Central Square


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May 25, 2006
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Deep in Nepal's Himalayan reaches, an elixir is rumored to exist. In whoever ingests it, this potion is said to induce the most eleemosynary of impulses. Lifelong foes fall rapturously into each other's arms, Yankee fans toast Red Sox victories, Allston residents send love letters to Harvard's President and muggers put away their Glocks.

While touring monasteries in a saffron robe, Harvard researcher J. Doe was urged to smuggle back a potent dose of elixir, which he promptly slipped into the Cambridge water supply. Among many observable consequences, NIMBYism in Cambridge sank without a trace.

It was the start of the Era of Good Will.

* * *

Swept up in good feeling, politicians and planners of Cambridge immediately set about devising improvements to their neat little city. They decided to concentrate first on slightly shopworn Central Square:



Potential both obvious and unrealized.

Because all improvements they proposed made sense, no one in the attitude-enhanced city rose in opposition. Clear sailing lay ahead in every direction.

Here's what they did:

1. They banned new parking lots.
They didn't immediately ban the existing parking lots, and they didn't ban new parking garages --though they required these to have ground floor retail, mechanical ventilation and glass windows (if aboveground).

2. They lifted all reference to height limits in all parts of Central Square where buildings touched or were permitted to touch.
This constituted the de facto redevelopment district. Along Mass Ave its boundaries were set at Dana Street in the west and Main Street in the east.

3. They forbade more than two existing adjacent properties (of whatever size) to be developed by the same entity as part of a single project.
This had the effect of preserving Central Square's scale, which had nothing whatever to do with building height --something the elixirized former-nimbys readily perceived in their new-found intimacy with Truth.

4. They landmarked all nine of Central Square's buildings that had lasting architectural or historic value.
And they did so with wisdom that was applauded by historians, preservationists and architecture critics.

5. They notified all owners of unlandmarked single-story buildings and existing parking lots that they had three years to submit redevelopment plans
or have their properties taken by eminent domain (with market-value compensation). You can imagine how quickly these fallow properties sprouted development.


Parking lots just one block off Mass Ave on Bishop Allen Drive extend to both sides of Prospect Street and render Central Square as one-street shopping.

6. They requested and got permission to build additional entrances to Central Square's subway station at the southeastern end.
This had the effect of providing MIT with a second usable subway stop, while stimulating development of the parking lots on that institution's northwest fringe.

7. They founded the Prospect Street Railway, a historic streetcar line to run up Prospect Street to Inman Square and down River Street,
across the bridge, to Brighton Center. Like the old, much-lamented Huntington Avenue line, this was to have no ROW separation, therefore it was not light rail. Power is from a winter-snowstorm-heated slot between the tracks, thus eliminating unsightly overhead wires. Visitors love it and residents ride it too. Inman Square is now on the tourist circuit with even more top-notch restaurants stretching along Prospect Street Railway between the two squares. Ridership is surprisingly high (must be because it's fun).


Prospect Street Railway.

Melbourne, Milan, Budapest, Lisbon, Istanbul, Toronto and Bratislava all contributed streetcars, while Newark sold Cambridge the last six of its PCC's. Farebox revenues support the line ($3 for tourists paying cash, $1 for residents swiping a pass). Weekend and holiday drivers are unpaid volunteers, drivers at other times are non-union (most are graduate students working part-time).

8. They adjusted Central Square's zoning such that night-time entertainment uses were encouraged --including a two-block stretch for adult entertainment
parallel to Mass Ave on parking-lot-blighted Bishop Allen Drive. The good bishop's name provided the Square a droll disconnect of street name and function. Boston was glad to see combat zoning move across the river.

9. They revised the signage code to allow unlimited neon --including flashing and moving signs-- on unlandmarked buildings, while limiting backlit plastic signs
to a modest dimension. LED and plasma signs would be considered case-by-case.


Massachusetts Avenue and Prospect Street were enlivened, and parts of Bishop Allen Drive acquired bawdy neon similar to what had once animated lower Washington Street.


10. They convinced the T to run railed transport till 3am on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the MBTA system --including hourly commuter rail.
Late night drunks deserted driving in droves, and nightlife thrived.

11. They devised a system of mid-block alleys perpendicular to Mass Ave toward both Green Street and Bishop Allen Drive.
This had the effect of expanding Central Square's business district to three parallel shopping streets --Allen Drive, Mass Ave, Green Street-- connected to each other by the alleys.





12. Parking could be underground or on upper floors if ventilated and equipped with glass windows, but no off-street parking was allowed anywhere at grade.
All parking produced revenue. Residents paid by the month, workers by the day, and shoppers parked free with a store receipt; shops were assessed a monthly fee from their revenues.

13. As a basis for providing incentive bonuses, they adopted an FAR of 8 for Central Square, but they exempted retail, entertainment and indoor parking,
meaning any amount of these could be built. Thus you could build 8 stories above your retail and parking if your tower had the floor area of your lot, or 16 stories if it took up half your lot's area, or 32 stories if a quarter ... and so forth.


Since you could include floor upon floor of retail and indoor parking without any effect on your FAR, you could build a skyscraper of forty stories or more or a boulevard building of, say, 11 stories; or pretty much anything else you chose. But whatever you did, there were always those FAR bonuses gently promoting the city's goals.


14. They provided generous FAR bonuses for art and entertainment uses they wished to promote.
If you put in a nightclub, a theatre, cinemas or a gallery, you got an FAR of 14. So you could build theoretically a five-story shopping mall with cinemas and five stories of parking beneath a tower that took up a third of your lot's area and soared forty-two additional stories, for a total height of, say, 52 stories. Within that tower could be a mixture of offices, apartments and hotel rooms.




15. If on top of all else you provided Grade B back office space or affordable housing, you got an FAR of 16.
This caused a migration of clerical functions from Financial District banks, and proliferated purpose-built profit-making student housing. Commercial dormitories were developed whose only requirement was enrollment in a college --any college.

16. In a flash of inspiration, they granted a 20% FAR increase to any set of plans that included substantial ornament of durable material such as terra-cotta, stone or iron --or 7% for a bold color scheme.
Because they had been drinking the water, even the achitects agreed. A committee was empowered to monitor for blatant kitsch. Central Square became known for its ornamented architecture, and looked lke it had been around for a while. The public felt comfortable because it seemed like the developers of new buildings were motivated by something besides greed (little did most folks know about the FAR ploy); and the developers liked it because though they were motivated by greed, it didn't show.

17. With incentives, they convinced the Culinary Institute of America to open a New England branch in Central Square.
The Institute's three teaching restaurants formed the nucleus for an explosion of new eateries and cafes. Central Square became a mecca for gastronomes and students alike, who flocked there nightly from all over metropolitan Boston --attracted by transport accessibility and the critical mass of over 50 hip, new restaurants and their customers. The sidewalks and newly-created alleys filled up with tables and chairs, and folks braved the weather to eat and drink alfresco from April through October. Four-star restaurants with table cloths jostled for business with stroop waffle stands and gyro. Funnel cakes, bratwurst, even Bismarck herring vied for Greater Boston's gastronomic dollars.





18. They bought the Post Office from the Feds and leased it to a developer who converted its splendid deco presence into a multi-story shopping mall.
Bustling commerce moved in right across from City Hall.


The developer re-opened the skylights and added a swathe of shops and offices and a thirty-story sliver of condominiums facing Green Street. This spurred immediate redevelopment of that street's dismal parking lots with retail restaurants and bars, surmounted by apartments, offices and a boutique hotel.

19. They pedestrianized two blocks of Green Street between Magazine Street and Sellers Street.
The street blossomed. Exuberant color appeared spontaneously in place of former drabness.


Pedestrianized Green Street teeming with eateries.

20. At municipal expense, they built a partly glass-roofed City Market structure.
Thursdays were to be for stamps and coins, used books, music, prints and artwork, Fridays for serious antiques and collectibles, Saturdays for produce and fish, and Sundays for crafts, retro clothing and funky antiques. First Sunday in May sees the invitational Louis Vuitton Cambridge Concours d'Elegance, where each year fifty of the world's finest cars are judged and premiated.




Louis Vuitton Concours d'Elegance.

21. A mile up Mass Ave in Harvard Square, they banned further proliferation of national or multi-state chain stores and restaurants to preserve that square's ambient quirkiness.
They simultaneously welcomed the same chains' rent-inflating presence to Central Square. They allowed just one branch bank per block, limited to forty feet of frontage. The Gap moves to Central Square, and banks sprouted mezzanines for loan officers. So many clothing stores located in Central Square that Filene's Basement forsook its Washington Street location to anchor the sartorial chaos in Central Square; they got tired of waiting for their new digs to be completed. Tattoo parlors, body piercing, hair tinting establishment and designer jewelers joined the mix; the latter qualified as galleries and came with FAR bonuses, so some actually got free rent from their developer-landlords.

22. They lured consulting engineers, Arthur D. Little, to develop the Square's signature skyscraper: a slender 46 stories of green design by Christian de Pontzamparc with Jean Nouvel.
Central Square's world-class monument, the world's most energy-efficient building, features a three-story Museum of the Environment. The Little Building is Central Square's tallest. This started a migration of engineering firms to Central Square, where they became the first class office market's specialty. England's Arup opens an American headquarters. Transportation consultants proliferate.


From the rooftop restaurant of an engineering firm's building you can see for miles.

23. They invited Harvard to locate its new state-of-the-art museum in Central Square in place of one of the parking lots.
Rejected by the view-obsessed gent down by the river side and the mother hens of Allston, this Renzo Piano-designed attraction put Central Square firmly on the tourist map. Michelin gave it two stars, and two displays hastened to heep it company; the West Coast's Blackhawk Collection of million dollar cars opened an East Coast showroom ($5 admission) and Arthur D. Little unveiled the world's definitive Museum of Energy and the Environment: five stories of do-gooding.

24. For improved access from the Airport and Downtown Boston, they got the MBTA to finish the Blue Line all the way to Charles/MGH.
The whole world got a little closer to Central Square.

25. In a bold gift to walkers, they closed Western Ave. and River St. between Mass Ave and Franklin St., thus finally creating the Square in Central Square.
The big church became a focal point of the plaza, and slender towers sprang up on the fallow parcels on Green at Western Avenue and on Green between Western and River. The latter parcel welcomed the Arthur D. Little Building, Central Square's tallest.


Now Central Square was no longer just a name for an intersection. It was as real as the one in Venice, and an international competition produced for it a magnificent redesign, complete with a monumental work of sculpture by Gregg Wyatt.

Three views of a sculpture by Wyatt:




26. As a public service, the Parks Department built a recreational park for readers. It consisted of seven stories of low rent space for used bookstores.


It sat on top of a reborn Orson Welles Cinema, also low rent, that tempts with seven silver screens: two for revival double features of classic movies, two for indie movies, two for foreign films and one for non-stop Bollywood.


27. They licensed electric-assisted pedicabs (regenerative braking) to operate to Harvard Square in one direction and to Boston's Boylston Street in the other.
Tourists loved them, and the mostly-student drivers built leg muscles and cardiovascular health.


28. They required party hats atop all buildings over 21 stories.
This yielded an entertaining little skyline visible from Boston, where it caused twinges of envy.

29. They planted 400 5" caliper Sycamore trees. All Central Square streets were beneficiaries.
Mature sycamores provided dense shade and tree cover. Mass Ave came to resemble a Parisian boulevard with dense street cover.

* * *


Prospect Street?


Massachusetts Avenue?







Haute couture.


Elegant boutique with stone ornament (yields an FAR bonus).


Shops spill onto sidewalk...



Small footprint with alleys.


Multistory shopping mall circulation crosses vehicular alley.


Cafe society.


Spectators on their way to the Concours.


Getting around in the city.



In 2020, here's what you'll find that's new:

1. TOWERS. All former parking lots now sport nifty mixed-use buildings --most of them towers behind the Avenue. Central Square has a nice little skyline, and an intermittently rebuilt Massachusetts Avenue now has a streetwall averaging about eleven stories --like Boylston Street around the Pru. Retail buzzes at ground level; office, residential or hotel above. The scene now resembles Manhattan's upper Broadway. The streetscape's traditional diversity survived due to the impossibility of building blockbusters or fat waddlers.

2. RESIDENTIAL. 2800 new apartments house 7000 new residents and boost Cambridge's permanent population back over 110,000. Additionally, two competing dormitory towers were developed for 1000 students enrolled at any college. A stretch of ten opulent five-story elevator-equipped townhouses with mortgage-payer rental units, at $7 million each. One of the townhouses is operated as a high-end bed and breakfast.

3. HOTELS. An Ian Schrager boutique hotel in a converted historic building enhanced with four additional stories, a Holiday Inn Express, a John Jeffries House annex and a single-room occupancy YMCA tower for the almost-homeless and hostelers. You can spend $40 to $800 for a night's sleep.

4. LIVE ENTERTAINMENT. Two off-broadway theatres, a small black-box, an old-timey burlesque house and a classy little music hall with four-star acoustics and a chamber music series to match. Two bars schedule live jazz and rock.

5. MOVIES. Besides the Orson Welles, a big chain multiplex shows Hollywood blockbusters on 13 screens. Imagine: 20 movie programs in all to choose from!

6. CLUBS AND LIBIDO. 3 cabarets, 3 dance clubs, 3 gay bars and a big upstairs pool hall. Furtively tucked away but blaring with neon, a Hustler Club, Penthouse, a resurrected Naked Eye, Glass Slipper, Centerfolds, and a newcomer, the Varsity Club, vie for conventioneers' dollars and stag partygoers: Scollay Square reborn in salubrious surroundings on both sides of Allen Way, the clubs are glittering and glamorous in ways not seen in decades.

7. FOOD. A Trader Joe's attracts food shoppers from Harvard Square and Boston with Whole Foods choices at Stop and Shop prices, and the restaurants stretch all the way to Inman Square.

8. PARKING. 3600 new parking places, all revenue producing or free with $10 or more store receipt. About a half of Central Square's spaces are in automated German or Japanese car storage facilities, which because of their efficient space utilization, account for only one third of parking square footage.

9. STREET LIFE. Folks from all Greater Boston flock to Central Square to shop, work, eat and be entertained. If you can't afford a ticket, there are plenty of buskers, acrobats and flaneurs to keep you entertained:








10. Not only is Central Square's character enhanced, but it now has characters:



Thanks to Jakob and sercan.de @ skyscrapercity.com for many of the pix.

* * *


In his seminal book, The City in History, Lewis Mumford includes an aerial photograph of Greensboro, NC, which eerily resembles Central Square. He comments that the amount of damage to the urban fabric in the picture is about comparable to the wartime destruction of a German city --except of course that here the damage is self inflicted.


Parking lots aren't an integral part of any city; they are the cheap and sleazy destruction of the very city they're meant to serve, and they're wholly unacceptable when you consider how much healthy development they prevent by literally getting in the way. Some of that potential development --as well as an acceptable solution for parking needs-- is suggested above.


A shameful use of land.

Central Square is poised at a crossroads, and has been for over half a century of stagnation. Will it dare to make the transition to genuine utban development?

Experience suggests it will take someone slipping an elixir in the drinking water.

I agree that seeing Central Square being made over into some amalgam of Morningside Heights and Istanbul would be fantastic.

But I think you're mischaracterising the neighborhood's present-day state. It's not early as stale or stagnant as you seem to suggest - I've heard visitors suggest that it's the liveliest nightlife district they'd seen in metro Boston. It's probably one of the most multicultural districts in the area, too.

There even used to be a Gap - right across the street from Starbucks.
Because all improvements they proposed made sense

I'm sorry, but I let out quite the "HAAha-hahahaha" when I read that. I guess it's my cynical side coming through.

As for the "but it now has characters" comment, all I can say is Central Square already has enough characters as it is.
I'm sorry, but I let out quite the "HAAha-hahahaha" when I read that. I guess it's my cynical side coming through.
Is that because you think the improvements don't make sense, or because you think it would make no difference if they did?
Heh, neither Ablarc. It's the idea that a bunch of politicians would propose things and all of them would make sense.. I mean that's nothing if not hilarious!

(that's my cynical side)

Seriously though, I loved this essay. Bravo.
Yeah, but ... remember ... they drank the water. ;) :cool:
So you've given up on reality and deal strictly in fantasy now, huh?

Sorry it has come that, but sadly it has.

Happy New Year...
Fantasy is the road to creative reality. Today's fantasy is tomorrow's reality.

...though it usually needs a shove.

Think about it. It's only the general aura of effete depletion rife in this land that even makes you refer to the above proposals as "fantasy." Look over them and assess their cost. You'll find all are reasonable, realizable and quite modest; in China --where they believe in progress-- they'd be implemented in a flash if someone thought of them.

What makes them pipedreams isn't their scope --which is mostly quite economical-- but the fact that if it's not bog-standard, the most pipsqueak proposal is fought to impossibility by the obstructionists in our litigious and conflict-laden society. That's what makes us a society in decline; we are the enemy within.

Goodwill: ha! Cooperation: tell me about it! Good ol' American "can do"? Ain't been seen in ages.

The only part that's fantasy is the elixir from Nepal and the goodwill it's supposed to engender.

(Or maybe what you mean is if the proposals were implemented, the outcome would be fantastic! ;) :p)

Happy New Year.
How do we get Ablarc appointed head of the BRA -- or better yet, Mayor of Boston?
If you want this idea to become reality then you need to appoint him to the Community Development Department in Cambridge (not Boston).
Here's a rezoning suggestion which might bring about many of the same desirable changes without the need for (as much) elixir. Cambridge should designate a redevelopment corridor along the entire length of Mass Ave, of variable width up to two blocks. This corridor's main zoning rule, which is absolute and non-negotiable, is that no new building may exceed 11 stories or go below nine. Existing buildings of under nine stories, unless historically significant, are hit with an sprawl-abetters tax on the height difference to encourage redevelopment. This might just work since it has something for everybody:

- The developers get legal certainty and are spared the haggling;
- the NIMBYs are reassured that the offal of urban development will be confined to a narrow saussage, with passive uses like townhouse yards mitigating the transition;
-city lovers everywhere get the sort of street wall Mass Ave deserved all along.
- the axiomatic nature of the height restriction is what will make the scheme work psychologically: it gives all players a safe point of reference from which to take a breather and stop thinking about development as warfare.
- the proposal is essentially conservative: it's not about Manhattanizing Mass Ave, it's about Mass Ave-izing all of it.
Skyscrapers can be nice (or awful), but are in no way necessary to making a good city. That red herring has distracted Boston development from more important issues for far too long.

I like many of ablarc's regulatory suggestions, but would offer tax incentives rather than FAR bonuses to stay within the absolute height limit. A committee to prevent kitsch or reward ornament (do pasted-on I-beams count?) sounds too much like style police, and like any police it would soon serve whichever taste manages to grab control of it (will it be academic modernism or NIMBY's retro-colonial?). Instead, there should be abstract guidelines of the sort that produced Back Bay's bay windows out of thin air:

- limits on lot size;
- consistency requirements: all new buildings will have to take up their neighbors cornice line or acknowledge them in massing or fenestration or ...;
- variety requirements: no two adjacent buildings may be designed by the same architects (owners of large lots are, however, encouraged to build invisible shared infrastructure for their multiple buildings, like underground parking); no more than 50% or less than 30% of buildings on the same block may have same kind of facade material, etc.

I'd rather leave Mass. Ave. alone and concentrate on improving the density and quality of the side-street blocks, especially Bishop Allen, Green, and Prospect.
^ The problem with justin's proposal is that we'd probably lose a lot of quirky, single story outposts along the street, like the Middle East complex and People's Republik: and it would be difficult to somehow discriminate in favor of these. Meanwhile, ugly shit like the concrete tower at the corner of Prospect Street gets to stay (in fact, it would be one of the only buildings that would get to stay).

A more modest plan: mandate shopfront conversions among the purely residential apartment buildings on the street. Eradicate any remaining front lawns either by moving old houses or adding to them creatively. Aggressively develop nearby parking lots (as per Ron's suggestion) so that Mass. Ave. forms the center of a high density corridor. Pitch the reduction of parking to the locals and throw in benefits like the new subway entrance ablarc mentioned, lots of bike amenities, and traffic-calming, pedestrian friendly street redesigns.
mandate shopfront conversions among the purely residential apartment buildings on the street

which means mandating eviction for residential tenants on the first floor. Even harder if we're talking about condo buildings. I don't see this as necessary or desirable.
Clearly it doesn't have to happen right away in the case of buildings where apartments are occupying the first floor. It can be a gradual process of commercialization as they move out/take incentives.

A good example of what I'm talking about is Newbury Street, which was at one time almost purely residential - and the conversion is still happening on some blocks.
Here's a rezoning suggestion which might bring about many of the same desirable changes without the need for (as much) elixir. Cambridge should designate a redevelopment corridor along the entire length of Mass Ave, of variable width up to two blocks. This corridor's main zoning rule, which is absolute and non-negotiable, is that no new building may exceed 11 stories or go below nine.
Pretty good, justin. Nice and clean. Sounds like Haussmann.

It might not save on elixir, though; it would be a hard sell to both the development community and the anitidevelopment guys (NIMBYs and planners). Takes too much mental readjustment on the part of both on the subject of height --though in opposite directions.

Height: the great bugaboo. Incredible.

What you describe might look a little like this:


Too white for Cambridge?

Or this:


Or a little taller in New York:


About the right height:


Though it might turn out like this:


Ugh. How do you guard against this? (There's already some like this on Mass Ave towards Harvard Square.)
The construction of taller buildings in Harvard Square over the past two decades has coincided with what many feel is a loss of the square's character (formerly quirky, independent, non-chain) and vitality (as evidenced by its many vacant storefronts). How to avoid this in Central if we follow your advice?
Central Square in case you haven't noticed is now become an annex of the bio/pharma/energy/high/nano tech development spawned by MIT in Kendal Square. Novartis, Forest City Development {former Simplex property} and others have and are investing hundreds of millions of $ and others will follow suit.

I would hide and watch what happens to Central Sq. in the next few dozen years as the area surges

Of all the suggestions above the only ones that are obviously good:
1) Red-Line Blue Line connection somewhere {Charles, DTX}
2) Open the South end of Central Square Station to general access on both sides of Mass Ave.
3) Ban new parking lots -- garages are ok