The Great and Powerful Booth: Cambridge’s head of urban design retires after 35 years

Originally published March 6, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Director of Urban Design Roger Boothe retired last week after working for the city for 35 years. His first project was the brick building behind him that sits at the intersection of Broadway and Broad Canal Way, and his last was the building at 450 East Kendall St. that's currently under construction. He's worked on nearly every big project to pass through Cambridge in past three and a half decades. Photo by Erin Baldassari/Wicked Local Cambridge.

Director of Urban Design Roger Boothe retired last week after working for the city for 35 years. His first project was the brick building behind him that sits at the intersection of Broadway and Broad Canal Way, and his last was the building at 450 East Kendall St. that’s currently under construction. He’s worked on nearly every big project to pass through Cambridge in past three and a half decades. Photo by Erin Baldassari/Wicked Local Cambridge.

Walk through Kendall Square, and there’s hardly a building in sight that Roger Boothe has not touched. After 35 years working for Cambridge’s Community Development Department, Boothe is retiring from his role as director of urban design.

He’s seen the city change from a rust belt economy with high unemployment and rampant industrial decay to one of the preeminent economic drivers of Massachusetts. Along the way, he’s helped craft projects big and small – from the Simplex site that became University Park to the pedestrian island where Harvard Street and Mass. Ave. merge.

Back before there were height limits on buildings, before the city required traffic management measures, and when residential development was prohibited in industrial areas, Boothe was advocating for one tiny pathway that would connect a riverfront office building on Broadway to the canal behind it.

It was 1979 and the city was undergoing its very first special permit application. Kendall Square was nothing more than a series of parking lots and abandoned buildings. There was no Broad Canal, no kayak and canoe launching stations, but Boothe said he knew that path would become important eventually.

“They thought I was crazy,” Boothe said of the developers. “Twenty-five years later, it’s a beautiful spot.”

His long view of development and his ability to push just hard enough to maintain that long view is a unique skill, said assistant city manager for community development, Brian Murphy.

“He has exactly the kind of ego you want in an urban planner,” Murphy said. “He has enough ego so that he knows what he wants to do, but not so much that it gets in the way of getting things done.”

If it weren’t for what he thought was just a lunch outing in Boston, Boothe said he might have never stayed in the city. The Arkansas native moved to Boston on an impulse after spending two years in the Peace Corps teaching architecture in French to Tunisians.

Boothe was struck by the contrast of Tunis’s French colonial architecture with its broad thoroughfares and manicured squares and the “old city,” a circular set of crowded streets that were bustling from top to bottom with energy.

“It was eye-opening to say the least,” Boothe said. He began thinking “urbanistically,” he said, and when it came time to move back to the Midwest, Boothe loaded up his car, turned around and headed East.

With no contacts in Boston and no job prospects, Boothe said he slowly ate through his savings. After three weeks, he was preparing to head back to Arkansas where his father was waiting with a job at a bank.

Dismayed at the prospect of heading home, he went to Café Ananas on Newbury Street for one last good lunch before he left. Across the street, the Boston Architectural College had a job posting from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP for a young architect with a focus in urban design. He was hired on the spot.

"They thought I was crazy," Boothe said of the developers in 1979 who were skeptical of the city's requirement to add a pedestrian connection to the Charles River. "Twenty-five years later, it's a beautiful spot."

“They thought I was crazy,” Boothe said of the developers in 1979 who were skeptical of the city’s requirement to add a pedestrian connection to the Charles River. “Twenty-five years later, it’s a beautiful spot.” Photo by Erin Baldassari/Wicked Local Cambridge. 

Six year later, Boothe began working in Cambridge, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing from that point on. City Councilor and state Rep. Tim Toomey said he was always impressed by Boothe’s ability to keep calm despite the often contentious meetings between neighborhood groups, the city and developers.

“(He) never varied. (He was) always even tempered and sat and listened and respected people for their opinions,” Toomey said. “(He) never lost it, though I’m sure (he) wanted to.”

There were times when the vitriol of special permit and rezoning applications became too much, Boothe said. The Simplex redevelopment in the early 1980s was one of the most difficult, he said. The animosity at the meetings had reached the point where Boothe asked the city manager to send in police.

“I was getting quite discouraged,” Boothe said. But, then the Blue Ribbon Committee on Cambridgeport was convened, and Boothe said the committee was able to break through the negotiations and get both sides to budge. The site became the first in the city to require affordable housing in new constructions with 25 percent of the houses required to be affordable. The developer agreed to reduce the heights, as it got closer to the residential neighborhoods in Cambridgeport.

“That was a huge step forward, and it made me really happy,” Boothe said.

Now, much of the pioneering work has already been tested and Boothe said the city is already seeing the fruits of their labor. When he was just starting, Boothe said conversations about cars dominated traffic discussions. With the help of the city’s traffic demand management measures, automobile traffic is declining in some areas of the city, and today, more people walk, ride their bikes or take public transit than drive a car to work, whether they live in Cambridge or work there.

Boothe is optimistic about the success of Cambridge’s future. He recognizes the economy plays a critical role in the development of cities, but he said Cambridge has enough projects in the pipeline to encourage growth for several more decades to come.

“For many decades to come, you will be looking at all of the things Roger Boothe had an impact on,” said Mayor David Maher. “That’s exactly what good development and urban design does.”

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