Thursday, December 31, 2009

Post No. 2009-9: Breaking with the early pattern for posts here on RTUF...

Form-Based Codes (Finally) Gaining Traction in New England?
And so, dear readers, we take our leave of 2009 and look ahead to 2010 with encouraging regional news on the Form-Based Codes (FBC) front. In fairly rapid succession over the last 3 months of the year, we have seen 3 new FBCs adopted in 3 different New England states:
  • First, on October 22, Jamestown (Rhode Island) adopted a SmartCode^-based FBC for its core village area.
  • Then, on December 7, Hamden (Connecticut) adopted a town-wide FBC, also based on the SmartCode.
  • Finally, on December 9, Dover (New Hampshire) adopted a Transect-based FBC to replace its existing downtown mixed-use district.

When combined with the 3 FBCs already adopted in Massachusetts -- for the Hamilton Canal District in Lowell*, the Buzzards Bay downtown area in Bourne, and the SouthField project in Weymouth-Abington-Rockland -- these new codes leave Vermont and Maine as the last two New England states without at least one FBC in place.

Curious about what exactly a FBC or Form-Based Code might be? And why someone concerned about urban design and creating better places might want to look into this relatively new form of development regulation? The Form-Based Codes Institute (visit them at: has a comprehensive definition occupying its own page on FBCI's website that is available for initial reading. I'm hereby encouraging discussion in the comments section of this post if anyone wants to explore the concept further.

Here let it be said that FBCs are intended to regulate both private and public development in a way that produces desired built environments or urban forms such as residential neighborhoods, village centers, main street districts, suburban and urban downtowns, while simultaneously permitting and even encouraging mixing of uses (e.g., residential or office above retail) as essential to creating those desirable places. FBCs are best understood in contrast with conventional zoning, which is geared to regulating the private use of land as the first priority, typically by separating uses from each other into homogeneous districts (residential, retail, office, industrial, warehouse, etc.), pushing buildings back from the street and each other through setbacks and buffering requirements, and deferring to advisory design guidelines or design/development review processes to determine how and in what structures those uses will occupy the land. For FBCs, enjoyable places and a strong urban fabric are intended regulatory outcomes. For conventional zoning, such outcomes are often incidental or, in the worst cases, made more difficult to achieve.

For more information on the adopted NE FBCs:

SouthField (MA) -- Zoning and Subdivision (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

Bourne (MA) -- Zoning Overlay

Lowell (MA) -- Zoning and Subdivision (Four pdfs starting with "Final HCD Form Based Code...")

Jamestown (RI) -- Zoning Text and Map (Article 11 provides the bulk of the new FBC provisions)

Hamden (CT) -- Zoning Text and Map

Dover (NH) -- Excerpted Zoning Text and Embedded Regulating Plan (pardon the multiple jpgs):

^ - The SmartCode is a model FBC made available for adaptation to local conditions and legal requirements by the Center for Applied Transect Studies at The SmartCode uses the Transect as its framework for regulation.
* - My firm was retained by the City of Lowell to provide legal assistance in the drafting and adoption of the Hamilton Canal District FBC and, along with my firm colleagues, I was personally involved in providing that assistance.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-8: The W Hotel Boston (100 Stuart Street)

And now for something completely different...

Location: 100 Stuart Street, Boston, MA (MAP)
Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2009

The Photos: Walking along Stuart Street, from the corner at Tremont Street toward Charles Street.

The Story: Finally completed and opened just a couple of months ago, the W Hotel Boston substantially changes the dynamic at the corner of Tremont and Stuart streets in the heart of Boston's theater district. The Charles Playhouse is down Warrenton Street, the Wang and Wilbur theaters are across Tremont Street, the Shubert's right next door, the Emerson Majestic is a block up Tremont, and the Colonial is up and around the corner on Boylston Street. Most recently, art house cinema returned to Boston at the Stuart Street Playhouse two blocks over. Despite its central location, for at least as long as I've lived in Boston (since 1997), this site was the archetypal urban fabric no-no: a surface parking lot occupying a full city block at a key downtown intersection.
The architecture here is uncompromisingly modernist in style, though the building's placement on its site suggests its designers were more than happy to come out and meet the street directly with lots of ground floor activity and transparency. Of course, this is a fairly tight urban site with no space to waste anyway. While the building is a clear departure from much of what's around it, there has been little open hostility to its ultimate arrival, especially given its overall height and facades that proceed directly to the buidling's full height without any stepping back.

This may be a good point at which to discuss Boston's "High Spine." As with so many things having to do with architecture, urban design, and planning in Boston, Robert Campbell recently (in 2006) covered this topic in the Boston Globe (link here) elegantly and with an eye toward what is truly important about it, especially its accordance with Boston's "basic DNA" as a craggy peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow neck, even if the original Boston Neck was a bit more to the south and east. Here let it be said that the High Spine has, since its endorsement in 1961 by the Boston Society of Architets' Committee on Civic Design, provided a remarkably durable and understandable conceptual framework for where tall buildings outside of the city's Financial District should be located. That is, in a "High Spine" stretching from the area around Kenmore Square on the west, running eastward on a line through the Prudential Center, Copley Square, and Park Plaza (thereby threading the needle between the Back Bay and the South End atop the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, the MBTA Orange and Green lines, and the main Amtrak/Commuter Rail corridor). Major and easily recognizable peaks on the High Spine today include the Prudential building itself and the "old" (the one with the weather beacon on top) and "new" (designd by I.M. Pei) Hancock towers, but there are many less lofty peaks along the length of the spine, including the Millennium Center development from earlier this decade and, now, the W Hotel. It may well be that the location of this new building along the High Spine explains why, at least at this point (several years after its approvals were obtained), its realization has caused little angst among the populace. All in all, it's a welcome addition to the urban ensemble.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: I'm pretty sure that the dimesions on the building's notch along the Tremont Street side are not accurate, but you get the general idea.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-7: The Back of the Four Seasons Hotel

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference (The first in a series...)

Location: 200 Boylston Street, Boston, MA (MAP)

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2006

The Photos: In and around the intersection of Columbus Avenue, Charles Street, and St. James Avenue, at the rear of the Four Seasons Hotel, showing the two-story addition done as part of the extensive renovation of the hotel.

The Story: Completed in 1985, the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston was one of the first hotels developed with luxury condominiums in the same building that can make use of the hotel's services. Needless to say, a success and a model much copied elsewhere. Given the hotel's location -- across Boylston Street from the Public Garden and Boston Common, blocks from Boston's high-end shopping districts along Back Bay's Newbury Street and in the Copley Plaza -- it's hard to remember that the development project was actually pursued under the auspices of the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan. The area to the rear of the hotel, Boston's Park Plaza area, was the principal area to which the city's red light district migrated after the early 1960s urban renewal-motivated demolition of the old Scollay Square to make way for Government Center. With the adoption and implementation of the Park Plaza plan in the 1970s and 1980s, the remaining adult entertainment uses moved on to the Combat Zone a few blocks to the east. Getting back to the Four Seasons itself, its Boylston Street frontage worked well from the beginning, being drawn up to the wide sidewalks of the major street and activating the edge with entrances and high visibility into the hotel's ground floor through a permeable facade. But the St. James Avenue frontage was less fortunate. Particularly at the irregular intersection of St. James, Charles, and Columbus, the building was drawn far back from Columbus, leaving a no-man's land that was little used. There were also no ground floor entrances or uses that could bring life to the street. When the hotel decided it was time for a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of its guest rooms, they also took the felicitous step of filling in the dead zone that had been left at this intersection, inserting a curving two-story wing that includes a high-end furniture store at the ground level and meeting areas and function space above. This may seem like a fairly small, incremental improvement, but when teamed with the much-improved retail uses on the ground floor of the 1920s-era Motormart Garage and the One Charles residential building across St. James (RTUF will get to that in a later post) and the smart treatment of the smaller and more usable public space (now dubbed the Bristol Courtyard) that remains, it clearly works as a sum greater than its parts. And I'm an incrementalist at heart anyway.

[Rev. November 16, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: See below. I'm clearly not an architect, but you get a sense of the sensitivity of the change here and how it helps frame up and channel the view along Columbus Avenue into the Common.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-6: New Feature

RTUF is adding a new feature to our posts: hand-drawn sketches showing the urban fabric restoration in plan view, starting with Blog Post No. 2009-1 on the Saltonstall Building. The feature will be added on a rolling basis to prior posts and will be included in all posts going forward. We hope this added feature is helpful. -- ML

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-5: Charles River Plaza

The Evolution of an Urban Shopping Center

Address: Charles River Plaza, 175 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA (MAP)
Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2003/2008

The Photos: Walking up Cambridge Street from Massachusetts General Hospital heading toward the Harrison Gray Otis House and Old West Church.

The Story: For a period starting in the 1960s up and through the early 2000s, Charles River Plaza behaved much like a garden-variety suburban strip center dropped into the heart of a major city. A supermarket, some smaller stores (including a pharmacy and bank), and a movie theater (closed in the early 1990s) were arranged in an L shape facing the corner of Cambridge Street and Blossom Street in Boston's West End (whose demolition to pave the way for urban renewal in the late 1950s/early 1960s is a story all its own) with below-grade and surface parking entered from Cambridge Street and a mid-rise hotel at the corner itself. The early 2000s redevelopment of the center, completed in 2003, added new building area on top of the former movie theater space to create a mid-rise office building and also infilled a new 5-story addition along the Cambridge Street frontage with office space above and retail stores below. All of the office space was taken by nearby Massachusetts General Hospital as clinical and medical office space for its doctors and staff. The surface parking level atop the garage structure remains and is generally hidden from the Cambridge Street frontage. So, instead of walking past a blank parking structure wall and street level garage roof parking, you walk by retail stores and a building that does a much better job of enclosing an important and historic street. As with the Saltonstall Building described in Post No. 2009-1 of this blog, the reconstruction of the streetscape along Cambridge Street that was completed in 2008 was long and drawn-out. But the end result is a very substantial improvement over what existed before and works well with the evolution of Charles River Plaza.

[Rev. November 18, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: See below. The filled in portion is effectively a full block along this portion of Cambridge Street.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-4: Houston, we have a Follower!

RTUF is pleased to announce that our good friend Darlene Wynne has, as of yesterday, become this blog's first Follower! [To be totally precise, Darlene is our first and only Follower, but we hope that changes very soon.] For those of you who don't know Darlene, she is a planner and New Urbanista of the first order. Indeed, Darlene was one of the founders and major motivating players of the New England Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism for several years. Although she now lives and works in the Philadephia area, her efforts in this region have not been forgotten. Thanks for signing on Darlene! -- ML

Friday, October 30, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-3: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel

A luxury hotel holds up its side of the street

Location: Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 776 Boylston Street, Boston (Back Bay), MA (MAP)

Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2008

Photos: Walking along Boylston Street, heading from Copley Square toward the Hynes Convention Center.

The Story: The massive Prudential Center complex, to which the Mandarin Oriental is the latest addition, didn't require the clearing of formerly useful urban fabric when it was built in the 1960s. Instead, it actually helped cover the multi-modal transportation corridor that slices through the Back Bay diagonally from the Charles River on the north to what used to be South Bay on the south. That corridor was first developed as a railroad causeway across the Back Bay in the mid-19th century and eventually expanded to include an extensive rail yard that took up the south side of Boylston Street from Massachusetts Avenue to Dartmouth Street for several decades. The first and most ambitious air rights/decking project built in Boston, featuring what is now the second tallest building in town, the Pru presently sits atop the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, several MBTA commuter rail lines, the main Amtrak Northeast Corridor line, and part of the MBTA Green Line subway. However, consistent with its era -- the mid-1960s, that is -- the complex as originally built didn't pay much attention to the street level around its superblock. Its tall buildings were pulled back into the interior of the site, leaving essentially dead, vacant spaces along all of its street edges that were used for vehicular access and, theoretically, park and plaza space for pedestrians. Since acquiring the Pru in the 1990s, Boston Properties has been steadily filling in the blank spaces around the complex's periphery. Completion of construction of the Mandarin Oriental building (including the hotel itself, associated luxury residential condominium units, and retail/restaurant at the street level) last year represents only the latest piece of the puzzle, and subsequent posts may focus on other edges of the Pru that have been productively filled in over the last decade. At this point, there is really only a single developable streetfront site left at the Pru, located just a bit further out on Boylston Street. As can be seen in the photos, the building makes a strong street edge along the equivalent of a full block of the Pru's Boylston Street frontage. There have been complaints about lack of stepping back in the building as its height increases, leading some to label it yet another step in the "Manhattanization" of Boston. Of course, the twin facts that I grew up in New York and that I like the building may be definitive proof of the accusation. From an urban fabric standpoint, though, I think there is little doubt that the south side of Boylston Street's urban fabric has been improved by the Mandarin Oriental's development.

[Added November 18, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: See below. You can see clearly that there's basically one gap left in the Boylston Street frontage for the Pru.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-2: Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center

Medical Center, Heal Thy Site

Location: 4199 Washington Sreet, Roslindale, MA (MAP)

Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2006

The Photos: Coming up Washington Street toward Forest Hills and away from the corner of Washington/South Sreet at the north end of Roslindale Square.

The Story: This is a site very close to where I live in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston, directly in what has been dubbed "Roslindale Village" for several years but most locals still refer to as "Roslindale Square." We moved here in 2000, long after the Rialto Theater, which used to be at this site, was torn down in the early 1970s. The theater was apparently a true fixture and a mainstay of the neighborhood. The barber shop where I get my hair cut by owner Bob Aliano is 2 doors down going back toward the square and its name, Rialto Barbershop, is all that's left of the old movie house. In any event, after the theater came down, the City put in a small municipal parking lot that was relatively underutilized. Earlier this decade, the Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center received funding from a City-controlled trust, called the George Robert White Trust (you can see the name in white on the building's facade), to move out of their relatively cramped quarters in the Roslindale Municipal Building across Washington Street into an entirely new facility. The resulting building ably plugs what used to be a real hole in the square's northern street wall, providing space on the ground floor for an optometrist/eyewear store, and generally supporting the overall urban fabric.

[Added November 16, 2009] RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: As can be seen below, the medical center building actually fills street wall gaps on both the front (Washington Street) and rear (Taft Hill Terrace).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-1: The Saltonstall Building

Curing a Building's Ills, Outside and In

Location: 100 Cambridge Street, between Bowdoin and Somerset Streets, Boston, MA (Map LINK)

Photos: Views as you walk along the opposite side of Cambridge Street from Bowdoin Street to Somerset Street.

Year(s) of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2004/2008

The Story: Technically built outside of the Government Center Urban Renewal Area that razed Scollay Square to make way for the new Boston City Hall, the Saltonstall Building as originally designed and constructed was still of a piece with that redevelopment: a 22-story state office building in the Modernist style set well back from Cambridge, Bowdoin, and Somerset streets, and surrounded by a sterile public plaza on the back side of Beacon Hill. The Saltonstall occupies one half of a superblock with the One Ashburton Place office building just up Beacon Hill. Although it might make a better story (at least for this fledgling blog) if the restoration of the urban fabric on Cambridge Street and up Bowdoin Street had been undertaken for urban design purposes, its actual genesis was in indoor air quality concerns. Indeed, the building was long known as a "sick building," ultimately requiring massive overhaul and renovation by the early 2000s. The Saltonstall's landlord, the Commonwealth's Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, turned to the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency to gut renovate and cure the building. In the process, MassDevelopment came up with an urban design that solved the surrounding public plaza's sterility by filling it in with low-rise 4-5 story buildings with retail and a new extended lobby at the ground level on the Cambridge Street frontage and residential entrances on the side streets. One can argue with the style of architecture and detailing. But the resulting redevelopment, completed in 2004 and significantly enhanced by a protracted but ultimately well-worth-it reconstruction of the fronting portion of Cambridge Street completed in 2008, is a decided and welcome improvement in the streetscape in this part of town.

[Added November 13, 2009]: RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: The below is a hand-sketch of the extension of the Saltonstall to meet its frontages (as shown by the hatching). The base map was created from the Boston Redevelopment Authority's helpful online Boston Atlas mapping function.