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Planning Musings

BPDA Should Approve Revised Dock Square Garage Project

A lone person walks in front of the garage in February 2019

This is the text of a letter I sent on February 19, 2019 to Michael Sinatra, the BPDA project manager for the Dock Square Garage (20 Clinton Street) project, a proposal to add seven stories with 175+ homes atop the garage plus new ground floor retail.

Last April, I criticized the proposal to redevelop the Dock Square Garage. At the time, the project presented little benefit for the public realm while retaining the lion’s share of the existing parking spaces. I still want the owners to tear down the garage and restore the 35 buildings and 3 streets that once existed at the site. Yet, such a project is unlikely because driving is cheap, and revenue from the garage is high. So, I called on the City to make the project more palatable by requiring three changes:

  • Mandate a redesign that provides significant ground floor retail/restaurant coverage;
  • Stipulate a long-term development plan to convert the parking levels into habitable space; and
  • Reject the plans to retain the wide garage entrance and bisect the pedestrian plaza with a new car drop-off lane.

During the January 2019 public meeting, the proponent revealed that they had incorporated my recommendations. They added 3,500 sq. ft. of ground floor commercial space facing Surface Road, confirmed that the construction methods will ensure that the parking decks could become habitable space in the future, and showed plans without a slip lane. While the developer should still make the garage entrance safer for pedestrians, I now support this project.

At the meeting, I heard from a couple neighbors who remain opposed. They argue that (1) dedicating existing parking spaces to new homes will be a hardship on the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, (2) the new homes will be “luxury” apartments and will not help to solve Boston’s housing crisis, and (3) at 160 feet, the building will block the Custom House Tower and is too tall. I will respond to each of these arguments in turn.

First, Faneuil Hall Marketplace is awash in alternatives to driving. The site has direct connections to the T at the State, Haymarket, Aquarium, and Government Center stations. South Station and North Station are also within a reasonable walking distance. Close by is a major bus hub at Haymarket Station and the commuter ferries at Long Wharf. Three BlueBikes stations surround the Marketplace, with a fourth station coming soon.

This rich array of alternatives ignores one basic point. So long as Faneuil Hall Marketplace has restaurants and stores worth visiting, people will make the trip. Having a Uniqlo, Gap, Clarks, etc. is great for people who live nearby, but we’re walking—not driving—from the North End to shop in them. Visitors come to see Faneuil Hall, eat at local restaurants, and experience the things they can’t find at home. A few dozen parking spaces will not change that calculation. They already priced in the difficulty of parking in Boston when deciding to drive.

Second, “luxury” is a term without meaning. Every builder will tout their project as “luxury” because that’s the term of choice today. No developer who advertises “decent” or “adequate” projects would be in business for long. Luxury or otherwise, new market rate homes in Downtown Boston are likely to be expensive.[1] We do not expect a new car to cost less than a used one, and the same dynamic plays here. Like a new car, these homes will have all the hot features and amenities. We should not oppose them because they are new. We need all the new housing we can get.

Boston is growing and demand for housing in transit-accessible neighborhoods is particularly high. Without new construction, wealthier people will bid up rents and the sale prices of existing homes—no matter their condition—to live in popular neighborhoods. If demand warranted it, my landlord would gut my apartment—with its baseboard electric heating, scuffed floors, and fixtures dating to a 90s renovation—to match the tastes of people who can pay more for the privilege of living close to downtown. Building these 175 or so new homes cannot alone prevent this renovation, but not building them would hasten the change. Despite opposing claims, adding new homes actually lowers rents in gentrifying neighborhoods.[2]

Third, while the Custom House Tower is one of my favorite buildings, the skyline of a thriving City is ever-changing. The Tower embodies that process. The federal government erected the 430-ft. tower atop a modest custom house because trade was booming and the feds could ignore Boston’s 125-ft. height limit. Nevertheless, the cityscape changed even when Boston was not growing. The Harbor Towers opened in 1971 and they blocked some views of the Custom House from the water. In 1975, The City tore down the Mercantile Market buildings to create a new park and new views.

Many other contemporary views would not exist had the State not razed half of the North End to build the Central Artery. For that reason, today’s views from Hanover and Salem are not historic. They are also not especially beautiful. The Tower is spectacular, but the garage, highway signs, and traffic lights mar the foreground. Still, the views that I am most concerned about are those seen from a pedestrian walking around the garage today.

In the attached photos from North Street and Surface Road, the garage dominates and only the tiniest glimpse of the tower is visible. Adding any number of floors to the top of the garage would not obstruct this nonexistent view. However, the project would replace the wall of brick-clad concrete and bunker-like window slits. Instead, pedestrians would see shops, larger windows, and six new entrances. These changes would result in more eyes on the street and a far more positive pedestrian experience than the status quo.

I wish this project could restore the fine urban grain that predated the 1950s highway construction. However, the developer cannot warp time, command the state to make driving more expensive, or halt the demand for new homes in Downtown Boston. Given these limits, the City should follow the recommendation of the Impact Advisory Group and approve this project, as revised.

Photos of the Dock Square Garage in February 2019 from North St. and Surface Road

[1] Per Boston’s Inclusionary Development Policy, 13 percent of the homes will be income-restricted.

[2] Asquith B.A., Mast E., Reed D. Does Luxury Housing Construction Increase Nearby Rents? November 2018.



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