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Edifice complex

Tom Menino has already remade Boston’s skyline. Now he wants to pack up City Hall and move it to Southie. Can anyone stop him?
By ADAM REILLY  |  August 2, 2007


All fall down: Boston City Hall may not be easy on the eyes, but it’s hardly the ugliest building in town. Consider the leading candidates for that title. By Adam Reilly
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.

Tommy’s town
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.

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Related: He's number three, Can Sam Yoon win?, Time for a big change, More more >
  Topics: News Features , AL East Division, American League (Baseball), Architecture,  More more >
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Edifice complex
if they only stop calling it "southie" there might be some hope...few would care...incompetence can flourish anywhere. but even damon and affleck can't turn around a such neighborhood legacy. at least with a relocation folks wouldn't have to come downtown to garner a pulitzer prize photo of the stars and stripes being jammed in the face of a public official and children on yellow school buses.
By jeffery mcnary on 08/02/2007 at 4:37:18
Edifice complex
If they keep the building, can they erect a plaque on the spot where George Regan "slipped on a wet floor" the night before a scheduled grand jury appearance? Only in soap operas and Boston politics do people actually get amnesia...
By rickinduxbury on 08/03/2007 at 1:32:04
Edifice complex
In response to the article so very astutely named Edifice Complex, I feel that it is the duty of every resident and every elected city representative to tell the mayor that this plan to move City Hall to South Boston is ludicrous and much too costly. Primarily, the location would be esthetically perfect but functionally dysfunctional. We need city hall to be transformed from a dingy, dirty, dark building where information and services are not offered in great enough amounts, to a place that glorifies the spirit of Boston with as much access to services as humanly possible. We need to bring government to the people, not further away from them. The locale on the waterfront will close off almost all of our areas of Boston to the halls of city government and make our municipality just that much harder for the residents of our community. When elected to city council at large, I will make it my business to represent the people of Boston in this way and I will fight to bring “Local City Halls” to every section of Boston. Please remember to change this idea of Menino’s Machine and the at large councilors whom do his work of keeping the people of our city out of the important, long lasting decisions for our neighborhoods. Thank you, Marty Hogan Candidate for Boston City Council At-Large
By Marty Hogan on 08/15/2007 at 4:27:16

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