City Hall Plaza

Tremont, Court, and Cambridge Streets
Boston, MA

Contributed by Project for Public Spaces

This notorious product of late-'60s "urban renewal" is over 30 years old - can a renovation solve its deep-rooted problems?

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Why It Doesn't Work

This is one of the most disappointing places in America - not just because it failed so utterly, but because it has been a failure for so long. Boston is a great city and this reviled place has been its centerpiece for over 30 years. This is really what's truly a shame.

Why so little progress? For one thing, the design community keeps trying to redesign this place instead of thinking about how to manage it to create a real community there. It proves once again that design competitions accomplish little if nothing in creating great places. What does this say about design in a city with so many prominent designers (as opposed to placemakers) - a city where all the truly successful places are older?

While some places in the Hall of Shame have at least a few redeeming characteristics, everything about City Hall Plaza and the surrounding Government Center is all wrong. Bleak, expansive, and shapeless, it has an exceedingly poor image in a city where image should be paramount. It conveys nothing in the way of information about Boston, its history, or its sense of place. The buildings around it are uninteresting and devoid of activity and the streets around it, too wide; all of this contributes to a lack of access (despite the fact that five subway stops are in the area). The layout and changes in grade deny the natural paths that people want to take. There are no vistas here, and natural connections - such as the one to Fanueil Hall across the street - are actually discouraged. When it comes to activities and uses, you'd be hard-pressed to find a worse place. This barren, alienating place has little if any activity - let alone a simple place to sit. Sociability is minimal at best.

It's possible that City Hall Plaza could be redesigned and given a management plan to make it work. But the best solution for fixing this place is the most drastic: take down the buildings, tear up the plaza, and start all over again. After all, wonderful neighborhoods were demolished in the '50s and '60s to create awful places like this under the aegis of "urban renewal." Maybe a new kind of urban renewal could signal the end of brutal architecture and bad places as a centerpiece for cities.

History & Background

Built by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles between 1963 and 1968, the design for Boston City Hall and its accompanying plaza won a national competition to replace a 90-acre "urban renewal" site with today's Government Center. This area was formerly a working-class neighborhood with winding streets (like the rest of downtown Boston), where an international contingent of seamen and merchants frequented taverns, vaudeville and burlesque shows, and other bawdy entertainment houses. Nearby - but effectively cut off thanks to the design of Government center - is Fanuiel Hall and Quincy Market, birthplace of another trend in urban planning: historic preservation via the "festival marketplace."

Contact Info:

MA Office of Travel & Tourism (in the Gov't Center) - 617-973-8500

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