Post Office Square: The Perfect Park

When does a square become a park and when does a park seem more like a garden?   Do the words we use to define public spaces impact how they are designed and the role they play within a city’s open space network?  What if cities designed garden systems instead of park systems?  Would it matter?  Would they be different kinds of spaces and engage different constituencies?

These questions arose as I began writing about Post Office Square Park (rededicated as  Norman B. Leventhal Park in 1997) at the end of last month.  In the interim I traveled to Switzerland and visited Parco Scherrer, a private garden that when bequeathed to the local municipality became a park (albeit one with an entrance fee).  While very, very different both spaces share common elements.  Both “parks” are the product of singular visions and both  integrate engineering, horticulture and sculpture with a commitment to detail and ornamentation.

As for perfect, that moniker derives from the byline of a Boston Globe article published on July 24, 1992 by architecture critic Robert Campbell. “The new park at Post Office Square downtown is one of the great public improvements in the history of Boston,” declared Campbell who further effused, “Post Office Square Park is the perfect park in the perfect location with a perfect design and perfect maintenance. This one is a four-bagger.”

Post Office Square Park recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary and for many the park, which has become the symbolic center of the financial district,  seems as if it was always there.  Remarkably, before the park was built the site was a derelict 950 car above ground parking garage, a sorry reminder of a time when the city’s public realm was in decline and businesses were more likely to build interior courtyards than encourage their employees to go outside at lunchtime.

Using a unique and financially complex public-private partnership model, the garage site was acquired through eminent domain by a group of civic-minded business leaders with the goal of creating a park above ground supported by the revenues of a new, state of the art, below-ground 1,400 car parking facility.

Empowered to develop the property with limited profit-making potential the entity they formed, The Friends of Post Office Square, remains a private civic corporation and continues to manage the park today.  As part of the partnership agreement the Friends of Post Office Square contribute $100,000 annually to the City of Boston’s Fund for Parks and Recreation, an amount that will increase once they repay their institutional debt. For additional information about the history of the project as well as programming visit:  http://www.normanbleventhalpark.org/.

It took more than ten years for the project to be realized.  In 1997 Post Office Square Park was rededicated in honor of Norman Leventhal, the Boston-born developer and philanthropist who conceived the plan and led the effort to make the park a reality.  Mr. Leventhal had previously developed Rowes Wharf, among other properties, and his singular committment to a high quality park on the site drove both the planning and design processes.

It is challenging to create new parks in a densely developed urban core and the process through which Post Office Square Park was realized left nothing to chance.  An advisory committee, composed of city representatives and civic, business and community leaders, studied best practices in park design and management to develop a park program which became the basis for a design competition.  The firm that was chosen, Halvorson Design Partnership (www.halvorsondesign.com) thoughtfully integrated the program requirements into their proposal.

“Halvorson Plan from the Original Competition”

According to a summary report prepared in 1993 for the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence the advisory committee felt that the design competition succeeded because it was used to ” select a designer, rather than a design.”  During the selection interview process Halvorson “showed slides from [his] submission boards while reading from the program documents, illustrating how he had responded to the requirements,” impressing the selection committee.

The Draft Park Program Report, written by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1987 is a scarce eleven pages in length and focuses on the ” character, users, uses, design elements, and maintenance of the park.”

In addition the program states:

….the new full-block park will create a new and highly significant public room in the city – a place to rest and relax, to gather and be observed from the surrounding buildings. ……from overall concept to detailed design it is quality that counts….This park should depend on the spontaneity of urban living rather than on structured and orchestrated events to activate and animate itself.  It should be serene and engaging rather than overwhelming and intrusive.  It should be intimate and friendly rather than monumental and intimidating.  And finally, it should be as hospitable to an individual as a crowd  — providing both the familiar and serendipitous to a  variety of users.”

“Model built following the selection process before the design of the fountain”

The artist Howard Ben Tre was selected to design the park’s fountains.  The park and garage structures were designed by Ellenzweig and Associates and the pergola’s lighting was designed by artist Ross Miller.  The ornamental iron work throughout the park is by artist Richard Duca.

“The Fountain by Howard Ben Tre”

“The parking entrances are demarcated with ornamental fencing”

The park opened in 1992.

Post Office Square Park is carefully designed and maintained  to support passive use and has successfully kept to its mandate.   Seasonal programming, including mid-day musical performances, is provided and cushions are available for use on the lawn.  An outdoor lending library featuring  magazines and books is a popular feature.

“A mid-day concert”

When designed the principal users of the park were identified as office workers, followed by downtown shoppers, tourists and garage patrons.  While the park receives limited use from the  elderly and children, in the years following Post Office Square’s opening residential development in Boston’s downtown has increased and the park, which is mainly used during the work week, has become more active on the weekends.

Year round food service is provided and coupled with the patrons of the underground garage provides a focus for pedestrian activity.

Included on the Project for Public Space’s (PPS) list of the best squares and plazas in the world Post Office Square Park contains more than 125 species of plants labeled for identification.   Horticultural displays change seasonally.

“Plantings change seasonally”

In a unique arrangement, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University “lent” trees from its botanical collection to the park when it was built in support of their commitment to increasing the public’s appreciation of the value of woody plants. These  include a Hybrid Red Oak, an Eastern Arborvitae, and two Giant Western Arborvitae

From April through November the Operations staff meets monthly with the park’s designers, landscape contractors, arborist and maintenance staff to discuss current issues within the park.    These conversations guide decision-making as the site changes and provide real time data regarding how the park is being used.  The park manager “likes keeping in touch with every living thing” and likens her role to a museum curator responsible for an environment in which every detail is critical to the overall “canvas.”

At 1.7 acres in size, Post Office Square Park, is relatively modest in scale which makes its location  in the middle of the Financial District an environmental challenge. The high level of maintenance provided by the Friends of Post Office Square assures that all of the systems within the park are constantly monitored.  This fall the primary brick walkway is being repaired and the great lawn reseeded.

Aside from it many design accolades, Post Office Square Park is also an important example of the role that public-private partnerships play in the development of urban open space.  Eight years after the park was completed The Project for Public Spaces, published Public Parks, Private Partners, a guide to how partnerships were revitalizing urban parks.  As an entirely new park, Post Office Square Park is a unique model where civic enterprise provided the impetus for public realm improvements that also transformed the surrounding streetscapes.  In addition, unlike most public-private partnerships, the parking garage provides a consistent revenue stream negating the need for ongoing fundraising.

While part of the public open space network, Post Office Square Park is privately managed and maintained at a level that far exceeds most public spaces within the city.  Eventually the city will have an opportunity, if it so chooses, to assume ownership of the park although given the diminution of funding for public open space it is difficult to imagine a scenario where that would happen.

Boston is on the verge of developing a series of new parks in the Seaport District that will be privately built, managed and maintained .  The thoughtful, collaborative process through which Post Office Square was designed and developed is a model to consider as they move forward.

In a Boston Phoenix article from 2004 Post Office Square is called the “Best Urban Oasis” a green refuge in the heart of the city.  At the same time it is an incredibly active space where contemplation ……

coexists with camaraderie…….

Copyright © 2012  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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