Don Chiofaro going at it again: building on the Greenway?

For some observers, Don Chiofaro is a character out of Ayn Rand, the larger-than-life developer who muscles aside naysayers to create huge and exciting structures that fulfill his vision. For others, he is simply a bulldog, who insists on doing things his way, a person who, as WBUR radio put it yesterday, sees “development as a contact sport.”

He certainly is one of the more interesting characters on Boston’s landscape. Son of a cop, one-time captain of the Harvard football team, it’s a good story line. The developer of International Place, who almost lost his building to his lenders, now wants to build twin (600’) towers on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, as squat and ugly a building as exists on the Greenway. Whether Mayor Menino objects to the substance of  the proposal and/or the proposer (the Mayor’s press secretary denies the latter), the city insists the towers be just 200’, a zoning standard expected to be adopted at the BRA’s July 20 board meeting. Obviously, if something were to be built, the answer lies somewhere in between, balancing aesthetics with economic feasibility, and Chiofaro would have to seek a variance from the zoning.

The monetary case for the proposal is clear: city and state tax revenues, linkage money, thousands of jobs. But dollars alone shouldn’t dictate what you build in a newly available precious space that could dramatically improve people’s quality of life and enjoyment of the seaport area of the city.

On its surface, the idea of building twin towers on the Greenway seems to contradict the very idea of what the Greenway was supposed to accomplish, replacing the Central Artery with open space and access to the harbor. But Chiofaro’s design has much to recommend it. The towers are sleek and bold, and, as architects observed in the Boston Globe, they have the drama and energy one sees in buildings springing up in Asia.

He’d provide an 88′-wide opening from the Greenway to the Harbor between the buildings. That’s 70 percent wider than the path to the Harbor at Rowes Wharf. Chiofaro plans to create an enhanced pedestrian plaza between his site and the New England Aquarium. And, if he gets to build on the garage site, which he now owns, Chiofaro should be expected to take more than a passing interest in the ongoing enhancement of the Greenway. That would be a plus: the Greenway Conservancy needs all the help it can get.

For now, it’s one step at a time. Chiofaro is dealing with shadow studies, wind and other impacts. He is trying to convince people that his design can humanize the landscape and create a path to the sea. Kairos Shen, the chief planner for the city, says, according to WBUR, he has no intention of letting one developer hijack the skyscape of the city. But where was the Boston Redevelopment Authority when the mayor contemplated a since-aborted 80-story building over the Federal Street wind tunnel, adjacent to Winthrop Square? Meanwhile, the BRA requested data (a so-called scoping determination) from Chiofaro last summer and has yet to receive it. So the process isn’t dead.

A multi-use development of the scope that Chiofaro proposes only happens with transparency and robust discussions involving city officials and community. Unless the city has a better alternative, Menino and Chiofaro need to drop the Hatfield/McCoy posture, roll up their sleeves and work together to make something happen.

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