Experimental Pop-up Plaza Springs Up In Downtown Crossing

On Tuesday morning, pedestrians rushing through Downtown Crossing’s bustling Franklin and Arch Street intersection had a rare chance to slow down and catch their breath in an experimental ‘Popup Plaza. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., temporary planters and fencing extended the sidewalk, allowing city officials to fill the new space with tables, chairs, and umbrellas available to any passerby. Bostonians were not only able to take a minute out of their hectic mornings to sit down and relax, but were also able to have coffee with project organizers, and give their own feedback about the experimental popup.

Given the uniquely wide streets that make up the intersection—remnants of city planning from the 1790s—the concept of repurposing the intersection’s streets for pedestrian use has been on the minds of officials in the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) for some time. After considering multiple suggestions for the space that were proposed by planning firms and students alike, the BTD’s project recently gained traction thanks to the perfect storm of events.    

“One of those is that Go Boston 2030—which is the city’s long-term transportation plan—has created a public realm working group that looks at ways we can improve public space and space making in the city, on the streets and sidewalks we control, so this falls under this umbrella,” said Alice Brown, a planner at the BTD.

Along with the momentum from Go Boston, the completion of several construction projects in the area is also prompting project organizers forward. Millennium Tower, a new residential tower, and a plaza in front of the building are scheduled to open soon, along with a new set of stairs in front of the area’s T stop. BTD officials expect that there will be a noticeable increase in foot traffic after these projects are finished and the construction in the area concludes, which further spurred interest in creating a public space for pedestrians.

Although the designs employed for the popup on Tuesday focused more on urban design issues than engineering ones, the usage of planters and fencing lent the experiment a flexible nature. Since nothing permanent, such as striping or paint, was used, officials were able to alter the design in real time. City officials also made potential future designs and plans available to the public in order to gather comments and opinions on what the plaza could look like in the future.

(Mayor's Office Photo by Jeremiah Robinson)
(Mayor’s Office Photo by Jeremiah Robinson)

“The idea behind the pilot is that we’re able to stand out there and experiment both with how people use the space when we fill it with a few things, but also to shift the edge [of the Popup Plaza] and watch traffic patterns while we’re out there,” Brown said. “And if we can understand the on-the-ground needs that must be mitigated in the final design, we can have a better final design.”

But the organization of the project, which allowed officials to receive and respond to feedback on the Popup Plaza in real time, was not the only trait that makes this initiative unique. The Plaza’s eventual permanent installation will take place in stages that follow rounds of feedback.

“We don’t usually test things [intermittently], so this is a new method for us of doing design in pieces, where we get feedback along the way, and as we close things down,” Brown said.  “We close streets down pretty regularly for parades, and we sometimes block off lanes for people to do construction … we don’t usually just close off a lane or two.”

Brown also said that BTD hopes to continue testing projects in this manner in order to make Boston a more pedestrian-friendly area.  

Following the information gathered during Tuesday’s popup, the next phase for the plaza is already underway. The architectural firm Höweler + Yoon, which, while working with Millennium Partners, has already presented the BTD with potential designs for the next phase, will work the feedback gathered during the Popup into its plans.

And given the strength that the project gleans thanks to many perspectives within the city—Public Works, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and Boston Bid have all contributed to the planning—the following phases will allow the BTD time to continue searching for similar locations where the bustling public is in need of a plaza.

Featured Image by the City of Boston

August 31, 2016