“The Park at Post Office Square”, Peter Harnik
Urban Parks and Open Space, Urban Land Institute, 1997
reprinted with permission
The Park at Post Office Square
Boston, the city that in 1634 presented America with its first urban civic space – the Boston Common – has broken new ground again, this time with an innovative park that has the potential to change public thinking abut creating new greenspace among downtown skyscrapers.
At 1.7 acres, the Park at Post Office Square is barely large enough to hold all the awards it has won. Its conception and design have led it to be called “the perfect park”, and it has become the focal point for the city’s dense, serpentine financial district. Because the park has the feel of a comfortable living room, most visitors – and many
Bostonians – have trouble believing that it hasn’t always been there.
The park’s centerpiece is a walk-through sculptural fountain so whimsically user-friendly that in summertime, office workers eating lunch often kick off their shoes to dip their feet in the fountain, unless an entire class of preschoolers has preempted them by stopping to splash. A couple of yards away is a 143-foot-long formal garden trellis, supported by granite columns, draped with seven species of vines and lit internally by computer-driven mini-bulbs that perform a subtle nighttime show. The jewel-like Great Lawn, raised above the walkways by a granite curb, provides a relaxed retreat, even furnishing a ramped, grassy entryway for wheelchairs. One-hundred-twenty-five different species of plants, flowers, bushes, and trees can be found throughout the park. Post Office Square includes an airy, copper-and-glass garden pavilion that houses a year-round café (kosher, no less). It features one-of-a-kind, wrought iron fencing and specially monogrammed drainage gates. Seating style fits every posterior and mood – stately teak benches, curving steel settees, movable cast-iron café chairs with tables, hundreds of linear feet of inviting polished granite wall, and half an acre of lawn. And under it all are seven floors of parking spaces for 1,400 cars.
In an unusual twist, the Park at Post Office Square is supported – both physically and financially, by a 500,000-square-foot parking garage, the largest in Boston. And amazingly, the auto-arboreal relationship (“Park Above, Park Below”) works.
“The garage functions like a gusher,” wrote Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, “spuming people and activity continually upward.” The garage gushes more than the 2,000 people who enter and leave the gazebo-covered escalators daily. It also generates the profits, about $8.6 million a year, to pay for the $76 million development of the park-and-parking-lot; its $2.9 million annual operation; its $1 million local tax bill; and, if things go well, a bit extra to contribute to a maintenance fund for neighborhood parks all over Boston.
“Post Office Square Park has changed Boston forever,” mused the Globe’s Campbell. “The business district used to be an unfathomable maze of streets and buildings without a center. The park provides that center, and all around it, as if by magic or magnetism, the whole downtown suddenly seems gathered in an orderly array. It’s as if the buildings were pulling up to the park like campers around a bonfire.”
Perhaps even more enchanting is how the Park at Post Office Square came to be.
The Site: From Parking to Park
Until 1954, Post Office Square was an open cobblestone plaza crisscrossed by trolley tracks. That year, the city of Boston, concerned that the lack of downtown parking was contributing to the loss of retail business to the suburbs, signed a 40-year lease of the land for the construction of a four-story garage. The low-fee garage immediately became a dominant, quirky fixture in the neighborhood, warehousing 950 cars a day, producing major traffic jams on Congress Street, and generating huge profits for its operator, a garage and taxi magnate named Frank Sawyer.
By the late 1970s, the squat, 25-year-old concrete structure, trash-strewn and unmaintained, was, in many people’s minds, a blight on the neighborhood. Many buildings on the square had shifted their entrance doors and addresses to other streets, symbolically dismissing Post Office Square as a backyard for auto storage.
Enter Norman Leventhal, a native Bostonian who had worked his way up from childhood poverty to become head of the Beacon Companies and one of the city’s most prominent developers. Besides understanding the financial aspect of development, Leventhal was also an urban visionary willing to take astonishing risks.
When the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston moved out of its venerable Post Office Square location in the mid-1970s, the building sat on the market for several years, until Leventhal eventually proposed clearing half the site to construct a large office tower and renovating the historic bank as an upscale hotel. After a bruising battle with the city’s powerful historic preservationists, he secured the necessary permits.
Two years later, in 1981, as he stood on the steps of the plush new Hotel Meridien and cut a ribbon with Boston Mayor Kevin White, he proudly surveyed the scene. Everything was perfect – except the view across Pearl Street.
“Mr. Mayor,” Leventhal said, “that garage has got to go.” The mayor agreed, but with the city locked into a lease until 1994, there didn’t seem to be any recourse without Frank Sawyer’s approval. And, with Sawyer netting over $1 million a year on the garage, he wasn’t even returning phone calls.
Undaunted, Leventhal formed Friends of Post Office Square, Inc., in 1983 and sent invitations to some of his neighbors: Fleet Bank, Olympia & York, NYNEX, Eaton Vance Management, Equitable Life Assurance Society, State Street Bank, Harvard Community Health Plan, and FMR Corporation (Fidelity Investments). To make the best use of the board, Leventhal decreed two rules: only chief executive officers were permitted to attend (no surrogates allowed), and all meetings would begin at 7:30AM and end no later than 9:00AM. That standard set the tone for the focused, high-powered attention that the enterprise required. Soon the Friends numbered 20.
“I told them we’d need a million bucks which they’d never see back,” recalled Leventhal. Fortunately, the local economy was supercharged at the time and Bostonians were optimistic. Each Friend anted up about $50,000, enough to begin planning and to hire Robert Weinberg, a Leventhal associate and former director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, as president. The Leventhal-Weinberg team then swung into action to begin negotiations with Frank Sawyer.
A four-year legal and political struggle over the land ensued. Sawyer retained a former Massachusetts Supreme Court justice as his attorney, but the Friends nevertheless convinced the city that the decrepit building was a dangerous blight on the community and got approved as a “limited dividend corporation,” a rare designation that includes the power of condemnation. When Sawyer realized that he no longer held the winning cards, he finally agreed, in 1987, to a $6 million buyout of his lease.
Meanwhile, Leventhal and Weinberg were also trying to find about $80 million from private sources, since the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts had made it clear from the start that there were no public funds available for Post Office Square. So the Friends, many of whom were in banking and finance, did what they do best – and what may well be unique in the annals of park creation. They began to sell shares in the project. For $65,000, an investor could buy one share of the project, repayable in 40 years, with an interest rate of up to 8 percent.
In the middle of Boston’s economic boom of the mid-1980s, an 8 percent return was not a particularly good financial investment. “But we threw in a sweetener,” said Weinberg with a faint smile. “Each share included the guaranteed right to lease one parking space, at market rate, forever, in the best location in Boston, in the best garage in the city, maybe in the world.”
In short order, 450 shares in the project were sold and the Friends had $30 million. A bit more salesmanship and they also had a $48.5 million loan (from a $60 million line of credit) from the Bank of New England.
But their troubles weren’t over yet. Not everyone agreed that a square block in the middle of what was then the hottest downtown real estate market in the country should be merely a place for workers to sunbathe. Several developers dangled tantalizing proposals for a job-creating and tax-producing skyscraper for the site. (The garage at Post Office Square does pay taxes to the city, but not nearly as much as a 70-story building would have.) One New York architect, hearing that the powerful Boston Redevelopment Authority was adamantly opposed to the loss of any more sunlight in the financial district, submitted an architectural model made entirely of cellophane. “They said, ‘See? It casts no shadow!’” laughed Shirley Muirhead, landscape designer for the redevelopment authority and self-proclaimed guardian of downtown solar access. “Eventually we convinced the mayor that a park would do a lot more for the city than one more skyscraper.”
The mayor (by this time, populist Ray Flynn had succeeded Kevin White) was also lobbied by the city’s park and environmentalist community, which had recently formed the Boston Greenspace Alliance. The alliance rallied around Post Office Square, both because the financial district was considered everybody’s turf and because the Friends of Post Office Square had pledged to contribute profits from the garage operation to a fund that would benefit all community parks in the city.
The final agreement yielded substantial financial benefits for the city. First, the city received $1 million for its ownership interest in the site. Second, the project pays annual property taxes of $1 million. Third, the city contributes no money to the operation of the park or the garage, and all net cash after debt service goes to the city for maintenance of neighborhood parks. And fourth, once all debt and equity are repaid, ownership of the project will revert to the city.
In March 1987, the project was approved.
Getting the Park They Wanted
Although the garage was to be the economic engine, Leventhal knew that the project’s ultimate success would depend on the park. If successful, Post Office Square could become as revered as the Public Garden and the Boston Common. Botched, it could become as scorned as the vast failed space around Government Center, only a few blocks away.
In cooperation with the mayor’s office, a park program/design review committee was established, made up of a cross-section of the community, both from the neighborhood and city wide. Not surprisingly, Leventhal was the committee chair.
The Friends first hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to investigate scores of urban parks – some with garages and many without – and to put together an armchair tour, with slides, of what they found – the good, the bad, the mundane, and the extraordinary. The culturally and economically diverse group then met repeatedly for facilitated discussions about what they wanted – and didn’t want – in a park. They also chose a few key parks to visit in person and study. “Frankly, if this had been a public project we couldn’t have done this – it would have been labeled a junket,” said Charlotte Kahn, a design review committee member who was then head of Boston Urban Gardeners and is now on staff at the Boston Foundation. “It was extravagant, but the process was designed to get us all working together as a group, really communicating. And it was extraordinarily successful.”
The committee made some basic decisions. Food in the park was okay, playground equipment was not, a water element was desirable but only if it didn’t look empty when the water was shut off. (Boston is too cold for fountains for about half the year.) The park should include both formal and casual elements, including a trellis. The park should be lively and well used – often not the case in other urban parks the group saw across the country. The park should also be inviting from the ground level, not just something to be appreciated by a few company executives from their 50th-floor suites. Finally, the group agreed that the park did not have to be flashy or wild – that it could succeed best simply by being built on a human scale and by making references to authentic 19th-century Boston architecture.
Only after the program/design committee had completed its design document and adopted it unanimously did the Friends undertake a competition to select a landscape architect. “We told all entrants that we were choosing a designer, not a design,” said Weinberg. “We wanted to find a company whose attitude and approach we agreed with and then work with them.”
Over 100 firms entered; the winner, ultimately, was the Halvorson Company of Boston, the firm that did the best job of offering to meet every suggestion and requirement spelled out in the design plan. “Basically, we showed them how we would give them everything they wanted,” said Chuck Kozlowski, principal designer of the park. “They wanted lots of different types of seating. We gave them wood, steel, the granite wall, places far from the street, and places near it. They wanted a feeling of rooms. They wanted places to meet people, and to avoid people. They wanted the park half green and half hard surface. It ultimately came out 53 percent green and 47 percent hard, not including the ramps.”
The auto ramps into the garage, two up and two down, were among the greatest challenge to the park’s design. For one thing, they sap full 14 percent of the entire surface area. For another, by squeezing the park in the middle, they made it hard to unify the north and south plazas. Viewed from above, they are jarringly visible, but from within the park they almost disappear, thanks to layers of natural screening – grasses, bushes, flowers, and trees – and an ornamental iron fence.
The survival of vegetation was by no means a given in Post Office Square. For one thing, the site is shadowed by numerous tall buildings; for another, the entire park is located on the roof of a garage. From the start, Halvorson had specified three feet of topsoil over the whole site, a requirement that would affect both the depth and the load-bearing capacity of the garage. During design, two complications emerged. The landscapers determined that they would need an additional six inches of soil, and the garage architect realized that the elevator motor would protrude an additional three feet, to just millimeters below the surface of the park. Fortunately, each team was able to accommodate the other. The elevator shaft was topped by brick walkway rather than by a tree sunk into thick loam, as originally planned; the luxurious topsoil now supports scores of trees, some of them nearly 30 feet tall – one of the factors that makes the park seem so mature, broken in, and familiar. As for light, Halvorson did solar studies and placed the Great Lawn and the perennial flower garden in the two sunniest spots.
A year before the competition to choose the landscape firm, the Friends had contracted with Ellenzweig Associates of Cambridge to design the garage. “We were retained first,” recalled Harry Ellenzweig, “to establish exactly where the ramps were going to be. But I think our most important contribution was persuading Norm Leventhal that the garage should operate like a first-class subway station – the money and everything else should be handled underground. We didn’t want the garage administration to take up too much space in the park.”
In addition to designing the garage, Ellenzweig designed two matching, gazebo-type structures on the surface, one to house the Milk Street Café, the other to serve as the escalator entranceway to the garage. Constructed of copper and glass, the café building is airy, yet movable doorways and glass panels make it flexible enough to handle the extremes of Boston’s seasons. In warm weather the café is surrounded by cast-iron tables and chairs recalling those in Paris; in cold weather it serves hot soup and provides a refuge from the wind.
Even though the Ellenzweig firm was hired first, the Friends made an unusual decision to prove their commitment to the park: they assigned the role of prime contractor to the Halvorson Company – the landscape architect – and retained Ellenzweig as subcontractor. Like almost everything else on the project, that relationship worked magically.
One of the Halvorson Company’s subtlest but most satisfying solutions – accomplished jointly with the garage engineering firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas – came about in response to the air vent challenge. A half-million-square-foot garage generates a lot of pollution and requires a continuous supply of clean air. Parsons Brinckerhoff engineers calculated that they would need two vents, each 24 feet in circumference, to meet code. Moreover, a Boston public health ordinance requires that any vent in close proximity to humans must be at least eight feet tall. In short, what amounted to a pair of giant smokestacks had to be hidden in the park.
The team scoured the site. Since the intake vent was not a health threat, it could be located in a corner and hidden by a circle of thick evergreens. The exhaust problem, however, seemed intractable until the design team realized, in flash of inspiration, that the hole need not be round. If it were long enough, it could be thin – and just might fit into the narrow space between the up and down auto ramps. Not only would the vent be essentially invisible, it would be as far as possible from any park user and, for the most part, eight or more feet above the slope of the ramps. The engineers rerouted the pipes; today, when Weinberg gives visitors a tour of the park, he delights in challenging them to find the eight-foot-high garage exhaust vent.
Weinberg also boasts of a marble lobby with fresh flowers; Mozart in the elevators; 24-hour staffing; a shoeshine; telephones and rest rooms in the lobby; a debit-card payment option; a car wash; vacuum and minor repairs downstairs; attendants who leave a note on your windshield if your inspection sticker is about to expire; a free phone connection to a traffic hotline; free downtown maps for tourists; video cameras everywhere; plus backlit walls for better visibility and security. “You can even give someone a gift certificate to park here,” he said. “We have a couple of suburban-based repair companies that rent spaces for their service vans, use our phones, eat in the park, and don’t even need an office in the city – they’re just based at Post Office Square, a couple of minutes from everywhere.”
Landscape architect Halvorson refers to Post Office Square as “a garden for all seasons.” Through a careful selection of trees, bushes, and flowers, the landscape architects created a park that exhibits color every month: witch hazel blossoms in March, saucer magnolia petals and forsythia sprigs in April, numerous flowers all spring and summer, red maple leaves in October, and deep green Norway spruce needles and red holly berries in the snows of January.
Four of the park’s biggest trees are on loan. In a major horticultural and public relations coup, the Friends learned that the Arnold Arboretum was seeking a place to transplant six excess specimens that did not quite meet the botanical garden’s exacting standards. A permanent loan was arranged, and although two of the trees turned out to be fatally diseased, the remaining four are doing fine.
Like virtually all new urban parks these days – and older parks that have been renovated – Post Office Square has had to conform to the reality of security needs. The park has no exterior wall and no high hedges or other midlevel vegetation to impede sight lines – and thus no truly secluded places. The park is also quite noisy, with the roar of trucks and the wail of sirens echoing off the surrounding building facades. Fortunately, the design, combined with the 24-hour staffed garage, has kept crime to a minimum. Even the level of vagrancy is dramatically lower than in other Boston greenspaces.
Halvorson’s design had to deal with another modern urban menace – skateboards. Young hot-rodding skateboarders, who can traverse almost any surface at any angle, can cause thousands of dollars of damage to railings, benches, walls, and curbs, but enforcing a ban on skateboarders is not easy. In an attempt to protect the hundreds of linear feet of expensive marble wall, Halvorson had a one-inch chamfer cut into the corners and had the top and edge polished to a high hone, to reduce the chance of nicking and chipping (and, incidentally, to make the wall more comfortable for sitters). Thus far, it has worked.
To designer Kozlowski, the wall represents a special triumph. “I love the fact that this park never looks vacant,” he says. “The key is the wall. When the park is crowded and the benches are filled, the wall functions as overflow seating. When the park is slightly used, people naturally prefer to sit on benches rather than on the wall. But an unoccupied wall isn’t depressing like an unoccupied bench – it doesn’t shout ‘empty!’ at you.”
Another success is the fountain in the middle of the park’s North Plaza. A piece so strong that it succeeds simply as a copper-and-green-glass sculpture during the five months when the water is shut off, it was designed by Providence, Rhode Island, sculptor Howard Ben Tre, with whom Halvorson worked for “zillions” of hours to make the art and the landscape come together – not only during the day, but at night, when the fountain is lit from below and within. Ben Tre’s design which includes scores of computer controlled nozzles that respond to wind speed, pushed technology so far that no one could predict the exact shape of the water spray until the work was built and the fountain turned on.
Making the Park Pay for Itself
Ironically, the only reason there is a park at Post Office Square is that parking in Boston is so expensive. And the reason parking is so costly – more than $20 a day – is that Boston, responding to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate to control air pollution, instituted a freeze on the number of parking spaces allowed in the central business district. “Owning a parking space in Boston is like owning a taxi medallion in New York,” explained Weinberg. “It’s a closed market. And when we bought out Mr. Sawyer and made some other deals, we got 1,400 parking spaces, about 30 percent of the entire market in our neighborhood. If parking in Boston weren’t so profitable, we couldn’t have afforded to go underground, which is more than three times as expensive as developing a space aboveground – and about ten times as expensive as surface parking.” The final tab for constructing each parking space at Post Office Square was $34,000.
The economics of Post Office Square are complex. In one sense Boston was given, for free, a beautiful new park; but to get it, the city forswore the receipt of millions of dollars of tax revenue that would have been collected from the owner and tenants of a skyscraper. However, the economic value of the buildings, shops, and hotels on and near the park has risen because of the amenity of Post Office Square – raising city tax receipts and possibly inducing some firms and residents to remain downtown.
The bottom line is mixed. After five years of operation, Friends of Post Office Square, Inc., was earning enough to cover all expenses (for the garage and park), pay its taxes, and pay the interest on its loan. It was not making enough, however, to pay a dividend to its stockholders or to pay anything into the fund for Boston’s neighborhood parks. “If back in 1988 we’d been able to borrow money at 8 percent rather than 11, we’d be right on target today,” said Weinberg. Nevertheless, the financial picture continues to brighten as the parking fee ratchets upward without loss of patrons: from $16 a day at the time of opening to $25 by mid-1997.
The number of “firsts,” “mosts,” and “bests” connected with the park and garage at Post Office Square is almost laughable: deepest excavation in the city, biggest garage, most expensive park, first privately financed park. Even the site is special; the post office at Post Office Square was the first in the 13 colonies.
The critics, the politicians, the corporate neighbors, and the users all love it. Even headline writers relish it: “They Pulled Down a Parking Lot and Put Up Paradise”; “Call It Garage Mahal.”
Whether it could be replicated is another matter, Norman Leventhal is dubious. “What we had here in Boston in 1988 was a very special situation. The economy was terrific. The big companies were making a lot of money and they could afford to throw some at this even if it wouldn’t have worked. Plus, how often can you assemble a whole square block by acquiring one old garage?” Then there is also the issue of parking rates, although Leventhal concedes that other cities might be able to compensate somewhat with lower land prices and cheaper construction costs.
Of course, Post Office Square is not the first park built over a downtown parking garage – San Francisco; Pittsburg; Alexandria, Virginia; and other cities did the trick earlier. It isn’t even the first privately built facility – Cleveland has one, too – although it is probably the first that used absolutely no public finds. And it is certainly the first to sell stock and offer investors interest.
The success of Post Office Square, and the public interest in it – Weinberg regularly gives tours to delegations from around the country and even from Europe and Asia – makes it likely that the experiment will be repeated and embellished, at least in such high-density, high-parking-fee locales as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as cities in other countries.
Project Data – The Park at Post Office Square
|Land Use Information|
|Site Area:||1.7 acres|
|Gross building area (garage):||519,057 square feet (parking and parking related)|
|Gross building area (café):||1,000 square feet (separate structure in the park)|
|Number of parking levels:||7|
|Total parking spaces:||1,400|
|Land Use Plan|
|Components||Acres||Square Feet||% of site|
|Site Purchased||March 1987|
|Construction started||October 1988|
|Leasing started||Spring 1990|
|Garage Opened||October 1990|
|Park opened||Spring 1991|
|Project completed||June 1992|
|Initial stockholder contributions||$930,000|
|Preferred stock offering||29,250,000|
|Development Cost Information|
|Site acquisition cost (to operator)||$4,772,879|
|Site improvement costs|
|Payment to city||$1,000,000|
|Initial site improvements||520,641|
|Park and Cafe||5,581,493|
|Total Site improvement costs||$7,605,278|
|Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC)||949,040|
|Elevators and escalators||957,374|
|Total construction costs||$44,321,268|
|Architecture and engineering (garage)||$4,970,434|
|Permits, licenses, and surveys||1,057,079|
|Construction interest and fees||5,599,384|
|Total soft costs/fees||$18,811,400|
|Total site acquisition and development costs||$75,510,825|
|Operating Information (1996)|
|Average number of cars parked per day||1,918|
|Average daily ticket||$18.47|
|Annual gross revenue (1996)|
|Annual Operating Expenses (1996)|
|Repair and maintenance||210,952|
|Garage and park operations||995,808|
Four hundred fifty shares of preferred stock were sold as a private offering at $65,000 per share. Each share is entitled to a cumulative 8 percent dividend and has the long-term right to rent a monthly parking space at the prevailing monthly rate. Because of the scarcity of parking in the financial district, the long-term parking right helped create a demand market for the private offering.
A ten-year note was provided by the bank of New England in 1988. The loan was assumed by Fleet Bank of Massachusetts when it purchased the failed Bank of New England from the FDIC. The nonamortizing, interest-only note serves as a line of credit that can be drawn on throughout its term to cover the development, construction, and operating requirements of the project.
Total project funding exceeds project cost. This excess funding is held in reserve in a line of credit.