The Landmark Center, Park Drive and Brookline Avenue

Tuesday, March 15th, 5:54pm

It’s a beautiful, sunny day in mid-March. I’m soaking up some rays on a bench in the courtyard outside an office building. Rows of protruding metal triangles lend an art deco feel to the building and direct one’s gaze inexorably upward to the bright blue sky above. A plane trails a fine line of exhaust as it jets across the sky from right to left.

Two guys in worn-in jeans and T-shirts are up on eight-foot ladders in the process of blocking out a new sign for the entrance to one of the new offices moving in to the building. On both the ground level and the second-floor deck, palm trees rise out of planters and fill the courtyard with the feel of summer. After a particularly brutal winter, I am reveling in the fact that the weather is finally warm enough for me to sit outside…

For a moment, the sun, the warmth, and the architecture have transported me to an everyday scene in Miami or LA in the 1920’s or 30’s. But I am in Boston. It’s 2011. I can now see the new sign being spelled out is for a Harvard Medical School research center. And the courtyard I am sitting in is an enclosed atrium within the Landmark Center office tower. My view of the sky is actually filtered by glass panes supported by an eccentric white metal grid.

Originally inhabited by Sears, Roebuck and Company for much of the early to mid-twentieth century, this complex was rescused from decades of abandonment and dilapidation about ten years ago. The old beige brick exterior has been re-finished and accented with broad glass window panes and metal art deco ornamentation. The grandeur of the front desk, the glossy floors, and the rows of new lighting fixtures continue to persuade me I have traveled to a busy urban office tower in some decades-old era.

However, I need only step outside to return back to reality. The complex has become a mixed-use, transit-oriented development where office tower meets shopping mall. The facade of the building fronts onto a particularly harrowing traffic intersection where the Riverway, Park Drive, and Fenway merge together into a confusing roundabout that intersects both Brookline Avenue and Boylston Street. A few links of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace traipse unhappily through the center of this commotion to connect parks from the Muddy River to the Fens.

Staples, Best Buy, Bed, Bath & Beyond, REI, AMC Loews Theater, Panera Bread, and the other ground-floor chain retail locations are accessible from the Fenway Green Line stop or by braving the aforementioned intersection, parking lots, and indoor garage at the Landmark Center. While these transportation modes theoretically qualify the development as transit-oriented, for pedestrians the journey is rather trying. Only by crossing Dante’s first traffic circle of hell or surviving the cross-parking lot trek from the T can the most talented Froggers even hope to reach the stores. Upon arriving safely on the sidewalk that wraps around the building, these fittest survivors are reminded they are not in Miami by massive wind tunnels that make passage from store to store more intimidating than expected.

The Landmark Center has been a foundational anchor for a revitalized area of the Fenway. The salvation of this historical treasure with such care and creativity was unimaginable as recently as fifteen years ago. Nevertheless, as an avid pedestrian and transit rider, the development leaves me wanting something more. I wish I could go back in time and tell them to tweak a few elements of the redevelopment plan. Or maybe I just wish I lived in Miami.


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Gainsborough St. and St. Stephen St.

Monday, November 29th, 6:20pm

After my first day back to work post-Thanksgiving, I am sitting on a cold stone wall near the corner of two quiet, residential, one-way streets in the Fenway. The crisp fall evening air gives this intersection a subtle energy. The flashing red stoplights on Gainsborough St. take turns with the flashing yellows on St. Stephen to referee the surprising flow of pedestrians and automobiles.

The traffic is steady, but moderate enough that no one ever has to stop for long on their way through. Cars that just turned off Huntington Ave. or Mass. Ave. – two of the city’s major thoroughfares, each only a block away in different directions – cautiously obey the alternating signals. Walkers might pause just a second if a car happens to block their way, but they soon proceed undisturbed across the street.

There is a gentle give and take between cars and pedestrians at the intersection.

Pedestrians are safe to approach the intersection from the most convenient angle available. They will cross from between two of the parked cars that line both sides of each street and form a protective fence around the sidewalks. They will walk right down the middle of the street if no car is coming. They will ignore the square of clearly delineated crosswalks to cross diagonally to the opposite corner. A bicyclist with a blinking strobe light on her helmet rides the wrong way up St. Stephen St. and then pauses upon reaching the intersection to tie her shoe by the side of the road.

Many of the residents of the three-story, bay-windowed, split-level brownstones on these tree-lined streets must be Northeastern students. Perhaps they are clients of the real estate office on the corner, with pictures of properties displayed in the window. Whoever they are, they have not missed a beat in coming back from the break. They walk their dogs; they walk with friends; they talk on cell phones. They head back from class with their backpacks and messenger bags. They head out to practice with their hockey bags. I notice a different body language in those heading home and those heading back out – people walk with more of a purpose when they just want to get home.

Hardly anyone actually stops here. Just one girl stands on the corner opposite from me. She is anxiously looking around for the companion she is meeting. She stands in front of a wrought-iron fence that surrounds a broad lawn outside a big, cozy church. No one leaves or enters the church. Outdoor lights illuminate the brick walls of the placid building. A warm glow emanates from deep within.

The Pru towers over this residential neighborhood.

The lights throughout the neighborhood project the warmth of the Christmas season, now officially underway. Red, green, and white bulbs adorn the windows of a home across the street. Streetlights up and down St. Stephen St. provide a sense of security for pedestrians and drivers alike. Bright white Christmas lights vitalize the naked trees that line Gainsborough St. as the road kinks to the left just past the intersection. The lighted outline of the Prudential Center tower shines through the winter branches that form the St. Stephen St. canopy.

Suddenly a loud trio of college students is bustling across the street toward me. They surround the blue pickup truck crookedly parked at the curb in front of me, peer inside the cab, then hop in the payload to busy themselves bantering, with cold-defying exuberance, about who will sit in back with the tree. Finally, their friend arrives with the keys. After an exchange of hugs and a brief discussion over her failure to answer her cell phone, the four friends pile into the front cab, some on top of others. Throwing a brief glance around the intersection, the driver hits the gas and motors down the rows of lighted trees, around the corner, and out of sight. The girl who was standing in front of the church is long gone. All that remains is the smell of exhaust that lingers and then slowly dissipates through the brisk night.