That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 5, The 1980s, “You will find yourself making excuses”

August 13, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Zoning | No comments 127 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday's Part 4 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

As Harbor Towers turned five in 1976, in a landmark event, the visionary Jim Rouse redeveloped the old and decaying Faneuil Hall Marketplace into what he called Quincy Market, triggering the urban-heritage revitalization that has since become a touchstone of how to do it right.












1976, after the renovation

Elizabeth Cook served as spokeswoman for Boston Public Schools right after the busing riots, and went on to head up the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Kevin White before getting into a career in the then male-dominated advertising industry. She moved into Tower I as a renter in 1976, after her kids had gone off to school and her Beacon Hill home was burglarized four times. She took to the place right away, and has been there ever since. “I love being on the water,” she says. “In the city, but out. Get up in the morning and look over to Europe. Don’t fence me in—that kind of thing.”


38 years in Harbor Towers: Elizabeth Cook

The 1980’s

Built in an area that had once been wharves and warehouses, Harbor Towers may have been ahead of their time. For much of the 1970s, the immediate surroundings remained something of a wasteland.

Economic revival came slowly to downtown Boston, but it did come, and then an opportunity arose:

They converted to condos in 1981.

When the towers were developed, the Section 207 program had some very mild affordability restrictions: (high) limits on residents’ income levels (possibly not calibrated for family size, so a swinging bachelor like Derek Sanderson could quality), and a gentle review of rent levels.  Under President Reagan, the Section 221(d)(4)’s were entirely decontrolled, because in Reagan’s view (which at the time astounded me, but in later life I have come to appreciate) adding supply was enough impact, especially given that the program was a lending  program, not a subsidy program, and the program paid for itself (in interest rates and mortgage insurance fees).

That created a developer’s opportunity, and the Harbor Towers owners pounced:


A transaction to do!

In 1981, both apartment towers started a two-year process of conversion to condominiums, with special incentives for existing renters to purchase at heavily discounted prices. Many of these early apartment renters now own several units, often combined to create breathtaking wrap-around units with as much as 5,000 square feet (460 m2) of living space.

With the shift from rental to occupant ownership, the residents’ profile changed, and along with it changed their incentives and behaviors. 

In 1985, four years after the rental buildings were first converted to condos, Hurricane Gloria roared in and blew out 70 of the towers’ windows.


Be prepared for cheesy graphics and bad hair

With occupant ownership had come two different factions:

The trustees representing Tower I—which, by virtue of being closer to the water, has more moneyed residents—called for all of the complex’s 1,716 windows to be replaced. The Tower II board wanted to junk merely the most dysfunctional ones.

With the two sides at an impasse, the trustees moved to try to at least stop the indoor rainstorms by sealing up the vents. This meant the units no longer had proper exhaust systems—which turned out to not matter much, since the spaces between the windows and the deteriorating concrete walls were still wide enough to allow air (and some inclement weather) to flow in from outside.

Around this time, I heard stories of rats in the building’s basement (and the parking garage), which would have been entirely plausible, caught as the properties were between the Central Artery underpass (prime rat habitation territory) and the still-filthy harbor (prime rat-food garage), and with all those nice air spaces and intra-wall piping systems to scuttle upwards.


Just hork it down already

The residents would also have been hit with major increases in their heating costs – concrete is notorious for having no insulating capacity whatsoever (8 inches of concrete have an R-value of 1.11, equivalent to 1 inch of plywood or a ¼” thick glass single-pane window), so in summer the walls bake and in winter they chill

Along with the assessments for the windows and the HVAC system, the towers’ residents have been hit with big repair bills covering everything from roof work to lobby renovations to patching a ten-foot-wide sinkhole that once opened up in front of Tower I. “The people who didn’t want to deal with that probably moved the first time,” say Beth Dickerson. “Everyone else is willing to put up with it.”

Over the decade, the market set prices, the units cleared at the market price, and gradually the towers filled with people for whom the location and views compensated for the traffic noise and lack of walkability.


At the foot of Batterymarch street (which still exists), within sight of Long Wharf

(From the Bonner map, 1722)

Meanwhile, in 1987, just across the highway from Harbor Towers, and on the site of the former Fort Hill, Don Chiofaro developed a major downtown property, and he called it International Place.  At 600 feet, One International Place, the fifth-tallest building in Boston; five years later, in 1992, his company completed the adjacent Two International Place.


International Place: Tower 1 at left, Tower 2 at right, and a middle infill connector

For himself Mr. Chiofaro reserved the apex, the top floor office space, from which aerie, akin to a widow’s walk, he can look north, out over tower two (35 stories instead of 46), to Harbor Towers (the 1970s skyscraper), the Custom House (the 1915 skyscraper) –


The Custom House in 1850, with its Jeffersonian Dome


Pity about the dome, it had to go

– and the harbor beyond.

The 1990’s

Living at Harbor Towers meant accepting recurring systems failures for the sake of the magnificent views:

I am not a picky person, but this is my worst rental experience in Boston (and that’s saying a lot for a city that is known for its crappy accommodations).

Take an aging building with high operating costs and obsolescing construction and combined it with not one but two large condominium associations (the larger the association, the greater the potential for factionalism), and the results were internecine struggles for control:

With the broader question of what to do about the windows still unresolved as the recession of the early 1990s took hold, things started getting ugly. In 1992, the results of a special board election for both buildings’ trustees had to be thrown out because of voting irregularities.

In a condominium, remember, the trustees can assess charges on all the residents, and the assessments can be as large as needed.  In Harbor Towers’ case, they were large, as were the disagreements.

In fact, that 1993 leaky-window spat was an epic flame war:

A special election for trustees at the end of January that was notable for its nastiness has confirmed a split between the two towers.

Tower 2 is run by an insurgent slate chosen last spring that favors repairs as the most sensible window remedy.  But in Tower 1, closer to the water, incumbent trustees who have wanted the windows replaced were re-elected by a landslide.

The amount of bad feeling generated by the controversy – and the approach of another trustees election in both towers next month [January, 1993 – Ed.] – make an outbreak of peace and harmony at Harbor Towers seem doubtful.

“Sometimes you pick something up at night [slipped under your door] and in the morning there’s something else. It’s overwhelming,” groaned Elizabeth Cook, executive director of the Ad Club of Greater Boston and a Harbor Towers resident since 1976. “I love living there,” Cook said. “It’s just terribly unfortunate that we’ve broken down into all this conflict.”

“The election campaigns are so dirty,” said Irma ten Kate, a Harbor Towers resident since 1975. She accused pro-replacement trustees of “trying to ram this through.”

By the following year, the sides were hurling invective and anonymous missives at each other, circulating fliers late at night, and enduring agonizingly awkward rides with their foes on the towers’ notoriously slow elevators.

As an example of the notoriously slow elevators, here’s a tale (written July, 2010) from a Harbor Towers renter:

When I woke up today, I attempted to go out for a cup of coffee. I pressed the elevator call button, but it didn’t light up. I knew something was wrong, but living in the Harbor Towers, you grow to expect these sorts of inconveniences. You will find yourself making excuses for the building, to help tolerate the constant problems of living here.

The elevator finally came after ten minutes. It was on manual mode, i.e. it was being controlled by someone in the command room. They were performing some type of diagnostic repair on the elevators. So when I finally arrived in the lobby, there were (of course) ten contractors standing around as I emerged from the longest elevator ride of my life. When I came back to the building and attempted to go back to my apartment (silly me) I was told to wait for the next elevator. As the contractors looked on, myself and two other residents boarded the elevator and prayed it would take us home. The first guy got off on the 5th floor, then the elevator went back down to the lobby again. We had to repeat this process for each resident.  One by one, the elevator brought us to our respective floors and then returned to the lobby. It took forever to get back to the 40th floor!!

With such distractions, it’s no wonder the feud continued:

Harbor Towers boasts its share of Boston’s big names and power players, from developers like George Macomber to lawyers like Joseph J. Balliro [Famous for representing organized-crime figures – Ed.] and Earle E. Cooley. But its thousand-plus residents also include elderly persons on fixed incomes.


Willing to represent anybody and argue anything, including representing the Church of Scientology; died 2009

Too many lawyers as residents makes for too much acrimony in the condo association.

For the next election, the trustees had to enlist the services of an independent vote-counter to make sure ballot boxes weren’t being stuffed.

Finally, George Macomber of Macomber Construction [Which finally went out of business in 2007, after 103 years – Ed.], a Tower I resident, brought the factions together, brokering a deal to replace all the indows—and also finally seal the crumbling concrete around them—at a cost of $9 million, or roughly $15,000 per unit.


John D., the last Boston Macomber in construction

When it comes to the airflow of complicated structures, each solution creates another problem.

There was just one problem, though: Because the vents had been sealed earlier, the new, leakproof windows created negative air pressure in the units. Vents in the kitchen and bathroom could push stale air out, but there was no mechanism in the individual units to bring fresh air in.


Not my law, I’m just the promoter

Ever since, the towers’ interiors have been low-pressure zones where odors and secondhand smoke migrate easily. Dare to open a window, and it creates a jet-like roar.

Thus in many ways, the idea of living at Harbor Towers – chiefly the spectacular view and the sense of being right in the thick of it – is weighed against the reality of living at Harbor Towers – leaky windows, high heating bills, constant commuting challenges. 

For all that looming, however, they are surprisingly difficult to find. From the street, you don’t see the driveway that leads to them until you’re nearly past it. If you do manage to make the turn, it opens into a short, shabby, and, at night, badly lit strip of asphalt, flanked by the unsightly backside of the enormous aquarium parking garage, and ending in a windy cul-de-sac strewn with construction equipment and watched over by a guard in an equally dim and shabby booth.


What’s not to like?

[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 4, The early 1970s, “A really bad reputation”

August 12, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Zoning | No comments 105 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday's Part 3 and the preceding Part 1 and Part 2.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

As the Pelagian and Aquarian 1960s gave when to the Augustinian and Disco 1970s, Boston’s downtown had become desolate, dangerous, and dirty, so the nascent Boston Redevelopment Authority, in addition to wiping out huge chunks of downtown (Scollay Square leveled to make way for antiseptic Government Center), the West End vaporized to yield Charles River Park), sought to plant the flag along the waterfront, and the Berenson Corporation put up the two towers as a development-fee opportunity made possible by levering available FHA mortgage insurance (Section 207).


We’re built now; you’ll get used to us

The 1970’s

The garage and towers were built together in the early ’70s.


Aerial of Boston, 1971: Harbor Towers at right, the garage hiding behind the landward tower

The Custom House safely on the other side of the Central Artery

As the above photograph shows, the towers were built in defiance of the change around them.  Cut off from walkable Boston by the elevated Central Artery, they were a drive-in/ drive-out place where if you lived there, you’d park in the accompanying garage, also built as a fortress against the city’s view of the Harbor.


Looking toward the harbor from the garage’s downtown side: what view of the harbor?

The hulking, concrete structures rose at a time when no one wanted to be on the waterfront.  Call them ugly all you want –

All right: “You’re ugly.”


The tops of Harbor Towers

– but at least they’re I.M. Pei.  Yes, the famed architect designed the widely derided buildings.

Actually, his then-partner; shortly thereafter, Mr. Pei himself designed this:


The John F. Kennedy Library, Boston

(Mr. Pei sited the library so it faced the harbor.)


View of Boston Harbor, from inside the JFK Library

The buildings’ very isolation and ugliness inspires rancor.

Though built by a go-go development company with big brass balance sheets, the property nevertheless had to be financeable:

There were limits to how big a chance the developers would take. Because they couldn’t be certain anyone would want to live out in the grubby hinterland that was the waterfront, three towers eventually became two, with a pool installed where the third was to have stood.

For those of you not from Boston who may be wondering why a waterfront complex would have a pool, there are two answers:

1. The ocean is really, really cold, even in the height of summer – as in, cardiac-arrest extremities-numb cold.

2. All those decades of dumping ship’s ballast into the harbor (over 120 tons per day) had rendered it largely toxic (cleanup began only in 1986). 


Boston Harbor, 1987 (from Flickr)

The towers were initially rental properties.

That was not by developer choice, for developers, like commandos, want to get in, grab the treasure, then get away clean – and that means selling.  But the conventional financing available in the late 1970s would have been 75% loan-to-value at best, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) offered 90% LTV via an urban-renewal residential loan program, Section 207 (at the time, new construction/ urban renewal) which was analogous to Section 221d4, which at the time was targeted toward moderate-income households (anyone up to 95% of Area Median Income).  And who would rent downtown?  Only people who worked downtown, and who had no children.

‘‘For a long time, Harbor Towers was the residential outpost of the Financial District,’’ Chiofaro said.

During the Seventies, the night-time Financial District was a ghost town. 


The Post Office Square parking garage:

Full during the day, empty at night

Back in 1970, corner-cutting (that is, ‘value-engineering’ without the value) was also taking places in the construction – and as we know, corner-cutting on construction is the gift that keeps on costing for decades afterwards.

Cheaper materials were also subbed in. The kinds of windows that got installed, according to Cobb, were inferior to the ones he had specified, and the unsealed concrete that made up the exterior of the buildings—and held the windows in place—was subpar, too, prone to crumbling and staining.

The towers were completed in 1971, and soon were drawing younger, adventurous, urbanist souls from many walks of life, among them Bruins great Derek Sanderson.


Nicknamed the Turk, Sanderson was the Georgie Best of Boston, a role Bostonians embraced because (1) hey, it was the Seventies, and (2) in 1970 and 1972, the Big Bad Bruins (including Sanderson) twice won the Stanley Cup.

In keeping with the times, a certain moral casualness reigned.


Bobby Orr celebrating scoring the overtime Stanley-Cup-winning goal, Boston Garden

“It became a great den of prostitutes and loose living for a number of years,” says Todd Lee, an architect who lives on the 32nd floor of Tower I.

Harbor Towers would have been an ideal location for an urban bordello, or even for a sole practitioner, as a staid executive in the Financial District seeking a nooner could scuttle under the Central Artery via a ten-minute walk, have forty minutes for his pleasure and her business, and be back at his desk by the end of lunch hour.


Easy on, easy off?

“I may exaggerate, but it had a really bad reputation.” Edward Gleichauf, who had friends in the buildings in the ’70s—and decided to move in himself 10 years ago—says, “It was a hell of a party place.”


We’re athletes, we’re teammates – let’s have a wife-swap party

Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson

The original Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

Naturally, a specialist use attracts a specialist tenancy:

Elizabeth Cook, a resident since the mid-’70s, notes that early on the towers attracted a lot of recently divorced men. “There were men I knew who were coupled when I met them,” she says, “and when they showed up here, I knew something had changed.”  

Harbor Towers thus became a convenient rebound pied-a-terre: there, just across the Artery, was downtown Boston, with its bevy of secretaries, stenographers, and typists.

Adds Lee, “A lot of guys had bachelor pads there, and would do all their fucking looking out the window.”

[Personal note: Upon college graduation, I spent a year as first a temporary typist and then a full-time male secretary, and without impugning the integrity of any of my former coworkers, I can well believe Harbor Towers’ reputation. – Ed.]

Engaging in bouts of rebound coitus—or doing anything even remotely vigorous—near or against those windows required more courage and fortitude than one might expect, even in Puritan Boston: The lower-grade models the developers insisted be used, coupled with the leaky vents below them and the untreated concrete around them, soon revealed themselves to be highly problematic.

This was also the era when the newly constructed John Hancock Tower was experiencing window fallout.


During 1973, the Hancock building lost over 1,500 4×8 glass window panels that were sucked out by the unanticipated airfoil effect, and replaced with plywood.

Terry Lyman, who has lived in Tower I since 1973 and whose grandfather Theodore Lyman was one of the original Brahmins, says he used to have “rain and snowstorms inside on windy days…. It used to blow so hard that spray would blow 10 or 15 feet across my room. This is with the windows closed!”


Theodore Lyman

Like other older cities, Boston hit bottom around 1975. 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 3, The 1960s, “Arguably a Mistake”

August 11, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Zoning | No comments 137 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from Friday's Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

As we saw in the two preceding parts, for the first 225 years of its existence, Boston was established, prospered, grew, and grew rich from its harbor, not for fishing – that was the province of the Grand Banks sailors out of Salem and Marblehead –


Fitz Hugh Lane, Salem Harbor, 1853

– nor its whalers (New Bedford and Nantucket), but purely for global commerce – the China Trade, the India Trade, and the fast flyers that carries goods from the orient to the occident and vice versa.


China clipper ship Southern Cross leaving Boston Harbor, 1851, Fitz Hugh Lane

But all that died with the coming of the railroad, the steamship, and the automobile, and as cities changed their downtowns into manufacturing centers, the economic value of Boston Harbor died, and with it, the harbor’s ecology and appeal.

The 1960’s

By the 1960s, the waterfront had become desolate, a dreary lagoon of dirt parking lots and little else. As went the waterfront, so went Boston. “These were not good times for either the nation or the city,” writes Thomas O’Connor in his book The Hub.


John B. Hynes

The City was also changing politically.  Corrupt James Michael Curley, who had been mayor four times (1914 to 1950, periodically being turned out of office), had given way to the urban reformers John B. Hynes (who now has a convention center named after him) and John F. Collins.


John F. Collins

The city, then run by Mayor John Collins, was eager to get behind any developer—in this case, the Berenson family and Carlyle Construction out of New York City—with the temerity to build something new, particularly something densely residential, amid all this decay.

Collins in particular wanted a visionary of a new type of city:

White flight was in full swing and social unrest was spreading, creating a powder keg that would go off not long afterward, in the form of the busing riots.


September 12, 1974: first day of school, whites in South Boston protesting black integration of South Boston High School

I am fairly confident that the short-sleeved figure at right  is eventual Boston City Councilor Jimmy Kelly)

City Council James Kelly questions the police commissioner. 7/22/1985

Jimmy Kelly on the City Council, 1980s

Mayor Collins wiped out the old honky-tonk downtown, and in place put up what became known as Government Center:


The old red light district – gone.

For Bostonians having trouble orienting, the large rectangular building lower center with a big parking lot below it is the old Boston Garden.

In this mix came (among others) Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, which though founded in 1897 by the most Brahmin of Bostonians had been captured by Young Turks (some of whom went on to become centimillionaires) who developed almost anything, almost anywhere in metropolitan Boston.


In many ways, the CC&F executives were heirs to the great seafaring captains.  Like their Bostonian forebears, they were merchant bankers – buying a commodity, transforming or transporting it, and selling it at potentially huge profits.  Like the great sailors, they needed huge capital sums to secure the assets – the East India Company invented both the limited partnership (to finance individual voyages) and the corporation (then called a ‘joint stock company’) as a capital-maintenance vehicle that enabled an enterprise to pursue many voyages and (ad)ventures, either sequentially or contemporaneously. 


Sea captains all: ships form the Bonner map (1722)

Where the sea captains sailed across seas of unknown water, the CC&F developers (led by Gerry Blakeley, perhaps the greatest buccaneer among them) sailed across seas of unknown time. 


A life lived at speed: Gerry Blakeley, 2012

In the late 1960s, to buy downtown Boston real estate was to bet against the visible evidence of urban decay and for downtown Boston’s return to what it had always been: a hub of entrepreneurial commerce. 

CC&F and its offshoots left visible footprints in Boston’s and the nation’s built environment.  Among the CC&F alumni were:

Mort Zuckerman, Chairman; and Ed Linde, former CEO, Boston Properties, master redeveloper of Cambridge’s Kendall Square. 

Famous Montrealers


Terry Considine, co-founder and CEO, AIMCO, the nation’s first residential mega-REIT.



Ferdinand “Moose” Colloredo-Mansfeld, Senior Advisor, Cabot Properties, Inc. (private equity developer); Arturo Gutierrez, Chairman, The Gutierrez Company.

… and Don Chiofaro.


A CC&F alumni gathering at NAIOP, 2011: Chiofaro at far left, then Considine

Mr. Blakeley taught his CC&F gunslingers to have vision of change, to think big, to act decisively and quickly, and to grab killer locations suffering from decay, disinvestment, or blight.

Funded in part by the last of the Federal Housing Authority money, and overseen by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) –

As I’ve posted at length before, urban renewal authorities emerged in the 1940s and 1950s as part of comprehensive slum upgrading – and with their power of eminent domain, they could remake cities – lines they drew on an aerial photograph could become lines of elimination.  They were inspired by the visions of the Athens Charter School of modernist architects, led by Le Corbusier, who wanted consign the old brick and cobblestone cities to the ash heap of history, and to raise in their place gleaming new gray blocks:


What Corbusier wanted to do to Paris …


… Americans did to St. Louis:

Pruitt-Igoe, newly built (circa 1955)

– the original plan for the Harbor Towers called for three stacks of rental units, plus a parking garage, done in the Brutalist style of the day: all raw concrete and hard angles.

Brutalism, an offense against esthetics as well as a crime against organic urbanism, was a postwar fad that lasted roughly a decade and gave birth to monstrosities such as Boston City Hall and much of the public housing that we now have the common sense to tear down.


This is your city hall: no way in


And once you’re inside, nobody’s home

Peter Forbes, an architect who lived in the towers in the mid-’90s before moving to Florence, Italy, points out that such a design was considered a “heroic gesture” in the late 1960s, an effort to “get away from the steel and glass skyscraper of the ’50s, which people were beginning to feel was cold and impersonal.”

Yes, all that light and airy space is so cold and impersonal.


Boston’s new John Hancock Tower (built 1973), at dusk

In order to free up the space for the project, the BRA also allowed the historic India Wharf Building to be demolished.


Monument to an age – demolished for Harbor Towers

“In retrospect,” writes Henry Cobb, the buildings’ I. M. Pei–affiliated architect—who went on to build his masterwork, the John Hancock Tower, in Boston, “[that move] was arguably a mistake.”


If he had it to do over again, Cobb would do it differently

Beware the starchitect who thinks himself an urban planner.

[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 2, 1700 to 1960, “Currency around the world”

August 8, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Zoning | No comments 271 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]

Principal sources used in this post

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

Yesterday, to understand the irony of Harbor Towers residents complaining about development in their vicinity, I took us back to Boston’s founding.  The original Boston was located on a narrow peninsula – at one time, its connection to the mainland was less than a hundred yards wide, along Orange Street, and guarded by a wooden palisade wall (visible at far left of the Bonner Map as fortification) – and for more than a century it was the gateway between America and the world:


Boston, 1722, with Long Wharf jutting into the harbor

Ocean-going vessels landed in Boston by docking at Long Wharf – built in the 1710s as the earliest American example of massive private infrastructure for economic development, extending more than a thousand feet into the harbor. 


Boston, 1768, British troops landing, engraving by Paul Revere

Long Wharf was the highway into America, and at its end was the Massachusetts Town House (built 1713, now called the Old State House), the seat of British colonial government and where the stamp taxes and duties were paid.  Then one turned left and a single road led through the Boston peninsula, out the gate, and into the rest of America.


Ship to shore to opportunity: Long Wharf and its neighbors, 1722 (detail from the Bonner Map)

Thus infrastructure (Long Wharf) fueled economic development that defined the city’s growth, including its residential growth.  Long Wharf was not just a staging area, it was a street with houses.


Building line Long Wharf; warehouses, shops, and homes above

In fact, for over a hundred years, until the Erie Canal (more infrastructure for economic development) gave New York its shortcut to and from the Great Lakes, Long Wharf might have been the most valuable real estate in America, or at least the place with the highest per-square-foot volume of business/ traffic.  Around Long Wharf and the claw that was the original Boston, more and more urban infill was done: Bulfinch Triangle, South Boston, the Back Bay. 


Boston 1894: the old city superimposed on the new one

The whiter circles are drumlin hills, cut down to provide fill for the claimed land

By this time Long Wharf had been joined by others – heading south, by Central Wharf, India Wharf, and Rowe’s Wharf – and all the wharves had widened, their staging areas becoming progressively more spacious so that the ocean-arriving ships were squeezed into narrower berths. 


Long Wharf (left) and Central Wharf (right), 1873

The wharves had along been shortened by the addition of Atlantic Avenue, a chord drawn between the old Hudson’s Point and old Fort Hill (both cut down for landfill).


Among the entrepreneurial captains: Robert Bennet Forbes of Boston

In its heyday, the waterfront was a bustling block of piers and warehouses, a center of global commerce. As Jane Holtz Kay writes in her book Lost Boston, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries “Yankee traders were swapping chisels for furs, furs for tea, and tea for money” there, and the wealth raked in from the seven seas helped fund an unprecedented building boom in Boston.


India Wharf, 1857

India Wharf!  Even the name was exotic, calling the youth to ship the high seas in search of adventure.

The focal point of all this activity was India Wharf, built in 1805 by the dean of Boston architects, Charles Bulfinch. “An address on … India Wharf was currency around the world,” writes Kay.


India Wharf, 1899: the other wharves has grown as long as Long Wharf

It also played host to the India Wharf Rats Club, a renowned gentlemen’s club where, it was said, women could enter, so long as they didn’t ask about the long, shiny cylindrical object—a whale’s penis—hanging from the ceiling.

Then came the streetcars – public transport for the mid and late nineteenth century – and the subway.


Urban public transit, Boston style: Park Street, 1897

America’s first was opened at Park Street, 1897, in a stop still used today (and scarcely cleaner than it was a century and a quarter ago).

Throughout all of this, the harbor was essential to Boston, and every part of Boston was close to or influenced by the harbor.  With the twentieth century, however, sailing ships gave way to steam, coal, and oil, and import-export shifted from Boston to better, deeper harbors that connected to railroad lines, and the harbor dwindled in importance. 


Wharves without ships: T Wharf, Long Wharf, and India Wharf, 1949

The Custom House Tower, for several decades Boston’s tallest building, is at right

Henry Ford, World War II, and the rise of the ubiquitous automobile comprehensively transformed the nature of transportation and hence the structure of cities.  By 1950, the suburbs were booming and the pre-industrial cities had lost their economic advantage as hubs of intermodal transition (ship to rail), so the harbor was no longer an essential economic asset.


Boston, 1950: the Hancock Building (now called the Old Hancock Tower) dominates the skyline

And the new port – the airport – rises from the ocean across Boston Bay

With access to the harbor no longer a commercial real estate advantage, the city’s economic center of gravity shifted westward, away from the jumbled old downtown, to the new Back Bay spine with the John Hancock Building (now called the Old Hancock).

By now, the harbor was an afterthought.


Boston, early 1950s: the water is the Fort Point Channel and the railways end at South Station.

Long Wharf has been surrounded by other wharves and the whole is an undifferentiated mass.

Hence the disciples of Robert Moses spread the gospel of autos and eminent domain for economic and urban redevelopment to the pre-war Northeast cities of Hartford and Philadelphia, and Boston, like these other cities, decided it had to retrofit highways into and through the urban grid, and if that meant tearing down the urban foliage, so be it.


Digging the central artery in the soft tissue between downtown Boston and the North End

Some of the Central Artery was to be underground:


Opening day, June 25, 1959: looking north. 

Note linkage between highway (Expressway North) and railway (South Station)

I believe those actual signs are still there, unchanged.

Now the harbor was such an irrelevance that the good city fathers decided drivers need not see it, they would be better served by driving through tunnels that blocked it from view.


June 10, 1964: the elevated and underground sections are joined, and the Central Artery is complete.

The harbor is wholly invisible.

By 1964, a Bostonian would have been hard-pressed to see the harbor, much less to walk to it.  The Central Artery, a neck tourniquet if ever there was one, had cut the urban core completely away from the harbor.  All the wharves were out of sight. 


You could walk under that, left to right, but why would you want to?

They were bypassed by the limited-access highway.  From downtown to the oceanside harbor was possible to ambulate, though the journey – which I would occasionally walk – was confusing, always unpleasant (soot, garbage, urine), and occasionally dangerous (mugging risk).


Dead space beneath the elevated highway

Not coincidentally, the decade before 1960 had seen near-total white flight from the center city in favor of the suburbs, and the influx of minorities, to the point where some Boston neighborhoods (and some public-housing projects) went from white to black in less than a decade.


Not Boston, but the sentiment resonates

(Some ethnic remixing is re-emerging in our current decade, though no one is yet calling it ‘white flight’ or ‘racial tipping.’)

[Continued Monday in Part 3.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 1, Towering contradictions

August 7, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Waterfront, Zoning | No comments 166 views

By: David A. Smith

As part of my e-ringside seat for the revival of Don Chiofaro and his visible efforts at diplomatic euphemism after his release from political Coventry, where he’d been banished by now-retired urban autocrat Tom Menino, I was recently perusing The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014)’s article describing Mr. Chiofaro’s show-and-sell of his envisioned towers and his dollops of verbal design goo, when I hit this nugget:


What are those ugly gray things in the foreground?

A rendering showing a view of the new Harbor Towers buildings from the harbor. The new buildings are at the center of the rendering, to the right of the existing Harbor Towers buildings.

We believe the proposed development is historically and contemporaneously inappropriate in scale, height and density for a location adjacent to two Boston treasures, the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the harbor,” wrote two trustees of Harbor Towers

And I thought, that’s rich, coming from the likes of you. 


The towers — one clad in glass, the other in terra cotta — would rise to 600 feet along Atlantic Avenue and infuse modern architecture into a corner of the city dominated by structures built many decades ago.

“It’s not often the city finds itself with the opportunity for a transformative moment,” Chiofaro said. “But that moment is now before us.”


Still got the laser vision at 67: Don Chiofaro

As a proponent of urban vertical development – I like cities and love Boston, and want to see both thrive:


Cities going up

Five of FuBos’s authors: Left to right: Alex Jablokov, David Smith, Jon Burrowes, Sarah Smith, Steve Popkes

That always means going vertical, invariably over the objections of some who make up in vocality what they may lack in numeracy or majority, and who sprout after proposals like mushrooms after a rain:

Some neighbors in a large condominium complex [Harbor Towers – Ed.] filed a long list of objections on Wednesday, arguing in a letter to city officials that the project is too big for the property.


Now that’s too big for its britches

Principal sources used in this post

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

For, you see, Harbor Towers, the twin gray blocks east of what is now the Greenway and was for decades the Central Artery, has for four and a half decades been precisely an example of a development that was ‘historically and contemporaneously inappropriate’ for its location, was designed with all the architectural grace of a cement mixer, has none of the waterfront accessibility or public amenities that its trustees now see as essential to new development, and was badly built to boot.

Over the years, Harbor Towers has been the battleground for a number of bitterly fought, highly publicized disputes among residents, who’ve been hit with a series of outsize assessments that were floated either to beautify the buildings or, more importantly, to keep them from falling apart. But their longtime inhabitants, many of whom could certainly afford to move, could not imagine living anywhere else.


The Custom House, then the garage, then Harbor Towers, and then the reclaimed harbor

Chiofaro’s proposal is under review by a waterfront planning committee crafting broader building regulations for a swath of the waterfront between Christopher Columbus Park and the Northern Avenue Bridge. The committee’s recommendations will heavily influence whether Chiofaro will be able to move forward with the massive buildings he is proposing.

Finally, in the most delicious irony of all, probably be the biggest single free-rider beneficiary of Mr. Chiofaro’s proposed development, in terms of owners’ economic values, will be …the residents of Harbor Towers.

As for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, he has signaled his willingness to consider height at the waterfront well above the 200-foot limit for the garage site imposed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority [As we shall see, as backlash against Harbor Towers – Ed.]. But the mayor will look to the neighbors to see if the plan — and what height — will work.

Such a fertile history is too good to pass up.


The story it tells encapsulates nearly everything that changed in Boston over the last half-century; as principal source material, I’ll use a suddenly-timely article by Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font):

The Harbor Towers’ Towering Contradictions

Best-in-the-city views come with seemingly endless maintenance headaches, cutthroat internecine politics, and the occasional randy neighbor.

Anyone who’s ever driven the Central Artery knows Harbor Towers, an inescapable visual presence even if you did not know their name nor ever went in them.


The Central Artery, with the Boston Harbor Garage at right

They were, and are, ugly:

There’s nothing welcoming about the Harbor Towers. The swath of land they sit on is crudely severed from downtown—initially by the Southeast Expressway, now by the Kennedy Greenway—and bookended by the stately Boston Harbor Hotel [Rowes Wharf, built 1987 – Ed.] and the aquarium. Depending on where you’re standing, the buildings loom over either the harbor to the east, or a curved stretch of Atlantic Avenue to the west; in fact, it could safely be said that the towers, each a grim 40 stories of concrete and glass, loom over everything nearby.


The vertical response to the horizontal slash through Boston

The towers have always been grim … but they have not always been there.


Come no farther: Harbor Towers awaits

To understand their maculate conception, and for that matter to appreciate Mr. Chiofaro’s sensibilities and some of the passion he brings to his redevelopment vision, one should go back to Boston’s origins and evolution.

Settle in. 


I’m ready for the history lesson

“To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

The return is worth the journey.


I’ll be back tomorrow …

Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, by John Singer Sargent

Up through 1960


Founded 1630, incorporated as a city in 1822

Founded in 1630, as it displays proudly on the city’s seal, Boston’s location was consciously chosen to be a port city where ocean-going ships could dock, embark, and debark. 

In this Boston shares a heritage with other now-famous cities – among them Bombay/ Mumbai, Calcutta/ Kolkata, Madras/ Chennai, Port-au-Prince, Batavia/ Jakarta, and Cape Town – that were selected for their wide sheltered harbors. 


Bombay, mid-1700’s


Madras, mid-1700s


The bay of Port-au-Prince, 1798


Table Bay in Cape Town, 1700s

This choice based on ocean suitability also selected locations that have proved over the centuries to be largely unsuitable for landward expansion, because the same geological forces that give rise to sheltered harbors also fill up these bays with land that is silted, muddy, or unstable.  

[Sidebar: Ironically, when technology (wind-borne ocean-going ships) makes a suddenly-valuable port city grow rapidly, the real estate that will be most economically desirable to develop will also be that which is most physically undesirable, leading over and over again to populations in the thousands (and in the twenty-first century, millions) living in places at the greatest risk of natural disaster.]


Macau harbor after the great 1874 typhoon

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]

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