The New Green Monster

The New Green Monster

A major Boston developer has proposed replacing one of Boston’s biggest eyesores with one of the largest, greenest developments in city history. The Raymond Property Company has filed a proposal with the city for One Congress Street, a four-million-square-foot office, residential, and retail development. The project would redefine the skyline, with two towers reaching 42 and 52 stories that rise from a series of smaller buildings intended to mask their scale. The developer selected Cook + Fox as designer from a shortlist of five notable firms.

If realized, One Congress will replace the Government Center Garage, a 150-foot-tall, two-football-field-long concrete bunker that spans Congress Street and slices the Haymarket area in two. Like its Brutalist neighbor City Hall, the garage was designed by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles.

“We have been working with the community for months and are excited to kick off the official public review process,” said company chairman Ted Raymond. “In the estimation of most people, the garage has outlived its appeal and today serves chiefly as an eyesore, a Berlin Wall that separates the Bulfinch Triangle and the West End from the North End and downtown.”

Rebecca Mattson, Raymond’s chief operating officer, said that choosing a team of world-class architects was of paramount importance. “Boston doesn’t build that often, and Boston doesn’t build big that often, so we really wanted this to be something special.” Raymond’s selection process for the invited competition, initiated in December, was very direct: two firms were chosen for their high-rise expertise—SOM and Gensler—two for their iconic status—Foster + Partner and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture—and one for its “cutting-edge work”—Cook + Fox, whose Platinum LEED-seeking One Bryant Park Raymond especially admired.

Raymond has been developing in and around the neighborhood surrounding the garage for years, and so the developer spent months meeting with the community, seeking both public input and public favor. This led to a planning study with local firm Chan Krieger Sieniewicz that set rather strict guidelines for the five firms: the two towers, rising from a human-scale plinth, plus two smaller towers across Congress Street on scale with the plinth. Still, the results varied greatly, from Gensler’s cellular volumes to OMA’s sardonically conventional boxes. “We wanted someone who could do green, iconic, and buildable,” Mattson said. “The question is, who can do those three best?" The answer proved to be Cook + Fox.

Principal Rick Cook said his firm’s design casts an attentive eye toward its surroundings. The strands of each tower are arranged to avoid casting shadows to the Rose Kennedy Greenway while the terra cotta cladding of the plinths, which are filled with active retail and civic uses, are gestures to the brick vocabulary of the city, as well as home to some 2,000 mandatory parking spaces.

One side of the 52-story tower is cut exactly perpendicular to the sun for maximum photovoltaic penetration. "That’s basically how the buildings were formed, by the environment," Cook said. The towers’ undulating elevations also create varying plans from floor to floor, allowing for unique configurations in what are tentatively planned to be a pair of office towers, though one could be a hotel or apartment building, as the development climate will eventually dictate.

Cook said that for him, the true appeal of the project was the way it would repair a longstanding rift in Boston’s urban fabric. When the garage was completed in 1961, it was one of many barriers in the downtown landscape. Following the recent transformational success of the Big Dig, however, which buried the Central Artery and the elevated subway tracks, the garage is all that remains, looming over the neighborhood. "It’s the last super-damaging artifact left from the downtown urban renewal of the 1970s," said Tim Love, a principal at UTILE, which is preparing a development study of the Greenway.

Raymond has set a tight deadline for the project. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to move out of a two-story commercial addition that was built atop the garage in 1991, the garage’s first vacancy in 20 years. Raymond has said that if it does not have most of its approvals in place, it will simply re-lease the space, since revenues from the parking spaces and office rents are considerable. (Raymond bought the garage in January 2007 for $243 million.)

Love said that, given the nature of Boston development, where every project is negotiated with the city on the basis of public benefit, it will be challenging but far from impossible for the project to get approved as proposed. “It’s practically the perfect case study of Boston planning and development,” Love said. “Basically, Raymond is asking, ‘How much do you want this garage to go? What are you willing to give us to take it down?’"

The developer has a powerful ally on his side in the locals and civic groups who loath the garage. “It draws the line on downtown, which is fine—unless you’re on the wrong side of the line,” said Bob O’Brien, executive director of the Downtown North Alliance, making clear where he and his beloved West End fall. "We’ve become terra incognita, the other side of the map." O’Brien, Love, and others said that in spite of the project’s massive scale and scope, it has received generally favorable reviews from the public.

Assuming One Congress receives approval from the city, one thing the developer is not worried about is financing. Raymond has partnered with the Lewis Trust Group, a British real estate investment firm, and the National Electrical Benefit Fund, the pension fund of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, both of which have been thus far spared by the recession. “It’s sheer dumb luck we picked them as partners, but thank God,” Mattson said.

Despite such the public and financial support, some politicians have objected, most notably Michael Flaherty, a city councilor running against four-term incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino. He has seized upon Raymond’s proposal to include two adjacent parcels in the development, one occupied by a police station, which was recently refurbished for $5 million, and an NStar substation. Raymond conferred with both the city and NStar about its intentions, though no formal deals have been struck. Still, Flaherty has called it a sweetheart deal for the developer.

Politics aside, Peter Smith, principal of Global Urban Solutions and a co-chair of the Boston Society of Architect’s Urban Planning Committee, said that while much work remains to be done, he believes Raymond is headed in the right direction. “They“ve got to work through it with all the stakeholders, dot all their ‘i’s’ and cross all their ‘t’s’,” Smith said. “But in that respect, they’re on the right track."