Downtown View: Interesting Passageways are Returning

In 2010 in this column, I urged developers to create permeability at the ground level of big buildings. I especially wanted them to replicate the historic little lanes of downtown Boston—Spring Lane, Pi Alley, Winthrop Lane—or to create Boston versions of the Burlington or Prince’s Arcade in London and Paris’s passage couverts. These covered public walkways, open at each end and lined with small shops, cut through the ground level of big buildings.

Open passageways were forgotten in Boston throughout the city’s first fifty years of building skyscrapers. I can identify two. One is not in Boston. It is the passageway off Brattle Street in Harvard Square formed by concrete and glass buildings by Josep Lluis Sert, Walter Gropius and Benjamin Thompson. The Harvest Restaurant lies along this path. The other is the Rowes Wharf rotunda, not a linear passageway, but at least a pedestrian opening in a large building.

But now there is good news on the permeability front. Three developers are incorporating open passageways and arcades into their plans. I don’t think it was because of my column. But I’m pleased.

Each plan is different. The first to emerge will be an arcade at Avalon Bay’s Nashua Street Residences. These two buildings, 34 and 38 stories tall, are rising behind the Tip O’Neill Federal Building and beside North Station/TD Garden near where Nashua Street meets Lomasney Way in the Bulfinch Triangle.

The 25-foot high covered arcade will run north and south between Avalon Bay’s buildings and North Station/TD Garden. Its 30-foot width can handle the heavy commuter foot traffic spilling from the station toward MGH, Mass. Eye and Ear and farther destinations.

Conveniently for those commuters and for Boston Garden fans, shops and restaurants will fill the west side of the passageway, said Scott Dale, senior vice president at Avalon Bay.

The arcade will turn left and spill out into the West End. Along this section will be the lobby for the residences.

The arcade solved the problem of getting pedestrians safely through the site, said Dale. It is too early to know what shops might occupy the spaces but one hopes they are small, varied and satisfying. It is a felicitous solution and should be finished in fall, 2017.

Related Beal’s Congress Square is another development that will include a public passageway—one that has been there since colonial days. Quaker Lane got its name from a Quaker Meeting House that long ago occupied an adjacent site. The narrow lane is not a straight shot. It has two parts. One path connects Congress and Devonshire streets. About halfway along that path another L-shaped path meets it. That portion began at Congress Street.

The Congress Square project renovates several older buildings around Quaker Lane and includes new construction filling in a parking lot. Its letter of intent was filed with the Boston Redevelopment Authority on October 31.

Related Beal is not yet specific about Quaker Lane. “As part of our redevelopment plans for Congress Square, we will be activating Quaker Lane, which bisects the property and will connect Post Office Square to Faneuil Hall. We look forward to transforming this space into an urban oasis for pedestrians, lined with boutiques, indoor and outdoor cafes and restaurants, and distinct retail venues,” said

Stephen N. Faber, executive vice president of Related Beal, in a quote provided by his public relations firm.

Sounds like a good revival of a forgotten passageway.

Don Chiofaro also has plans for a pedestrian passageway in his Harbor Garage project. It is from 70 to 172 feet wide, extends between two proposed buildings from the Greenway to the harbor and is protected from the weather by a retractable glass roof. It is a linear passageway, but it evokes Rowes Wharf’s rotunda in its drama and spaciousness. The most recent news about this project is that neighbors in Harbor Towers’s two buildings inexplicably object to Chiofaro’s two buildings, and have proposed one building only. Their plan would eliminate this tantalizing path to the harbor, one of the best features of Chiofaro’s proposal. The path would also help mitigate the barrier Harbor Towers itself now presents in enabling the public to get to the waterfront.

            This will get worked out, but the features these three developers have deployed to make new developments hark back to historical Boston, when public passageways were common, will mean a richer pedestrian life for us all. Let’s hope subsequent projects incorporate such permeability into their plans.

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