Human scale is a huge issue in Boston's new Seaport District

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent

Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company The Boston Globe Sunday, July 19, 1998

Last week, the City of Boston sent for help.

It put out a call for an outside master planner, someone who can help it figure out what to do with the most fabulous development opportunity in the city's recent history.

You could say the city's appeal was like an SOS from the Titanic - a little late, maybe, but not a bad idea.

The area in question is the Seaport District, a thousand acres of largely vacant land that stretches around and beyond the new Federal Courthouse along Boston Harbor. Bigger than the Back Bay, fronting on water, and just a stone's throw from downtown, it's got developers salivating in the current boom economy.

But it's also been a subject of controversy. Last winter, the city issued what it called an Interim Plan for the area. Nobody much liked the plan, including this writer. But it turned out to have a salutary effect. It rang the alarm about the need for something better. The city put development on hold for a few months. It asked for advice from several of Boston's nationally known designers. And now, as noted, it's looking for a master planner to put everything together.

Other people heard the alarm, too, and came as volunteers. It turns out that Boston is still a place where citizens, including busy architects and urban designers, are willing to put a lot of free time into trying to improve the city. Most notably, the Boston Society of Architects created a SeaPort Focus Team that soon grew to 44 members. In June, it released a visionary and thought-provoking plan of its own.

The need is urgent, because big landowners in the area are already charging ahead with ideas you wish they'd never had. Fidelity Investments has built a Seaport Hotel that deserves a prize for utterly blah architecture. Now Fidelity proposes to flank the hotel with office towers in a complex that appears, judging by the company's own rendering, to be so un-citylike you can't believe it isn't out on Route 495 somewhere. It's the formula of the suburban office park: big boring buildings surrounded by useless plaza space.

Crowded, cheerful sidewalks? Forget it.

There's an existing image for what the Seaport will end up looking like, if it all goes the way of the Fidelity project. The image is Kendall Square in Cambridge. Left to itself, that's what the market will produce - except that the Seaport will be a lot bigger than Kendall Square. Call it the Ten Kendall Squares neighborhood - or maybe Kendall Squared.

Nobody, least of all the city planners at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, wants that. And those planners, after all the grief they got for their Interim Plan, have been pretty receptive to new suggestions. Last week's appeal for help, in the form of a Request for Proposals from prospective planners, makes some points that seem inspired by the work of the architects' group and others. For instance, the master planner will be required to:

Also: "Although the major roadways in the district are currently under construction, a secondary street network must be developed to project view corridors to the water and to accommodate service access and parcelization for a wide range of uses." In plain English, cut the huge city blocks, which were a dismal feature of the Interim plan, into more human-size chunks.

The last comment leads to some thoughts about human scale. I don't think we've really grasped the simple issue of the sizes of things in the Seaport. Let's talk about some dimensions.

For instance:

And that's just Phase 1. Like a sprouting teenager, the Convention Center is expected to grow. Enough room is being left on the site for later expansion that will take the building to 36 acres. Imagine a building that holds 36 football fields on each floor, and you're imagining the proposed Boston Convention Center, on a site about the size of the Public Garden and the Common combined.

When you create a building this big, you certainly don't want its vast exterior to consist of blank walls and garage doors, as in most convention centers. Designers need to find a way to push other uses up against the Convention Center, to bury it beneath and behind more interesting, more humanly scaled stuff - maybe hotels, maybe cultural functions - as has been done successfully in San Francisco.

The amazing size of the convention center tends to distort everybody's perception of the scale of the whole Seaport District. When you look at a map that shows the Convention Center in place, you tend to read it as a normal building, maybe the size of an ordinary city block. As a result, you fail to notice if the street widths and block sizes around it are huge, because they're in scale with the convention center.

And in the Interim Plan, they were huge. The city just abandoned a plan to put a pedestrian bridge across Congress Street near Faneuil Hall downtown. But for years, the city argued that Congress was so wide and full of traffic that it was dangerous for pedestrians. Yet some of the streets in the Interim plan are as wide or wider than Congress Street.

Human scale is only one of the issues the new master planner is going to have to deal with. But it's an important one. Nobody will walk in a city that is scaled for cars, trucks, and buses. And if people aren't out walking, it isn't a city.

The best cities are made up of neighborhoods each of which is a microcosm of the city as a whole. They may be very different, but each neighborhood will contain all the elements of the city: You can live, work, shop, play, or go to school, all in the neighborhood. In that kind of city, the need for transportation is minimized. And the richness and diversity of life are maximized.

I think Boston's planners would agree with that. The biggest problem may be one of time. The city hopes to get the new master planner on board in mid-August and release the plan by the end of October. The planner will, in that brief time, have to absorb an incredibly complex set of variables and the input of a zillion key players. This planner, whoever it is, will have to create, in collaboration with the city's planners, some kind of resolution. And the planner will have to find a way to present it graphically so everyone can understand it. It's another problem of scale: The time may not be big enough for the job.

The Seaport is the best opportunity for a great Boston neighborhood in a century. Our descendants will be mad if we blow it.