You’re Boston Mayor Tom Menino, preparing to address the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on a chilly morning in December 2006. You’re a 13-year incumbent who’s been dubbed “Mayor for Life,” and you’re used to getting your way. But you also know that, no matter what you do, people still grumble about your lack of “vision” — whatever that’s supposed to mean.
They want vision? You’ll give them vision. In a few minutes — while Boston’s corporate and political elite scrape the last bits of eggs and potatoes off their plates — you’re going to suggest selling Boston City Hall and its adjoining plaza, and building a state-of-the-art replacement on city-owned land on the South Boston waterfront. It is, you’ll explain, an inspired plan: it’ll pay for itself! Make city government leaner (goodbye, excess bureaucracy) and greener (hello, energy efficiency)! Spur development on the waterfront and downtown!
You speak — but instead of an ovation, you get awkward silence. Then, in the days and weeks that follow, the critics pile on. A majority of the usually timid Boston City Council pans your idea. The editorial page of the Boston Globe urges you to hire a city planner who’ll make you drop your harebrained scheme. The Boston Landmarks Commission — whose members you appoint! — takes a first step toward classifying the current City Hall as a landmark, a result that would prevent its destruction and almost certainly scare developers away. And at a City Council hearing on your proposal, the president of the Boston Society of Architects suggests that your plan would be bad for development — and bad for democracy.
How do you respond? Do you back off? Search for a compromise? Or press ahead with your plans to remake Boston?
Remember, you’re not about to become Boston’s longest-serving mayor because you’ve heeded the skeptics, who’ve needled you ever since Ray Flynn left to became ambassador to the Vatican in 1993 and you lucked into the acting mayor’s slot. No, you’ve gotten where you are — and put your imprimatur on the city — by banishing doubt, by following your gut, by dismissing dissenters as mere nabobs of negativism.
This, you remind yourself, is what the public wants you to do; that’s why you’ve trounced every opponent you’ve ever had. The answer is obvious: ignore the naysayers and put on your hardhat.
Mayor Menino has already done plenty to reshape Boston’s topography. There is, for starters, the visually stunning, parking-impoverished Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which was championed by Menino and hosted the media party prior to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (See Correction, below) There’s also the new Institute of Contemporary Art, which opened to great fanfare this past year and would be a neighbor to Menino’s new City Hall if the latter is built.
The continued existence of Fenway Park is also a sort of Menino legacy. First, the mayor helped quash the Red Sox’s interest in building a new stadium in South Boston; then, after publicly backing the construction of a new Fenway near the old one, he quietly did his part to preserve the original. More recently, Menino has called for a 1,000-foot-tall office building that would dominate the downtown skyline; he’s also planning to reconstruct the historic but empty Ferdinand Building, in Roxbury’s Dudley Square neighborhood, and fill it with a yet-to-be-determined slate of city departments.
And then there’s City Hall. If you’re new to Boston, it may seem odd that anyone would object to the prospective demise of either that building or the plaza that surrounds it. (While Menino hasn’t called for City Hall’s demolition, just its sale, the chances of any developer spending to convert the building to an alternate use are slim.) The plaza is a sweeping brick wasteland rendered even more desolate by the assorted bits of life — a few trees, a tiny farmer’s market, people exiting the Government Center T stop — that cling to its edges. City Hall itself is, to the untrained eye, an unwelcoming hulk of a modern building, distinguished externally by severe angles and pockmarked, dirty-gray concrete walls. (The architectural term for City Hall’s style — “Brutalist” — is a descriptive adjective that’s become a pejorative.)
Things aren’t much better inside. The building’s cavernous lobby is dominated by a massive, little-used staircase that’s slowly becoming a sort of civic basement: you’ll find a brown grand piano of indeterminate make there, a child-size podium, and some decorative urns Boston received from Kyoto back in 1968 (one of which now houses some used Kleenex). As for the murky dimness of the interior, three things are responsible: almost none of the lamps mounted on the ceiling seem to work; there aren’t many windows; and the windows that do exist are filthy.