Copley Place, the showpiece of Boston's current development boom, perches over a highway interchange at one corner of historic Copley Square. The towering ensemble of concrete, marble, brass, and glass includes two high-rise hotels, scores of elegant stores and boutiques, and office space. Eventually, apartments will be added.
While not exactly shrouded in controversy, Copley Place focuses attention on one of Boston's great ongoing debates: How should development proceed in a graceful city of advancing years - a city with a precious historic heritage, fiercely independent neigh-borhoods, and a growing gap between the rich and poor?
Boston has become a prime target for development. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce notes that between 1981 and 1985 11 major buildings will have been built downtown, adding millions of feet of office space and thousands of hotel rooms.
Developers say such development has a positive economic impact, pointing to new jobs and tax revenue. Further, they contend, it shows that Boston is an active, thriving city. One proponent of this view, former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, says that ''if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And Boston ain't broke.''
But critics say that Boston development is bolting along on a skittish horse - unbridled and uncontrolled. It is encroaching on charming neighborhoods, creating massive traffic tie-ups, and turning the city into shiny high-rise boxes, they wail.
Development, it seems, is no longer simply a question of bricks and mortar. The concern is as much philosophical as practical. Planners speak of ''homelike'' development, economic spinoff to communities, and public safety as much as they talk about environmental concerns and engineering problems.
J. Max Bond, chairman of the Division of Architecture and Planning at Columbia University, was one of a number of experts in town recently for a development conference sponsored primarily by the Boston Globe and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He comments that we have been taught to look at glittering buildings to measure a city's success. But the real measure, he says, ''is whether it meets the needs of all its people.''
Alan B. Jacobs, a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, uses Copley Place as an example. It does not serve all the people of Boston, he says.
Copley Place, which has been opening, section by section, for the past several months, includes a Westin hotel at one end, with 804 rooms and rates starting at $110 a night. At the other end is a larger Marriott hotel, boasting comparable rates. In between are shops and restaurants, ranging from Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci to Godiva Chocolatier and a branch of Boston's famous restaurant, Durgin-Park. Neiman-Marcus has an enormous store, and Tiffany & Co., jewelers, will be moving in later this summer.
The complex has a waterfall in its seven-story atrium. It is resplendent with trees, shrubs, and flowers. Each leaf of the hundreds of peace lilies is washed and polished every week, one worker said.
But for all its opulence, Copley Place is a terrible development for Boston, according to Professor Jacobs, who points out that its high-priced attractions are inaccessible to the general public. Referring to what seems like a small army of Copley Place security guards, he says that ''walking by (them) is frightening to me, and I'm relatively wealthy.''
Less than two miles away, another part of the city, Roxbury, wallows in neglect. There are whole streets of abandoned residential property. In light of the ''incredible social inequities'' he has seen in Boston, Jacobs concludes that ''it is clear that the people in Roxbury do not benefit from downtown development.''
A recent report by the Boston business community highlighted downtown locations that could still be developed. It also identified areas where further development might ''diminish the character of central Boston and severely threaten those qualities which have served to make the city an attractive one in which to live, work, and invest.'' The report, released by a committee of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Society of Architects, has won praise as an effort to steer the building boom into constructive channels.
Barton Myers, an architect from Toronto and professor at UCLA, recommends decentralization, rather than packing more buildings into downtown Boston. Developing outlying areas would not only relieve traffic conditions downtown, it would be of economic benefit to broader sections of the city, he says. He favors development that considers ''the fabric of the city, rather than isolated buildings.''
Some disagree. Mr. Landrieu, referring to Boston's social, economic, and racial problems, says, ''What is wrong in Boston has been wrong for a very long time. Development is not the problem. You've got a good thing going, just don't overdo it.''