Oh dearie me! The YMCA of Greater Boston has announced that it will not build a a $70 million community center on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway near the North End. In short, a nonexistent building will continue to not exist on the Greenway.  The YMCA’s center will now join the august company of the imaginary Massachusetts Horticultural Society Garden Under Glass, the unearthly New Center for Arts and Culture, and the vaporous Boston Museum.

If you can’t quite remember what all these projects looked like, the Boston Globe has a pretty slide show with drawings of them all. There’s a Bob-the-Builder style model view of the YMCA project at the CBT architects site as well.

Source: The Boston Globe

The reason? Here’s a quote from Peter O’Connor, head of real estate for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, via the Boston Globe:

“People don’t like to hear me say this, but it’s really hard to build over eight lanes of live traffic,’’ O’Connor said. “We need to stop acting like we can produce fancy architectural drawings and then just put up buildings. We have to look at other ways of solving this.’’

“Really hard” is another way of saying “very expensive.” Ah well; at least we have plenty of architectural drawings now.

So here we are in winter of 2011. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway isn’t architecturally stunning, like New York City’s multi-story High Line Park—also built on a former elevated highway site—or instantly popular like Chicago’s Millennium Park. The park is a giant green roof on top of a highway, and the soil is constantly interrupted by cables, electrical conduits, water pipes and a thousand other plant-hostile necessities. You can’t just plant a tree wherever you like on the Greenway; put your shovel in at the wrong place, and you could short out the entire North End—if you can find a place where the dirt is deep enough to plant a tree in the first place.

The Greenway’s green surface is also fragmented by enormous swaths of sidewalk (one writer in Landscape Architecture magazine called it “The Rose Kennedy Paveway”) and endless criss-crossing streets. Heck, even the instructions for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s “Green Spaces” Design Competition describe the Greenway as disconnected:

“Class 202 – “Rose Kennedy Greenway” is a roughly 1.5-mile-long series of public spaces created in downtown, it is the part of the massive Central Artery Project….A Synergistic Design of 3 or more units… The individual units/containers should not appear as completed designs in themselves, but when combined create an artistic whole. ”

I’d agree that the Greenway has three or more units. I’m not sure about it being “an artistic whole,” given that the different parcels were designed by different landscape architecture firms, and several of them were supposed to be covered by non-existent buildings.

When I think about the Greenway, I remember a quote from the movie Lilo and Stitch, where Stitch, the trouble-making alien, talks about coming to live with earthling orphans Lilo and Nani:

“This is my family…. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway isn’t what it could be yet. It’s broken into pieces, and it doesn’t have any grand and heroic buildings, or unforgettable vistas, or beer gardens. The trees are still saplings, and there aren’t many people to visit parts of it because nobody built any apartments next to the Central Artery for 50 years. But it’s green, and people do enjoy it. It is still good.