After a year of pandemic-induced isolation, Copley Square is a balm for the soul right now. On any given day, at any given moment, it boasts a strikingly diverse array of people. Some are passing through as they traverse the Back Bay; others have stopped to rest, think, or observe.
But while Copley Square is a case study in Boston coming back to life, it’s also showing signs of stress.
“You can see … pits in the pavement where heavy vehicles have perhaps caused damage,” Abigail “B” Chatfield, a project manager at Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department, said. “You can see where water damage has further exacerbated those kinds of conditions. You can see compacted root zones of the trees, and the trees that are suffering from it. Occasionally, you can see bald patches in the lawn.”
According to Chatfield, that wear and tear highlights just how central the square has become to Boston’s civic life.
“It … has the largest farmer’s market in Boston, so people come from all over the city,” Chatfield said. “Then there’s also the marathon, or First Night. Other events that are held there occasionally, perhaps music or something like that over the years, [and] protests, which tend to draw people from all over the state and sometimes New England.”
Starting next year, though — sometime after the running of the 2022 Boston Marathon, if current plans hold — Copley Square will be closed for renovations and a measure of reinvention.
Among the changes currently planned: a new, slightly elevated platform along the square’s northern edge, near Boylston Street, which will create new sightlines and protect the square’s beleaguered trees at ground level.
“It’s a very interesting, multisided shape,” Chatfield said. “On one side of the platform, you’re looking out at Trinity [Church]. On another side of the platform, you’re looking over at the Copley Plaza hotel. Another [overlooks] the library; another engages the street.”
The renovation plan also calls for the removal of the square’s old fountain, and installation of a new, more modern replacement.
In addition, the paved area by Trinity Church will be covered with grass, with a new paved area built closer to Dartmouth Street — which Boston is currently considering closing to motor-vehicle traffic on occasion — and the Boston Public Library.
If Dartmouth Street closures become a reality, this new hardtop space’s appeal as a public square could be significantly enhanced.
While the planning process is nearing completion, however, some neighbors have lingering concerns.
“Let’s slow down a bit,” Elliott Laffer, the chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, said recently.
Laffer wants to see current plans adjusted before the city proceeds. High on his wish list: more green space.
“We need grass,” Laffer said. “There’s less grass in the design than there ought to be.”
For the record, ambivalence about Copley Square is nothing now. It was initially known as “Art Square,” and housed the original, now-demolished Museum of Fine Arts. Years ago, the square was also bisected diagonally by Huntington Avenue.
Later, it was reimagined as a modern piazza with a depressed interior — an approach Alex Krieger of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design calls deeply misguided.
“That was just a bad idea,” Krieger said. “It radiated heat, especially during the summer. And in the winter, it was just full of snow.”
Today’s layout is only about three decades old. Krieger thinks it represents partial progress, with a park-like feel predominating in parts of the square, but elements of the less-welcoming piazza approach still lingering.
For Copley Square to reach its potential, Krieger argues, the park component should finally take precedence.
“Add an additional amount of green space, but not simply lawn,” he said, citing Boston’s Post Office Square as a model to emulate. “Certainly, add more comfortable seating. … Provide the comforts people expect to find in an urban park, as opposed to an Italian piazza.”
But right now, after soliciting input from the public for months, the city believes it’s close to striking the right balance.
“There was about 25 percent [of the public] who said we want total change, and 25 percent who said, ‘Not so much, we love it the way it is,’” Chatfield said.
The current redesign is aimed at everyone else — and intended to be a tune-up rather than a transformation.