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Kenmore Square: From Toad to Prince of the City

Pressley Associates, Landscape Architects
Stephen Kelly, Editor

The intersection of Brookline Ave, Beacon Street, and Commonwealth Avenue is the second busiest intersection in the Boston area. The new design reduced vehicular travel areas, created more sidewalk space and decreased crossing distances for foot traffic.
Photo: Damianos Photography

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The transformation of Kenmore Square in Boston’s historic Back Bay is now complete after a decade of construction. To many, Kenmore Square is closely linked with the Red Sox and the memory of a packed subway ride terminating in the scramble up narrow, dark stairways to crowded, poorly lit, and dingy sidewalks. At the same time, the convergence of Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street and Brookline Avenue, the second busiest intersection in Boston, was dominated by large expanses of undefined asphalt that contributed to the confusion and unsafe pedestrian conditions at a complex juncture.


This 1930s era print shows Kenmore Square at the junction of Commonwealth Ave and Beacon Street. The land, just a few blocks south of the Charles River basin, was originally a piece of uninhabited swampy area within the colonial Boston settlement. It became the hamlet of Muddy River, which in 1705 became the town of Brookline. Brookline borders Newton to the west and Boston to all other cardinal points.
Source: Post card

Streetscape and Surface Improvements
The surface improvements are now complete. The square renovation has improved pedestrian walks leading to Boston University and Fenway Park. Vehicular routes have also been reconfigured. The large expanses of asphalt were replaced with attractive concrete pavers. The pavers slow traffic, which in turn makes the area safer for pedestrians.

Landscaped medians, graceful trees with decorative tree grates, wire-cut brick sidewalks, street lighting, steel fencing with granite piers and a new glass bus shelter freshen the square.


Kenmore Square before the streetscape improvements could fairly be described as urban ugly. The metal-framed structure (center of middle image) is the former Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) bus layover facility island, which is also seen in the ground-level view. The CITGO sign (Petróleos de Venezuela) atop the Boston University Bookstore Mall Building is a local landmark, in part because of its 60 ft. tall stature, and because it’s prominent in the background of televised Red Sox baseball games. It was erected in 1940. Since this picture, it has been refurbished and relit with LEDs.

In the mid 1990s, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) developed plans to upgrade their train and bus facilities throughout the system. As part of that plan, the MBTA was required to construct an accessible entry to the below-grade Green Line Station at Kenmore Square. Early on, project planners embraced the opportunity to re-evaluate the design of the landscape, including vehicular and pedestrian circulation, in concert with two new elevators proposed to provide universal access to the station. At the same time, the redevelopment of the Hotel Commonwealth on the south side of the square added further impetus to spur a rebirth of the area.

The complex geometric convergence of major pedestrian routes (especially to Boston University and Fenway Park) and vehicular roadways (Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street, and Brookline Avenue) at Kenmore Square created inherent conflicts and unsafe conditions. For these reasons, comprehensive surface improvements were incorporated into the redesign of the underground and at-grade MBTA Station reconstruction, resulting on the surface in a vastly improved and beautiful terminus to the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.


Looking east we see Kenmore Square’s expanded center island and the new glass bus shelter. Japanese Zelkova trees and shrubbery (bearberry cotoneaster, most prominently) freshen the square. Expanded walkways of brick pavers (‘Heartland Flashed’ by Boral) give pedestrians more room to navigate. The rejuvenated Kenmore Square landscape is now a vibrant, safe, attractive environment.

Design Challenge
Perhaps the greatest design challenge was creating a sense of place amidst the organized chaos. With a vast array of streets, businesses, academic and medical institutions, transportation modes and historic influences at work, Kenmore Square, an area known for its grittiness, was suddenly infused with new ideas and financial resources.

Balancing the distinctive character of Kenmore Square with a creative vision required an in-depth understanding of the space and its programmatic requirements, its history and its role in the city’s urban fabric.

The transformation of Kenmore Square was envisioned as a destination at the end of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, rather than a space one merely passes through. To accomplish this, large paved intersections, or ‘bookends’ signal the boundaries of the square.

Brick sidewalks are familiar to Bostonians. The wire-cut bricks installed on the square respond to the needs of all users. Granite and steel fencing and Japanese Zelkova trees on the mall visually link the square to its surroundings.
To improve pedestrian safety, the new design reduced vehicular travel areas to create more sidewalk space in this very busy public square, with the added benefit of decreased crossing distances for foot traffic.


The reduction of roadway pavement and increase in sidewalk widths respond to the heavy pedestrian use of Kenmore Square when the Red Sox are playing, or when people gather here at the 25-mile mark of the Boston Marathon.
Photo: Steve Wolfe

Major Intersections
An important feature of the transformation is the treatment of the major intersections at both ends of the square.

New, attractive concrete pavers visually redefine the intersection, which formerly appeared as an endless expanse of bituminous paving. The pavers are an unmistakable visual prompt to drivers and pedestrians that they have entered a special zone. The texture and color of the pavers calms traffic and causes drivers to pause, creating a safer environment for pedestrians. Finally, the paved intersections are an attractive foreground in the viewshed looking toward the existing buildings surrounding the square.


New landscape medians, trees, decorative tree grates, shrubs, brick sidewalks, decorative paved intersections and street lighting complement the new, modern glass bus shelter.
Photo: Robert Benson Photography


Sustainable, Green Practices
Sustainable, green practices enhance the design, with several elements that re-enforce this goal. A massive covered bus-holding shed in the center of the square was demolished, so that the space is redefined by the facades of the buildings that originally gave the square its urban form. Reducing the vehicular travel area also provided the opportunity to add trees to the wider sidewalks, vastly increasing the permeable surface area. Planting areas added to the square include trees: red maples, honeylocusts, saucer magnolias, London planetrees, Yoshino cherries, greenspire lindens and Japanese zelkovas. The shrubbery is bearberry cotoneaster, dwarf winterberry, creeping juniper, white dwarf rhododendron, spreading English yew and Japanese yew. Catmint, fountain grass, black-eyed Susans, autumn joy sedums, and lilyturf comprise the perennials and grasses.


Strategically placed steel fencing with granite piers protects pedestrians from traffic on the center island of the Commonwealth Avenue mall. The streetlights are City of Boston 24’-10”steel posts, Cambridge 5’-1” single arms with K282 luminaires (King Luminaire).
Photo: Mike White


Team Roles
Pressley Associates, Landscape Architects, was a member of a consultant team led by Dimella Shaffer Associates, Boston, the MBTA-designated station architects. Civil, traffic, structural and electrical engineers were involved on the consultant team. Pressley coordinated the final surface design elements between the architect, the MBTA, the city of Boston, Boston University, and concerned community business and residential groups, and thus played a leading role in presentations to city agencies and community groups, facilitating support for the design concept, materials selections, implementation plan, maintenance plan and safety improvements.

Pressley Associates developed the design, prepared construction documents and provided construction administration services. In this capacity, the landscape architects played a pivotal role in the redesign of this traffic-oriented space, ensuring the sense of place and character of the square was maintained and enhanced, and the needs of pedestrians and casual users were incorporated along with traffic safety and efficiency.

With thorough research and understanding of the materials, the landscape architects were able to persuade a skeptical client to introduce paving elements into the intersection of Brookline Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street, which is now a visible reminder re-establishing Kenmore Square as a destination.


Looking southeast on Commonwealth Avenue we see the former expanses of bituminous paving and unprotected medians. The visual impact of the pavers (Hanover Prest Brick) at the intersection helps slow traffic and creates a safer pedestrian environment.
Photo: Mike White

A Revived Kenmore Square
In contrast to the recent past, Kenmore Square is now a lively area filled with shops, restaurants, hotels, and clubs.

Boston University and Fenway Park are both just one block away, as well as Lansdowne Street, a center of Boston nightlife. The square is readily accessible to the MBTA subway and busses.

Kenmore Square is also a welcoming landmark to thousands of athletes as they struggle toward the finish line of the Boston Marathon, now a suitable terminus for the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.


Project Team
Project Owner: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)
Architect: DiMella Shaffer Associates, Boston
Civil Engineer: Bryant Associates, Boston
General Contractor / Construction Manager: Barletta Companies, Canton, Mass.
Landscape Architect: Pressley Associates, Landscape Architects, Cambridge, Mass.
Project Manager: Jay Emperor, RLA
Transportation Engineer: Howard Stein Hudson, Boston


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October 15, 2019, 10:18 pm PDT

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