Winthrop Square is going to get built, it is time for Millennium to do better.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency is partly to blame for making Boston’s skyline so dreary. It has paid attention to the ground level. But it acts as if tops don’t exist. The BPDA could issue directives to encourage more interesting design at the top. Like New York City did in the 1920s and 1930s, it could require some buildings to taper to reduce the amount of shadow on surrounding buildings.

After all, whenever a skyscraper is deified, extolled, copied and featured in books, lectures or other programs, it’s almost always a building with a great top. The Mies van der Rohe boxes are typically mentioned only as a style of a particular time. But neither Boston’s Pru nor its John Hancock nor the tall, banal boxes lining the Avenue of the Americas get attention.

When New York’s skyline is featured, the focus is still typically on the old, pointy-topped Empire State and the Chrysler building, although One World Trade Center gets some recognition. Other pictures feature the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The flat-topped, bulbous Walkie-Talkie building in London gained notoriety for melting a car with its convex reflecting glass, but in 2015 it was also voted the UK’s worst new building. When London skyline is pictured, the focus is on the Scalpel, the Gherkin and the Shard, all with distinctive tops.

So what makes a successful skyscraper? Chicago’s skyscrapers demonstrate many of the qualities—using excellent materials, taking advantage of perspective, employing colorful glass, reflective glass, good lighting, interesting shapes, good ground level activity, often step-backs, a middle emphasizing verticality and interesting tops. Boston needs to up its game.

City Council blahs

So last Tuesday, I go to vote in the city council preliminary election.

I think I’m pretty smart, but not smart enough I guess. There was no election—at least in my precinct. My district city councilor had no opposition. There were not enough candidates running at-large to hold a preliminary election anywhere.

“For an at-large preliminary election, there must be at least at least nine candidates,” said Elections Department chair Dion Irish. The preliminary winnows the field down to the eight candidates who will be listed on the ballot for the four at-large seats in the general election. This year only five candidates are running at-large, including incumbents Michael Flaherty, Stephen Murphy, Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu. The fifth candidate is Annissa Essaibi-George, a teacher and Dorchester shop owner. No winnowing needed.

Two city councilors, Frank Baker and Timothy McCarthy, faced only one challenger, Donnie Palmer and Jean-Claude Sanon respectively. So these districts did not need a preliminary election either.

Only two district councilors, Charles Yancey and Tito Jackson, had two or more challengers. So in their districts the preliminary was held and reduced the number of candidates to two. Yancey came in a far second behind newcomer Andrea Campbell but will face her in November. Jackson will face Charles Clemons Jr., who came in a distant second.

According to Irish, the turnout was only seven percent of the 78,000 eligible to vote in the two districts, plus me.

Walking home after my failed voting attempt I wondered why there was so little interest this year in running for the city council, no to mention voting.

The official barriers are low. Candidates must be 18 years old and registered to vote. District candidates must have lived in their district for a year. At-large candidates have to live in Boston at the time they apply for nomination papers, which was May 11. They had to fill them out and return them by May 19.

At-large candidates had to gather at least 1,500 registered voters’ signatures. District candidates had to submit at least 200. These were due on June 23. Candidates who wanted to withdraw had to do so by June 30.

Pretty straightforward. Since you now know how to do it, you too could run. Two years ago, with a heavily contested mayoral race, there were plenty of city council candidates. What’s this year’s problem?

Demographics, reduced local news coverage, expanded opportunity for minorities, fewer kids and air conditioning, said attorney Larry DiCara, a city councilor from 1972 through 1981. These factors have reduced interest in local elections.

The people who consistently vote, he observed, are older folks, public employees and political junkies (like him and me.) But the city’s population is bifurcated, he said, between poorer residents, who tend not to vote, and up and coming, well educated or wealthy residents who tend to vote only in presidential elections.

Mayoral elections might also attract some of those people. About 140,000 voters turned out for the last mayoral election, DiCara noted. But 255,000 voted in the presidential election the year before. “That’s more than 100,000 people who vote only once every four years,” he said.

Another factor in a declining interest in the city council is an unfamiliarity with city politics. “The reality is that young people understand national issues, but don’t understand what is going on down the street,” he said. Part of the reason might be that more Bostonians are from somewhere else, rather than having grown up here.

When DiCara grew up in Boston in the 1950s, “working in campaigns was part of what you did.”

Reinforcing the unfamiliarity are the news outlets. When DiCara was on the city council, he remembers the city’s newspapers each had three or four reporters covering City Hall at all times, and the radio and television stations were on hand, enjoying what was then a new building with enough electricity and lighting to run their microphones and cameras—not true at old City Hall.

Such coverage meant that Boston residents knew the city councilors and what they did. How many of the 13 city councilors can you name?

No longer is politics the only way up for smart young people. DiCara remembers when Catholics, not to mention other minorities, were unwelcome in the city’s law firms. “But now, if you’re a bright young person like Deval Patrick, you go to work for Hill and Barlow,” he said. “You don’t necessarily aspire to be in local politics.”

As for air conditioning? DiCara said that in the hot summer months of his youth, everyone sat on stoops because it was cooler there. They knew their neighbors and spent time discussing local matters. Now people are inside, isolated from the others on their block.

Fewer kids is another isolating factor. People often get to know neighbors through their kids, and the number of kids in the city has been declining.

We could hold elections on weekends, provide free air time for candidates, and try other methods to attract voters and candidates. “But I don’t know if there is away to make people care about what’s going on down the street,” DiCara concluded.

Too much trash

Bostonians complained about it in the 1920s. We still complain about it. It’s so common and yet so difficult to solve. Maybe new Mayor Marty Walsh’s team can put the matter to rest.

We’re talking trash.

Boston is dirty compared to other American and European cities. “We moved into the city nine years ago,” said one resident, “but we have been in Massachusetts for 36 years, and I cannot remember a time when we didn’t think Boston was dirty.”

They only place I’ve been that had more trash strewn about than my home town was Kolkata (Calcutta). Continue reading

A life well lived

Katharine Kane died last week at age 78. She lived in downtown Boston almost all her adult years. If there was a person who showed how one should live a full life, it was Katharine Elizabeth Fitzhugh Daniels Kane.

I know her full name and much about her, not because we were good friends, although we were friendly. I learned about her because I had the privilege of interviewing her three and a half weeks before she died. I also had interviewed her in years past and I took a course she conducted through Beacon Hill Seminars.

The impression I got about Kathy was that she was a person who seized every opportunity to be engaged with life, and she made the most of every advantage she was given. She was the only child of a prominent Indianapolis couple, but was grateful for her dozens of cousins. She made the most of a good education at Miss Porter’s and then at Smith by going to Washington after college and serving at the White House and then at the CIA. Continue reading

The history of saving history

The contretemps over 124 Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill, where a new owner contends the building is so unstable he has to raze it and neighbors say it must be saved, reminds me of an earlier attempt to eliminate a feature of a building.

Several years ago, a religious symbol rested on the peak of a roof visible in one of the city’s historic districts. A new owner, whose religion differed from that of the symbol, petitioned to remove it.

Although the neighborhood’s architectural commissioners were loathe to allow the removal, eventually they did, fearing they would face a lawsuit under the first amendment.

A home was found for the religious symbol. But within a couple of years, the petitioning owner had sold the building to a person whose religion embraced the symbol.

Why would a short-term owner care about what was on the house? Why didn’t he buy a house without a religious symbol? Why did he sell the house so quickly? Was he ever planning to live in the house, or did he buy it just to turn it around for a quick profit? Was he just some rich guy with no sense? It was all such a waste of the commission’s time. Continue reading