The Problem with Boston’s Private Parks

March 8, 2012 |

Cambridge Center Rooftop Garden, image courtesy of yelp.com

The problem with Boston’s private parks is that they don’t belong to the public. Witness the current tussle over the rooftop park at 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge. The owner, Boston Properties, wants to build an 18,000 square foot connector from 5 Cambridge Center—which you earth-dwellers may know as “Legal Sea Foods”—across the top of a parking garage to 4 Cambridge Center, otherwise known as “that corporate no-man’s-land between Quantum Books and the Garment District.”

The connector would allow Google employees to expand their presence and visit each other without setting foot out of doors. The problem? The connector would swallow up the sunny half of the 4 Cambridge Center rooftop park, leaving the rest of the park shaded by a Marriott hotel; the dark side of Marriott is clearly visible on the Google maps view of the site if you zoom in.

All this shade on top of a corporate parking garage would be just fine in other circumstances; companies can compel their white-collar employees to toil in whatever gloomy circumstances make their executives cackle most fetchingly. But the rooftop of the 4 Cambridge Center parking garage is a park that has been dedicated to the public. Unfortunately, it isn’t a public park. Let me explain.

Cambridge Center Rooftop Garden, image courtesy of trazzler.com

Long ago, in Cambridge’s Dark Ages of the 1960′s, the Cambridge Center site didn’t have a nifty title, and Kendall Square wasn’t a reputable address. It was “an area of factories and junkyards…whole blocks were torn down and left idle,” according to Boston Globe reporter Paul Hirshson. NASA planned to build a $60 million research center there, but pulled out of the deal after constructing only six buildings, Hirshson wrote.

In 1979, Boston Properties began building the useful—but not especially memorable—buildings that make up Cambridge Center (yes, they’re pleasant, but it’s hard to compete with MIT’s Stata Center across the street.) And in 1982—well, I’ll let Andy Metzger at the Cambridge Chronicle explain:

“Back in 1982, when Kendall was still mostly barren, the city and Boston Properties signed a covenant, ensuring that for 40 years, until 2022, an area of 47,000-square-foot area above a parking garage would be a privately maintained park open to the public during the daytime.”

Stata Center, image courtesy of MIT

And so Boston Properties got to build an enormous development with the city of Cambridge kicking in $5 million in traffic and other improvements for the area.

But now, ten years early, Boston Properties has come up with a splendid idea to destroy the park they agreed to create and build another park! It’ll be quite economical, given that they’d like to site it on land the city of Cambridge already owns. At least when the Lantana function hall grabbed three acres of the Blue Hills Reservation to build a parking lot, they gave the state some land in exchange.

The proposed shiny new park is located where Binney Street curves into Galilei Way, otherwise known as… well, actually it isn’t known as anything. There’s really nothing there except for a lot of fast-driving cars, biotech companies, and parking lots. There’s no Legal Sea Foods, no Quantum Books, no T stop; there’s no one there.

Meanwhile, the City of Cambridge has been conducting a Kendall Square/Central Square Planning Study, which didn’t account for losing park space. And many outraged Cambridge residents were shocked to learn that the park wasn’t permanently protected open space, according to the Cambridge Day.

Google Shuttle, image courtesy of mnn.com

Why doesn’t Google just route its employees through the parking garage, instead of on top of a park? Then they could negotiate to put some satellite parking on the Binney parcel, since there are so many parking lots there anyway. Better yet, run the Google Shuttle to key parking sites resulting in a couple hundred fewer cars polluting Kendall Square every day.

At least the Cambridge Center park got built. The developer of the Seaport Square project wants to ditch a planned park next to the Boston Children’s Museum because the “plans aren’t ready.” What does that mean? So much for public space in private projects.

The moral of the story? Open space that isn’t owned by the public can always be paved over. For that matter, public parks can become private space as well. Because as we know, when we have a choice between parks and parking, parking wins, every time.

 

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green Spaces.  She is a freelance environmental and travel writer. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBoston Magazine, the Time Out Boston guide, and many other publications. She holds a certificate in Field Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society.

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