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In this photo, Boston Mayor Tom Menino speaks outside City Hall on July 22, 2004. (AP)

With a nearly impenetrable news environment that looks to congeal further as the Whitey Bulger trial draws near, the two dozen aspirants seeking to succeed Tom Menino will be straining to break through with an idea that will distinguish them from their competitors.

How about recognizing a new era by proposing a new City Hall building?

Menino was hot on the idea back in the mid-2000s, when he floated the possibility of constructing a new City Hall on the South Boston waterfront. But he backed off after the economic collapse in 2008.

It’s difficult to envision a candidate getting much push back when he or she stands in City Hall Plaza and calls for a nobler civic core for the Athens of America.

The time is right. Capital is historically cheap and building costs are relatively low. The economy could certainly use the construction jobs; a candidate advocating a new building would likely find receptive ears among trade unions.

Beyond the economic and political factors, the face lift needed at Government Center is long overdue. While the current Brutalist-style structure probably has its admirers (though I can’t recall ever meeting any), the design and operational deficiencies of the building and the dreariness of the surrounding plaza have been thoroughly chronicled over the years.

It’s difficult to envision a candidate getting much push back when he or she stands in City Hall Plaza and calls for a nobler civic core for the Athens of America.

The questions will likely focus on the ability of the city to finance such a project amid a soft economy, even with the current low interest rates. Here a candidate may want to study how other countries — the closest being Canada — and other American cities are partnering with the private sector on public building projects.

Long Beach, CA is an early pioneer in the public-private partnership (P3) model, with a $492 million, 530,000-square-foot courthouse due for completion later this year, and plans to build a new city hall and library using the P3 structure.

From the Long Beach Press-Telegram: “…officials have found little to admire about the concrete dominant complex’s Brutalist architecture. ‘Quite frankly, our Civic Center design lacks human scale, is difficult to access and does little to assert the importance and value of the public realm,’ said Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal.”

Sound familiar?

In essence, the P3 model shifts the cost and risk of construction of public buildings onto the private partners, who operate the facilities over a long-term lease under certain performance and maintenance standards. The government is a tenant, but owns the property and assumes control after the lease period ends. P3s have been more prevalent in transportation projects but are now being eyed for public building projects, as in Long Beach and Austin, TX.

A new City Hall would be a bold proposal in a race crammed with candidates struggling to crack the Marathon bombing-Whitey-IRS-AP-Benghazi news shell.

Canada, being Canada, has a government agency tasked with promoting the P3 concept through best practices in value, timeliness and accountability to taxpayers. Between 2009 and 2011, our northern neighbor closed on 39 P3 projects with a combined capital investment of $21.7 billion.

Would a P3 be right for a new Boston City Hall? Who knows. But with more of these projects being pursued, officials will have a better understanding of how they work, their risks and benefits, and how they are perceived by the public and the business community. And a candidate who raises it as worthy of study would demonstrate their awareness of what’s being tried in other places.

However it’s funded, and wherever it’s located, a new City Hall would be a bold proposal in a race crammed with candidates struggling to crack the Marathon bombing-Whitey-IRS-AP-Benghazi news shell.

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Tags: Architecture, Boston, Design

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  • Carol Lundquist

    City Hall is a perfect example of a type of architecture that exists – attractively – in many places in MA (see, for example, the MIT campus). What you find ugly is City Hall Plaze, a vast, uninteresting expanse that only comes to life when there is something going there (as yesterday, with the Japanese festival). Landscaping would be far cheaper than a new building. And City Hall is centrally located on public transportation. Let’s spend some money on upkeep of public places rather than abandoning what we have to build new monuments.

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