Boston’s aging City Hall is in something of a transition period, in line for significant amounts of work, as the five-and-a-half-decade-old lump of concrete presents its own unique challenges to maintain.
“Things have changed in how people use buildings and what is needed, and we hope to update this building to make it last for many years into the future,” Property Management Commissioner Eamon Shelton told the Herald, and note both legal mandates and changes in technology. “There is an intention to make this build work.”
Charitably one of Boston’s most iconic buildings, the stark, blocky Boston City Hall is either reviled or loved, depending on who you ask. But one thing’s for sure: it’s not going anywhere, and it’s going to be the subject of serious capital spending and maintenance focus as pipes and other parts of them reach the end of their useful lives and create issues that are expensive and difficult to fix.
“A lot of the equipment that we’ve either replaced or that we have plans in the capital program to replace is either near or at the end of its useful life,” Shelton said, noting that much of it is the original material in place in the 1960s.
So are we going to see increasing amounts of maintenance work there, and more spending earmarked in future capital budgets?
“It’s absolutely coming,” he said. “I would expect to see that on an ongoing basis.”
Boston City Hall is a striking Brutalist structure begun in 1963 and opened in 1968 in what was formerly the Scollay Square neighborhood that the city—as it seemed to have a passion for doing—in favor of the current Government Center area .
Opinions on the building itself have been sharply divided, with some, including Mayor Michelle Wu, whose offices make up much of the fifth floor, defending it as a beautiful example of that architectural style, while many others bristle at its chunky , concrete heavy appearance.
The city’s current rolling five-year capital budget includes more than $188 million for improvements to the City Hall area, though it includes a nearby city building and improvements from the $95 million “Phase 1” renovation — originally budgeted for $70 million — of the northern half of the City Hall plaza which is currently being completed.
The somewhat smaller phase 2 of the plaza project is down for $50 million with plans expected to come out in the next few months. That phase is aimed at the southern half as well as changes to City Hall itself, focusing largely on entrance accessibility and the “courtyard” on the fourth floor. Another idea, chief operating officer Dion Irish told the Herald last month, is to pull out the often-broken escalators between the second and third floors and replace them with an elevator that spans the first four levels .
Shelton added that a major project to replace the HVAC system is underway, as well as replacing the aging elevators. Next on the menu is the replacement of the building’s lighting fixtures with more efficient ones, and continued changes to many pipes now approaching retirement age.
In addition to the city’s staff of maintenance workers, they are also paying out $2.4 million in outside contracts this year. That includes cleaning, security, some of that HVAC and elevator work and pest control, according to city data.
Then there are the isolated incidents that end up costing quite a bit. According to data provided by the city, there are what the city characterizes as “Repairs to City Hall Plaza steps following car attempts to drive down” this past May that totaled $30,095.
A “Skylight Leak” in June 2021 cost the city $20,290, and “Burglary/Vandalism” in March 2020 ended up costing $24,634 to fix.
Major pipe bursts over the past few years have cost the city more than $89,000, according to city data. A leak on the third floor in October 2020 cost $24,348 to replace, and a leak in the law department on the sixth floor totaled $21,955.
The most expensive one-time repair project at City Hall in recent years was a $43,452 heating pipe right above the Herald’s ninth-floor press office.
That one provides a good case study for some of the challenges that come with maintaining a building that is essentially just made of concrete.
Once the city identified that the pipe above the top floor was providing this different kind of unwanted leak into the Herald’s bureau office than the normal one it was dealing with, staffers had to take somewhat extreme measures, at one point having to use a foot of concrete on the roof just to get to the pipe in question.
“It’s a lot easier to cut a hole in drywall and patch it instead of cutting through a concrete block,” Shelton said of these types of challenges he said he expects to continue to see. “It’s going to be complicated. We will probably have to move people around. We’re probably going to have some of the same challenges with accessing some of this concrete-embedded pipe.”