Boston's new Copley Place - urban renewal of the most elegant kind

Seven years ago, Kenneth Himmel had a farfetched idea. While other developers were packing off to the Sunbelt, he focused on Boston. He wanted to build a huge shopping complex in a city that, at the time, was more famous for tangled politics than urban development. Even more challenging, he proposed to build in the empty space above a highway interchange, catty-corner to the famous old Copley Square.

''People thought we were crazy,'' recalls Mr. Himmel, senior vice-president of Urban Investment and Development Company (UIDC).

Nevertheless, Copley Place is scheduled to unveil its marble-and-tile floors, brass railings, and dramatic skylight early next year. Shoppers will be able to flock to Neiman-Marcus and Gucci. Employees will settle into their offices at IBM and Shawmut Bank. Already, one of the development's two hotels has opened for business.

Not only will posh Copley Place be the largest private development project in the city's history, but it also will be the largest single-phase project of its kind in the country.

Bostonians are asking themselves what impact the $500 million project will have on the city. And their perspectives reveal much about the city and the difficulties of urban development.

From a developer's point of view, that Copley Place was built at all is something of a miracle.

Until relatively recently, developers avoided cities, explains Benjamin Frank , vice-president for governmental affairs for Allied Stores, which owns a number of department store chains nationwide. ''The urban areas had turned into caldrons of riot and insurrection - Watts, Detroit, Newark (N.J.). . . . You just had an endless cycle of deterioration.''

Then, suddenly, people began moving back. Suburbs no longer were seen as having all the good life, Mr. Frank says. ''Watering the lawn was not the supreme dream of everyone anymore.''

So, developers looked once again to the city. Frank claims to have been the first to see Boston's potential. From his ideas evolved Lafayette Place, a downtown multi-use project that will be ready for stores to open this fall. Himmel was not far behind.

From his 47th-floor office in the John Hancock Building, Himmel can look out on his project of precast concrete and glass atriums. To the right is the affluent Back Bay neighborhood, to the left, the racially and economically diverse South End, and in the distance, poverty-stricken Roxbury neatly disguised as row houses.

For Anne Boynton, a Back Bay merchant, Copley Place will be good.

With her husband, Martin Halper, she owns the moderate- to high-priced Annie B restaurant. Like many merchants here, she anticipates more customers. ''The more (business) there is, the more it brings,'' she says.

Dollars and cents, however, are not the only ways of gauging success. Unless care is taken, observers say, there is danger that Copley Place will create even more of a gap between rich and poor, successful commercial projects and deteriorating neighborhoods.

Like many urban development projects, Copley Place has run smack into big-city politics and critical Boston issues.

Some Back Bay merchants, for example, are concerned about Copley's impact on the tight parking situation. While Copley Place expects to draw up to 5,500 visitors daily, it has only 1,432 parking spaces to accommodate them. Of those, roughly two-thirds belong to the project's two luxury hotels, leaving few for shoppers and office employees.

One of the prime sites for a new parking garage would be on an adjacent lot in the South End. But the site, known as Tent City, is embroiled in the second of Boston's thorny issues: affordable housing.

For years a concerned citizens group has been trying to get low- and moderate-income housing built on the site. A plan to incorporate both housing and parking has been approved by Boston's redevelopment authority, according to UIDC, but the citizens group is moving carefully with plans of its own.

A few blocks away, at the Union United Methodist Church, the Rev. Charles Stith raises the third critical Boston issue: minority jobs.

So far, affirmative action has been an integral part of the project. Half of the 1,000 construction jobs went to Boston residents. Of roughly 6,000 permanent employment slots Copley Place is expected to generate, 50 percent are slated to go to women and 30 percent to minorities. The Rev. Mr. Stith and a group of minority clergymen are investigating how well that plan has been carried out in the Westin Hotel, which opened for business Aug. 1.

Copley Place, he says, ''could be a signal that the city is for the rich, the chic, the hip, the whites. Or it could cut in a slice of the community that has been cut out.

''The boom years of this economy were made when there were attempts to involve the black community. For those people who think they've seen a renaissance in Boston - what's the old Hollywood accent? - 'You ain't seen nothin' yet.' ''

''I do feel it will give people jobs,'' says Mary Lou Wharton, who cares for five children of working parents at her home on St. Botolph Street. Located two doors away from the construction site, she is feeling the commercial impact of Copley Place.

Property values have skyrocketed since she bought her house for $13,500 in 1958. Recently, after refusing one offer in excess of $150,000, she was offered triple the amount.

''I want to stay here,'' she says, adding that she hopes her street can continue to attract families with children and maintain its sense of neighborhood.

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