A fresh face on the growing Back Bay

A redevelopment version of the Cinderella story is about to unfold here, with the Prudential Center in the title role. When it ends in 1990, if current plans go as scheduled, Boston's pioneering 1960s project, with its 52-story central skyscraper, will have shed its dowdy, uninviting image for a sparkling new look.

Opened just over 20 years ago, the ``Pru'' has never seemed to fulfill its potential for serving the neighborhoods around it, admit those who manage the complex. Meanwhile, it has been upstaged by structures like the nearby John Hancock Tower, several downtown developments, and -- recently -- the brazenly upscale Copley Place.

Now the Prudential Realty Group, a division of the Prudential Insurance Company, has nearly completed a $500 million plan that would add more than a dozen structures to the center, completely restructure its shopping plazas, and -- the realty group hopes -- replace the Pru's air of remoteness from the surrounding community with aspects that invite area residents and visitors into a much more attractive retail, residential, and office center.

To accomplish this, new structures will arise on 16 of the center's 28 acres, which are either unused or underutilized, explains Charles R. Lightener, vice-president of Prudential Realty.

Office, apartment, and retail store buildings -- most of moderate height -- will be placed so as to link the Pru to its neighbors, Mr. Lightener says. Ground-level features on the Boylston Street and Huntington Avenue (north and south) sides will mean that people will not have to climb stairs or take an escalator to enter the center, which some have compared to a moated castle.

Over the two decades since the Pru opened, its management has taken steps to remedy some of its most apparent and irritating flaws. Glass walls around the shopping plazas have cut off much of the wind that made walking through the center an endurance test in winter. The addition of Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor stores kept the center from being a shopper's wasteland.

The Pru lent itself to community uses: arts and crafts shows, ice skating, the annual Christmas tree lighting, and the Boston Marathon finish. Yet somehow, it has never seemed to fulfill its potential as a unifying feature in its part of Boston.

In 1983, the Prudential Insurance Company of America decided to close its regional office in Boston. Then, instead of being a combination of home office and real estate property, the Pru became simply a big realty asset.

The realty group took over management of the center last year, and the first drafts of redevelopment and financial feasibility plans were completed. Lightener says the company hopes to begin construction by the middle or end or next year and finish by 1990.

Present components of the Prudential Center, other than the tower and the plazas around it, include the Hynes Auditorium (part of the center but on property not owned by the Pru), Saks, Lord & Taylor, three 28-story apartment buildings, a 25-story office building (101 Huntington), and the 10-story Lenox Hotel.

Numerous new features are planned.

On the Boylston Street side: Next to the Hynes Convention Center, which will dominate the northwest corner, there will be a large public plaza contiguous to the street, replacing the present elevated plaza; east of that, extending to East Ring Road, three 8- to 10-story office structures with retail outlets at ground level, including an enlarged Star Market and a major department store.

Along East Ring Road from Boylston to Huntington: The only portion of the inner road to be kept, East Ring will be redesigned to make it compatible with residential use. Town house-type, low-rise housing units will be built in gaps on either side of Saks Fifth Avenue. On the other side of the road, between the existing apartment tower and Huntington Avenue, there will be a three-story parking garage and a 5- to 7-story apartment building.

On the Huntington Avenue side: A 36- to 40-story office tower is planned, placed so as not to ``shadow'' any of the Pru's neighbors, such as the Christian Science Center fountain and plaza. In the Belvidere-Huntington corner will be a four-story retail structure with ``convenience'' shops and a shelter entrance to a slightly relocated subway station. Directly across from the Christian Science Center will be a landscaped area leading to the ``back door'' of the Pru.

On Belvidere Street: Pru planners hope to build a 200-room ``European style'' (read: ``expensive'') hotel just south of the Sheraton-Boston Hotel. Since it is one of the last features in the construction schedule, says Lightener, this facility could be scaled-down or replaced.

Changes in the present structure: A brand-new, two-level shopping core that the planners call an ``urban street'' will be built on a north-south axis to the east of the Pru Tower. Completely glassed-in, it will feature a large rotunda at its northern end. It will be linked to Copley Place by the extension of the present covered overpass. The new shopping arcade is to include a fourth department store. Just south of the tower will be a 25,000 square-foot ``winter garden.'' Ice-skating, which took place there at one time, will be restored.

The Pru Tower itself, maligned as unimaginative and stodgy, will be only superficially affected.

Alterations in project plans are still possible, in response to changes such as a need for less office or hotel space or objections raised by local interests.

Says Lightener: ``We really feel good about what can be done here.''

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