Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-22: Robert Campbell writes about the MFA's new wing...

...and RTUF likes what it hears and has already seen over there in recent years

Regular RTUFers may recall (OK, if you're like me, maybe you don't actually recall anything unless you write it down someplace or you're specifically reminded) that I wrote a little bit about the series of initial, relatively subtle but still urban design-influential changes going on over at the Museum of Fine Arts back in July (Update to Blog Post No. 2010-14). That, of course, was while the museum's new wing -- showcasing its Art of the Americas collection -- was still under construction. That wing is now complete and open to the public. In true celebration, at least from this blogger's perspective, we have Robert Campbell's return to the pages of the Boston Globe in a too-brief but typically insightful review of the wing's architecture from a week ago Saturday in a piece entitled "A wing that works." Soon enough, I'll take myself over to the MFA and be able to write back on whether the interior galleries and other spaces deserve the high praise that Robert gives them. For now, though, putting aside his verdict that the exterior doesn't really do much, I'd like to focus on two points from his piece, the first relatively minor, the second a big deal for RTUF given our focus here on urban design:

FIRST, the subtitle of the article is

"The beauty of the MFA's expansion is how it showcases the art without calling attention to itself."

And in this, Robert is exactly on the money, contrasting the design by Foster + Partners with Gehry's splashy Bilbao Guggenheim, which is posited as the start of "starchitects" around the globe drawing more attention to museum buildings than the works of art they are meant to house and display. Of course, being from New York, and this is my relatively minor point, I would go back to Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the original Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue in New York as a mid-20th century example of that precise phenomenon. Who thought that a museum could look like a giant toilet bowl?! How novel! How interesting! How disorienting to try to look at art on a spiraling, slanted walkway! How different from everything around it! Exactly right and an example of the phenomenon of a Modernist building's essentially anti-urban character being saved by the incredibly strong urban fabric all around it. The Guggenheim in New York is definitely an icon. Does it provide a comfortable and fitting home for the art it's meant to house and display? I've been there a number of times. I'm not convinced, even with the high-rise tower completed several years ago completing Wright's original design.

SECOND, Robert is at his best in the piece when talks about how the new wing represents the culmination of the MFA's now long-running effort to undo some pretty awful building access and layout decisions from the last quarter of the last century:

Finally, for the first time in my experience, it's now possible to figure out where you are in the MFA. Since the opening of the museum's West Wing in 1981, designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, that's been almost impossible. Most visitors entered through the Pei wing at the extreme end of the museum and quickly got lost in what seemed to be disorder.

The first thing Foster + Partners did was study the floor plan of the original MFA of 1909, by architect Guy Lowell. Lowell's plan, like much traditional architecture, was based on the human body. You entered at the head, and the building wings spread out symmetrically to the left and right like arms. It's a kind of order we grasp intuitively.

Foster has restored that old order. The Pei entry will be now used only for bus groups. The rest of us will again enter the museum at its center, either from the Fenway or from Huntington Avenue. A spine of visitor services — ticketing, tourist shop, information — now connects those two entrances.

To help you further with your wayfinding, openings between galleries tend to be lined up with one another, creating long vistas you can look or walk down. It’s an effect that was called Parade Rooms in an earlier era. The vistas let you see one part of the museum from another. They lace everything together visually. Often, for further legibility, the curators and architects site an especially bold or famous artwork at the termination of a vista.

I fully agree with Robert's comment that the old way of entering the museum at the extreme end of one side was a conceptually sub-par experience for every single visitor forced to endure it. The contrast with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- with its grand staircase and entrance hall welcoming visitors and giving them an immediate point of reference -- could not have been more obvious. A link here to the MFA's new floor plans would be useful in seeing what Robert means in terms of the museum's access points and layout now being much more intuitive than before. Similarly, the below RTUF sketch tries to highlight the exterior changes at work here -- the original entrances facing on Huntington Avenue and The Fenway have been reopened and re-emphasized, the parking lot entrance has, as Robert describes, been de-emphasized and is now only to be used for groups, and Forsyth Way is getting a much needed facelift now that the museum is more open to that side of its exterior.

Much of the credit obviously goes to Foster + Partners and their local team members, CBT, for getting the precise vision, execution, and details right. But I think substantial credit also needs to go to Malcolm Rogers, who has been the museum's director for the last decade-and-a-half. I will plead total ignorance on his stewardship of the museum's collections and whether he is a tyrant or a genius, or perhaps both. There is no denying, however, that it has been on his watch that the MFA has raised the funds, spent the design effort, and made the physical changes both small and large that have opened the MFA to the broader community -- both physically and symbolically -- in a way that it arguably has never been. This is a point recently made in, of all places, the Boston Phoenix, which featured an extensive cover article by Greg Cook entitled "OMFG: The new MFA " and a spot-on editorial about Rogers headlined "Mister Rogers: The MFA's Impresario." The Phoenix's editors say of the new wing and Rogers:

In the most expansive sense, the Art of the Americas Wing, while self-contained, operates in service to the larger MFA. It provides the well-established collections with room to breath properly and re-establishes a harmonious flow among the staggering number of older galleries.

The idea of service is the glue that binds Rogers's 16-year tenure. In the past, the MFA was run as something of a private preserve that just happened to be open to the public.

The degree to which this was true may have varied from department to department, but the old MFA was a collection of fiefdoms that only appeared to operate in concert the farther away you viewed it.

Rogers, with varying degrees of skill and success, has managed to recast the MFA into a multi-disciplinary whole dedicated to internal growth and institutional survival by serving the public.

Wherever the truth lies in Rogers's role in brining the museum's staff and collections to a new level, there can be no doubting that the MFA is a much better piece of the urban fabric today than it has been in a long, long time, perhaps ever.

UPDATE (23 Dec 2010): Good friend and fellow runner Professor Matt Noonan called me out recently for writing about something that I hadn't gone and seen (at least not in its finished state), so herewith are some pictures of the exterior of the new wing that your faithful RTUF correspondent took very recently. Once the holiday craziness dies down, we'll actually go inside and let you know what we think of the interior.

A note on the photos: They run effectively in order from the Huntington Avenue facade around Forsyth Way and onto the Fenway, ending up looking at the West Wing across the surface parking lot referred to above.

UPDATE (24 Jan 2011): Well, over the weekend, we finally got a look inside the new wing and see how the museum works in its new, expanded form. Put simply, everything Robert Campbell said was true. The MFA works and makes much more sense now. The new galleries do a great job of showcasing the MFA's strengths in American art, and showing, by the dearth of space given over to South and Central America, where it needs improvement. I recall that Campbell was not entirely sure how well the new main space would work: I think it works just fine. I don't know whether it really needs more art work to be placed in it to give it more interest. You can see that one end is held up quite well by the former exterior of the original museum, and at least in mid-winter, you can see the (snow-covered) greenery on either side. Ending with some photos of that space:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-21: Seizing the presently available opportunity to continue the campaign to bring the Pru out to meet its neighbors...

...in the Back Bay and South End

A rendering of Avalon Exeter viewed from Boylston Street over the Lord & Taylor building (credit: Boston Properties, Elkus Manfredi).

Ted Siefer, a Boston Globe correspondent who's been writing recently on a wide variety of home and real estate-related topics as well as producing content for The Phoenix and WBUR, did a fine job in Saturday's paper in describing how a current development proposal does both in "Apartment building ready to rise". AvalonBay Communities is predicting construction start on Avalon Exeter, a 28-story rental apartment building located on the Prudential Center complex (MAP) that straddles the border of the Back Bay and the South End, in the spring of next year.

Multifamily development, especially in a rental market like Boston's with its high built-in demand, high rental rates, and low vacancy with little new product coming online, is the current conventional wisdom's financing fair-haired child. Almost nothing else is moving forward right now in a meaningful way -- certainly not general office given the employment situation, not ownership residential given the continued inability of that market to find a positive direction several years into the subprimte/foreclosure meltdown, and also not retail development given continued softness in the consumer economy (though there are some isolated bright spots). No, ladies and gentlemen, the smart money right now and for the foreseeable future is on multifamily rental and that counts as our "presently available opportunity" for today's post.

Which brings us to the "bring the Pru out to meet the neighbors" part of the post. That's the way the design of the new tower and, equally as importantly, its location continues the multi-year effort by the owner of the overall Prudentail Center complex -- Boston Properties -- to fill in the exterior edges of the massive complex and make it act more like a piece of the urban fabric in this critical urban location, rather than a sealed-off enclave behind vacuous and little used open spaces. This trend was cited in one of the first posts on this blog -- No. 2009-3 just over a year ago -- about the Mandarin Oriental building on Boylston Street and how it had quite elegantly filled in a gap in the Pru's exterior on Boylston Street. Boston Properties has been doing that all over the place -- with the curving Belvedere residential building on that street's frontage, the office tower at 111 Huntington Avenue (famous for its crown, reportedly the brain-child of the Mayor himself), new one- and two-story connections along Huntington Avenue itself with a relocated and upgraded Shaw's supermarket, and a more open design to the Lord & Taylor store on Boylston Street.

All of these changes have made the Pru a far better neighbor than it has ever been, and Boston Properties has a plan approved already to fill in the last big gap on Boylston with an office building dubbed "888 Boylston." The office market being what it is, it may be some time before that building moves forward. But, as noted above, the multifamily rental market is still going well and AvalonBay, having taken over ownership and management of the pricey but frankly urban design-deficient residential towers at the Pru, is now finally ready to break ground on a residential building that will fill in the exterior gap on the east, along Exeter Street between Huntington and Boylston. The rendering in the article doesn't have much detail but it does seem to show the new building creating a strong street edge and ground-level uses on Exeter. And below, some context...

In order: 888 Boylston Street (the proposed office tower further up Boylston (credit: Boston Properties)), 1960s-vintage postcard showing the under-construction Prudential as object building resting on its low-slung podium (credit unavailable), the residential towers on the eastern end of the site as originally built (note the surrounding plaza space (credit: Boston Properties)), the curving Belvidere residential building that encloses the Belvedere-Dalton Street frontage (credit noted).

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-20: The Carruth makes Ashmont Station feel more...

...like a place, not just space to get through



The location: 1908 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester, MA at Ashmont Station (near Peabody Square) (MAP).

The photos: (1) The flat-iron view of the building, from the north, along Dorchester Avenue; (2) Closer-up view of the entrance, showing the coffee shop, outdoor seating, and a planter/fountain feature on the left; (3) Dorchester Avenue streetscape (wide sidewalk, substantial street trees); (4) A view back north from inside the relocated busway toward Peabody Square; (5) View across the busway to the "back side" of the building; and (6) the cornerstone.

Year of urban fabric restoration: 2008 (see cornerstone).

The Story: It is a sad, unmistakable fact that the second half of the 20th century in the United States was, from a pedestrian-oriented urban design perspective, one long, virtually uniform nightmare for our urban places. With a thorough-ness and focus that could only be called admirable but for its outcome, we designed practically every inch of our built environment with one and only one goal in mind: to make it easier to travel around by single-occupant motor vehicle. We widened our streets. We eliminated on-street parking. We bulldozed entire city blocks to make way for surface parking in urban cores. We rammed interstate highways -- roads designed for the uninterrupted movement of goods through rural open spaces at high speeds -- through our downtowns and neighborhoods. And, in one of the sadder ironies of all, we surrounded many of our existing and, to the extent we built any, new transit facilities with surface parking lots and beefed-up auto access whenever possible. The idea there being that nearly everyone would access our transit systems by getting into their cars, driving to the station, parking, and then boarding a train.

Over the last 2 decades or so, we have begun to reverse all of these trends in the field of transportation. And one of the most visible signs of that reversal has been the rise of "Transit-Oriented Development," which is essentially the idea that transit facilities represent substantial public investments that can promote walkability and compact, land-efficient development if we plan and zone the areas around stations to accommodate that development. In short: Don't surround new or existing train stations with surface parking -- surround them with buildings and, if you think you really need them, parking garages that fit into the desired pattern of development. With a great many of the new or expanded systems around the U.S., this is simply common sense. I'm thinking most obviously of the fantastic work done in Portland, OR, and Charlotte, NC, with the station area planning around their new light rail transit systems, but this kind of thinking has been in play for new systems and extensions all around the country. Advance planning to ensure TODs around new stations instead of parking lots is well underway for the Green Line extension from Lechmere through Somerville and for the proposed South Coast Rail Project to Fall River and New Bedford.

But in a region like Boston, with a mature transit system and strong existing patterns of development, we have a huge range of opportunities to go back and retrofit existing station areas that were inappropriately forced into serving the car. Prime existing examples include Woodland on the D Branch of the Green Line in Newton and Station Landing on the Orange Line in Medford. TODs on the drawing boards, but stalled by the economy, include the massive NorthPoint development in East Cambridge adjacent to Lechmere Station, Westwood Station adjacent to the Route 128 Station in Westwood, and Waterfront Square at Revere Beach, adjacent to Wonderland Station. [DISCLAIMER: Your RTUF correspondent represents the developer of the last named project in his day job.] The Carruth building, erected at Ashmont Station in Dorchester through a public-private partnership between Trinity Financial and the MBTA, is an example of doing TOD perfectly in an already well-urbanized setting. The new building forms the missing street wall on Dorchester Avenue at Ashmont Station, just to the south of Peabody Square. In a neighborhood as large and as racially, ethnically, and socio-economically mixed as Dorchester, Peabody Square is never going to turn into Wellesley Square, and that's more than OK. For the foreseeable future, it will remain a melting pot, and The Carruth represents another ingredient to go along with other newcomers like Ashmont Grill, identified on the google map along Talbot Avenue. With its mix of market-rate homeownership and affordable rental units (42 and 74, respectively) above 10,000 square feet of retail including a Wainwright Bank branch, a coffee shop (my personal favorite local chain - Flatblack), the office for the local main streets organization, and Tavola, a new Mediterranean cuisine restaurant, the project is a virtual microcosm of the surrounding neighborhood within itself. As usual with Trinity and Icon Architects (their designers), the details are right on. I am especially partial to the flatiron view of the building. As faithful RTUF Nation citizens know, I am a New Yorker and one of my favorite buildings is the Flatiron Building in Madison Square. I have always been particularly impressed at how the building carried the shape of its constrained site so high into the air. The Carruth achieves the same iconic status here. It seems destined to be a symbol of the area for years to come.

The RTUF Sketch: The Carruth artfully bridges the space between the Dorchester Avenue street frontage and Ashmont Station itself.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-18: Vote No on Question 2

Stepping out of RTUF's general attempt to be neutral (or at least appear neutral) in all things...

In my day job, I recently helped organize and moderated a panel at a continuing legal education program at the Boston Bar Association regarding Question 2 on this year's Massachusetts fall election ballot. If passed by the voters on November 2nd, Question 2 would repeal Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 40B, Sections 20-23, variously known as the "Anti-Snob Zoning Act," "the Affordable Housing Law," the "Comprehensive Permit Act," or simply and somewhat misleadingly (since there are clearly many other sections within the chapter) "Chapter 40B." Boiled down, the law, which entered its existence in 1969 (the same year as your correspodent's own birth), does essentially 3 things:

1. Establishes an affordable housing "fair share" target of 10% for each and every city and town in the Commonwealth.
2. Provides that projects including at least 20-25% of their units as qualifying "affordable units" proposed in a city or town that is below the fair share target may seek a "Comprehensive Permit" from the local Zoning Board of Appeals that consolidates multiple local permits in a single decision and may override local zoning and other regulations.
3. Allows a Comprehensive Permit applicant to seek relief from an adverse local ZBA decision in the Housing Appeals Committee, a special state administrative forum that strongly favors approval of proposed projects.

I won't go into all of the back-and-forth on Chapter 40B's original intent, its somewhat checkered recent past, or the literally hundreds of previous legislative proposals for its repeal or radical revision over the decades. Suffice it to say here that Chapter 40B has been quite effective at delivering substantial numbers of mixed-income projects all across the Commonwealth's suburban communities. Suffice it here to also say that it has also evolved into virtually the only mechanism for getting any multi-family or even small lot residential development done in those communities. Quite simply: Chapter 40B or the threat of a proposed project "going" Chapter 40B has been the only way to build anything other than large-lot single-family developments in those same communities.

All of that being the case, and the Commonwealth facing a housing affordability challenge that hasn't been significantly lessened in the recent Great Recession (because we've lost less value in comparison to other regions of the country), the argument can and has been made that Chapter 40B's survival is more critical now than ever. And even if one were to accept the argument that Chapter 40B is too blunt an instrument -- what with its single fair share housing target and meat axe approach to overriding local regulation -- to survive in this more enlightened age, you still have the problem of what you're going to do to achieve the same affordable housing goals. Jon Witten, the Duxbury attorney who is the prime legal mover among repeal proponents, has advocated in print (and at the above-mentioned CLE) that we can achieve the same ends as Chapter 40B with a rational, comprehensive planning and zoning system, something we currently lack in Massachusetts as a statewide matter. Now, far be it from RTUF to denigrate planning, but there are plenty of places with comprehensive planning and zoning systems that still have housing affordability issues. But even if one accepts that argument, it is still true that approving Question 2 would only achieve the first part of the bargain -- doing away with the exsiting law. Until Question 2's proponents can come up with a second part of the bargain -- a workable system to achieve the same ends -- and are willing to pair it on the ballot with repeal so that they are unalterably linked, you may rest assured that this Massachusetts voter will be voting no.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post represents the author's own opinion and not the opinion of the Boston Bar Association or any other private, non-profit, or public entity with whom the author is associated or by whom the author is employed.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-17: One Charles finally fills out Park Square

Over thirty years after the area's urban renewal plan was adopted

3 4 5

6 7

The location: One Charles Street South, Boston, MA -- in the vicinity of Park Square/Park Plaza, a block from Boston Common and the Public Garden (Map link here).

The photos: Moving clockwise around the building: (1) view from Columbus Avenue/Park Plaza; (2) cornerstone (credit going to Handel Architects for the building's design); (3) , (4), & (5) the Charles Street South facade; (6) rounding the corner onto Stuart; (7) Stuart Street facade; and (8) the Eliot Street/Park Square alley between the building and the Motormart Garage.

Year of urban fabric restoration: 2004 (see cornerstore in Photo 2).

The Story: So, yes, RTUF Nation, we're back after the August hiatus. We did have a refreshingly hot and dry summer this year, so the opportunities to get out of town and enjoy the weather were more attractive and more often taken than in the recent past. I am especially thinking of last year's "Lost Summer" in which June was an utter wreck and July and August didn't do nearly enough to make up for it. If you add the increased running-around to the fact that the pace of business in the part of my life that pays the bills showed some signs of real life last month, you're left with precious little time to do blog postings.
In any event, we're back now with a prime example of urban fabric restoration in one of downtown Boston's most critical areas: Park Square/Park Plaza. Our subject this month is the 17-story combined retail/residential building known as One Charles, located in the block bounded by Charles Street South, Park Plaza, Stuart Street, and the Park Square/Eliot Street alley. As discussed in the blog entry from last year regarding the rear addition at the Four Seasons Hotel (Blog Post No. 2009-7, "The Back of the Four Seasons Hotel: Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference (The first in a series...)"), the broader area around One Charles, taking in the Heritage on the Garden building, the Four Seasons Hotel, and the State Transportation Building across Charles Street South (affectionately known as the "Big Brick Building"), has been redeveloped over a 30+ year span under the auspices of the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan.
That plan was just one of many urban renewal plans adopted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1960s and 1970s across much of central Boston, stretching from as far west as the Fenway neighobrhood all the way to the waterfront. As is well known, urban renewal plans from that era in Boston and elsewhere in the U.S. were not without controversy and many, many lessons learned. That it took several decades to fill out the central redevelopment area is also emblematic of the long timeframes involved in urban redevelopment, even in an effort as successful overall the Park Plaza plan. It is helpful for everyone typically involved in major urban redevelopment efforts to bear that timeframe in mind: patience and an ability not to lose focus over the long haul are the keys to ultimate success. And One Charles is an excellent example of the positive results that are possible if those two ingredients are present. It fills its block out to the very edges, as required in such an urban setting. Even so, however, and despite the building's height, it does not feel imposing. To me, the pass-through continuation of Eliot Street at the ground level (you can see the entrance from Charles Street in Photo 3) and the way the building pays close attention to the Park Plaza/Charles Street intersection and the visual axis along Columbus Avenue are just a few of the details that allow the building to read as a careful insertion into the urban fabric rather than something that was helicoptered in and intended to obliterate everything below and ignore everything around.
RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: One Charles fits its site virtually perfectly.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-16: Three July Things

They report it, we give it the once over...

As much of the Boston region prepares to enter the August hiatus, we here at RTUF are far from asleep at the wheel. We are continuing to scour the print and intertube-based media for spicy tidbits of information related to the urban fabric here in the Hub. In the last third of this, the month of birthdays (my daughter's, my brother's, Harry Potter's), we have indeed had some exciting news:

First up: We here at RTUF thought a good temporary location for the Boston Public Market while it continued its Odysseus-like search for a permanent home was City Hall Plaza, but they have finally found their proverbial Ithaca in the first floor of the combined retail-office-garage building on Greenway Parcel 7. This is the building on Congress Street sandwiched between the Government Center Garage and the Blackstone Block near Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market. The news reported in the Globe this week indicates that the commonwealth has finally done the right thing and designated them as the tentative tenant of that space, subject to release of about $4 Million in state bond funds (of the total $10 Million allocated) and gap fundraising to the tune of approximately $3 Million. Congratulations BPMA! Raise those funds and get open as soon as possible!

Next: Restoration work on the Longfellow Bridge, aka the "Salt and Pepper" bridge, that links Cambridge Street in Boston with Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and has the Red Line running down the middle, is finally about to start this fall. As reported, again, in the Globe, the first phase will be principally exploratory with actual construction work to start in the spring. That phasing is helping put off the decision on final configuration of the restored bridge, about which there appears to be lively debate. There are multiple stakeholders here, including public entities -- the cities themselves, MassDOT, which has charge of the bridge itself, and the MBTA -- and private actors in including MGH, Mass Eye and Ear, and bicycle and walking advocacy organizations. To my mind, the most compelling vision is from WalkBoston, which is pushing for a road diet that would result in one fewer vehicular traffic lane in each direction than is currently the case. If that happens, the bridge would have the potential to become a prime strolling and viewing venue -- and its views of the Esplanade, Charles River Basin and downtown are truly inspring -- on a par with some of the world's great urban bridges. There are of course countervailing concerns about where the traffic could be expected to go and what would happen to emergency vehicles trying to reach MGH and MEEI if the single inbound lane were blocked or full of traffic. As a former transportation planner, this is going to be a fascinating debate. We'll follow it and let you know how it turns out.

And finally: Going back to my hometown where another transportation-related debate has been brewing in the Bronx over the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's long-running effort to get the elevated Sheridan Expressway demolished and replaced with a boulevard. The poster child for this kind of an effort is the former Embarcadero Freeway along the waterfront in San Francisco, which was condemned after the Loma Prieta Earthquake 20 years ago and replaced with a bouelvard instead of a new highway. The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago that a recent NYSDOT study had concluded that traffic that would have been on the Sheridan would end up on local roads if it were removed. I can't say that's really surprising, but the Times reports that it's a "blow" to removal proponents. We'll have to stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-15: The Liberty Tree Building

Ably Restored and Contributing Again








Location: The Liberty Tree Building, 630 Wasington Street (at Boylston/Essex Streets), Boston, MA

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 1998

Photos: (1) Looking from the corner diagonally across Washington Street; (2) Same vantage point, but looking down the Essex Street facade of the building; (3) View of the upper stories; (4) the Liberty Tree plaque on the Washington Street facade of the building; (5) Longer view of the Washington Street facade; (6) Point of contact between the Liberty Tree Building and Archstone Boston Common building; and (7) Liberty Tree memorial across Washington Street from the building.

The Story: This is another building that Campbell/Vanderwarker covered in Cityscapes of Boston, chronicling its decline in the second half of the last century. When they wrote in 1992, the building was at perhaps its lowest ebb, with the upper stories and much of the ground floor boarded up, windows filled with cinder block, and the building highly deteriorated. The Combat Zone, which had dictated the building's use for the 20+ years before that point, was rapidly shrinking and the area was poised for a new wave of development seeking to capitalize on the very close proximity of Boston Common a block away and the Orange Line below. The restored Liberty Tree Building, tenanted by a relocated state Registry of Motor Vehicles office and the ubiquitous Dunkin' Donuts franchise, arrived almost simultaneously with the Millennium Partners development diagonally across Washington Street. That development, which produced a new multi-screen movie theater with its main entrance on Tremont Street facing the Common as well as additional high-end retail, a new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and luxury condominiums, truly changed the face of this stretch of downtown Boston. Immediately on its heels came the building that is now Archstone Boston Common, which abuts the Liberty Tree Building in Photo 6. From my non-architect's perspective, the restoration to the Liberty Tree Building was ably done. The big RMV sign references in its style and location the old-style building facade signs that were a hallmark of Boston's commercial districts around the turn of the last century. There is a quiet dignity in the rhythm of the facade's windows and storefronts. The building looks better now than it has for at least a half century if not more.

As for the Liberty Tree itself, the Wikipedia treatment here hits the main points. The tree was around this location, on the southern end of the Town of Boston in the 1760s. Orange Street has now become Washington Street and the tree, chopped down by the British in 1775 when things really started heating up, is remembered in the facade plaque of the building as well as the memorial on the other side of Washington. One of the things I love about Boston is this kind of embedded history. There are just layers upon layers of meaning. To give just one example, I mentioned the Orange Line above. That subway line, in this area originally developed simply as the Washington Street subway, was given the name the Orange Line by the MBTA, our regional transit authority, in the early 1960s because the name of the street had originally been Orange Street. In closing:
Liberty 1776
Law and Order
Sons of Liberty 1766
Independence of Their Country 1776
RTUF Public Service Announcement: Between this post and last, we have now hit over 1,000 visits to the blog. Many thanks to everyone who has taken a look! - MJL

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-14: Thinking about Adams Park...

as July passes the 1/3rd mark

Of Farmers Markets, EBTs, and Bounty Bucks.

Like an increasing number of neighborhoods in Boston, Roslindale has a weekend farmers market in the summer and fall dubbed, logically enough, the Roslindale Farmers Market. Today was hot and humid in Roslindale. But that didn't keep a good crowd from turning out, which is a story that has a couple of interesting angles.

When we first moved here in 2000, the market was located on the lower parking lot directly adjacent to the MBTA's Roslindale Village commuter rail station. For whatever reason, the market never seemed to be worth visiting at that location. Too few vendors, too little action going on. A couple of years ago, the market moved into Adams Park, the small park at the center of Roslindale Square. Though I do worry about the wear and tear on the park, especially in a relatively hot and dry summer as this one has been so far, that change in venue has really worked wonders. We now have multiple, high quality farm stands to choose from, a handful of local merchants putting out their own small-scale operations (I especially appreciate Fornax Bakery's stand), and entertainment. [This weekend's band was a surf-sound group called The Beachcombovers. Not bad at all. ] And the attendance at the market seems to be increasing year-on-year. Certainly some of the crowd is drawn by the quality of the produce, local sourcing, etc. It's also a location with much greater visibility and dignity than the MBTA parking lot.

I also firmly believe that the City of Boston's assistance starting in the last two years to the farm stands in being able to offer Electronic Benefit Transfers or EBTs, which permit debit card-like expenditure of federal supplemental nutrition assistance program dollars, has made a world of difference. Because, let's face it, the goods at farmers markets are often priced higher than similar goods in conventional grocery stores (particularly in a state like Massachusetts, where the remaining farming is relatively small-scale), they can sometimes feel like preserves of the conscientious but well-heeled. Not so since EBTs started being accommodated. And even less so with the City's newest program, called Boston Bounty Bucks, launched in partnership with the Food Project. For EBT customers, Bounty Bucks provides a 50% match on the first $20 expended participating farmers markets around town. When I attended the official opening of the Dewey Square Farmers Market near South Station a couple of weeks ago, I tried to get Paul McMorrow, of Banker & Tradesman, Boston Globe, and Harbor Garage article series fame, interested in the story. So far to no avail. But I still think it's potentially a great story, and could be a follow-up to the piece that appeared in yesterday's Globe about urban agriculture and the Food Project's greenhouse in the Dudley Triangle ("Boston ploughs stimulus money into urban farms"). I think a look at the numbers would show a jump in purchases by low and middle-income households at farmers markets where EBTs and Bounty Bucks are offered. In other words, the Roslindale Farmers Market now looks and feels like all of Roslindale is in on the action. And that's a very good thing.

UDPATE and RTUF ADVISORY: Two items I read in the paper (the Globe, of course) this morning seem worth mention. First, an opinion piece by Michael Harmon ("Main Street model revitalizes Roslindale") points out the great success that Roslindale Village Main Street has been since its inception in the mid-1980s. Everything in the piece is true about the small-scale changes that have made the Square a turnaround success, though much more could be said about the details. In any event, we do have a functioning neighborhood center to be proud of, and the 2200-person average attendance number quoted for the Farmers Market sounds on target. Second, this week's entry in the Brainiac column ("MFA 1, Gardner 0") speaks to a recent subtle improvement in the urban fabric I've had in mind to blog about: the reopening of the Museum of Fine Arts' Fenway entrance back in 2008. The reopening of that entrance, along with the increase in emphasis on the Huntington Avenue entrance, construction of a new visitors' center in the center of the museum's main building, and the de-emphasis and eventual closure of the entrance on Museum Road (located behind a surface parking lot), were among the first tangible fruits of the museum's broader expansion project under the direction of Foster + Partners. Apparently, Charles Birnbaum from the Cultural Landscape Foundation also agrees that reopening the Fenway entrance was a good idea, representing the reconnection of the institution to the historic park it faces. Not having been able to see the Renzo Piano design of the Gardner Museum's expansion plan in much detail, I can't say whether I agree that it loses something important in its connection to the Fens. If others have opinions, I'd love to hear in them in the comment section.

Please note that, in addition to the above update, this entry was also further edited after its initial publication. -- MJL

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-13: Washington Beech in the News & Reconsidering Jane Jacobs' Legacy

It's the last day of the month, a time when, by long-standing tradition, we here at RTUF survey the popular press and put our 2 cents out there about an interesting article or articles. Tonight, we have two:

1. Washington Beech ribbon-cutting makes the Globe. The completion of the first phase of the redevelopment of the former Washington Beech barracks-style public housing project into a contributing swath of the urban fabric, which I discussed in a post earlier this year (Blog Post No. 2010-9: Washington Beech is just the latest in a line...), was formally celebrated at a ribbon-cutting yesterday. It appears, according to the Boston Globe's Jennifer McKim ("Ailing Roslindale block gets a new life"), that, among many, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, and Sandra Henriquez, the former head of the Boston Housing Authority now turned Undersecretary at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, were in attendance and spoke. The article discusses not only the redevelopment itself, but also Ms. Henriquez's discussion of HUD's current legislative proposal to dramatically expand public housing authorities' flexibility in financing such projects by permitting mortgage financing.

2. Reconsidering Jane Jacobs' Legacy. Or at least a part of it. My father gave me a heads-up today about an article from yesterday's Wall Street Journal that does a decent job of identifying one clearly mixed blessing of Jacobs' influence on the structure of urban policy and public involvement in decision-making over the last half-century. Written by Andrew Manshel, identified as the executive vice president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation in Queens (NY), and titled "Enough with Jane Jacobs Already," the article's main focus is the City of New York's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which sounds essentially like the kind of development project impact review and mitigation process that is required in many large cities (and even some smaller ones) around the country. Here in Boston, this kind of project review is enshrined in Article 80 of the Zoning Code.

Manshel is clearly no fan of this kind of process, viewing it as producing, at the end, a "valueless document...crafted mainly to foil any lawsuits by opponents of development claiming that the process fell short of legal requirements for completeness." He urges New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to take a hard look at ULURP as it undertakes municipal charter reform because, in Manshel's words, "a better balance needs to be struck between considered judgment and citizen participation." As someone who has been there and been directly involved in what Manshel describes, I have to say that you'd be hard-pressed to find a thoughtful participant in the typical process who doesn't think it could use some improvement. Overall, the pendulum does seem to have swung too far in favor of those who oppose projects and want to stop development based on a narrow perception of what is in their and the public's interest. How to address that concern and promote better, more predictable, and more efficient decision-making is one of the great challenges of urban policy in the early 21st century. To the extent that Jacobs' success in promoting broad public involvement has now become calcified and an impediment to improving and thoughtfully expanding our built environment, it's a critique worth making. And if Manshel had stopped there, I wouldn't have all that much to disagree with.

But Manshel then takes the opportunity to take a few direct shots at Jacobs' overall influence on urban development and planning, based largely on what she said in her seminal work from the early 1960s: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. He perceives her ideas to be too influential and too unexamined among the professionals charged with administering our system, the developers at ULI and the architects and planners coming out of our academic institutions. In this context, it is worth remembering that Jacobs was smart, dynamic, and influential, but not a trained professional in urban planning or architecture. She started out as a journalist and was essentially a generalist in her approach to problems and her proposed solutions to them. And she was not kind in her writing to the academics and professional technicians of the time. There is accordingly an irony in having a book like Death and Life attaining such widespread influence in academic and professional circles. Manshel also sees it as misguided and limiting. Jacobs was often wrong, he says, and turning her every utterance about urban life into gospel is a mistake. Again, not a bad thing to remember and entirely consistent with one of my own pet sayings: "Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is a mixed bag."

Yet the examples that Manshel offers of her mistakes are not clear-cut and themselves reveal a disregard for inconvenient facts. Lincoln Center may be a success and not the failure that Jacobs predicted, but I'm not sure it's responsible for revitalizing the neighborhood around it. It came at great cost in terms of displacement and in my view it's largely the surrounding neighborhood's ability to feed vitality into the site that saved it. Lincoln Center on its own would be pretty lifeless. The West Village may now be fully gentrified and hardly resembling the mixed-income paradigm that Jacobs described from the late 1950s, but claiming that such gentrification falls directly out of "policies she advocated" that "blocked real-estate development" overstates the case as well. A city like New York may well have failed to build enough new housing to keep prices in check over the last half century in part because of NIMBYs empowered by the public involvement structure that Jacobs inspired. But as one of the article's commenters notes, gentrification in a place like the West Village is also about a specific lack of supply of great neighborhoods, not just housing in general.

And then comes Manshel's climactic declaration: We should all pay less attention to Jacobs' "overblown pronouncements and unprovable theories" and more attention to the work of William H. Whyte, which Manshel describes as "finely-grained thinking" about the design of public spaces. Like another commenter to the story, I've never thought of Jacobs and Whyte as being opposed to each other or somehow mutually exclusive in their approach to what makes a successful and satisfying urban place. Overall, then, I'm a bit at a loss as to why Jacobs has to be denigrated as a crackpot and Whyte held up as the shining example of right thinking in order to make a valid point about reforming the development project review and public involvement process. This kind of gratuitous critique, not at all necessary to further Manshel's point, makes me wonder about motivation and context and broader implications. The debate over urban development is clearly still a live one. Recently, we've seen an attempt to rehabilitate Robert Moses 30+ years after The Power Broker. In my opinion, Alan Ehrenhalt's 2007 piece in Governing ("The Power Broker Reconsidered") was a thoughtful consideration of that boomlet. It now appears that one of his chief late-career opponents is being targeted. Wherever this is headed, we can only hope it isn't intended to put us back into the days of condemning and clearing entire neighborhoods, punching interstate highways through our urban cores, and building towers in lifeless parks.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-12: Residential infill done perfectly...

...and not so perfectly





Locations: 16 Fairview Street and 26 Mendum Street, Roslindale, MA

Years of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2001 and 1956

Photos: (1) Looking up Fairview Street, showing the adjacent house and 16 Fairview; (2) A closer uphill view of the house at 16 Fairview, the driveway, and entrance; (3) Front view, with entrance, wrap-around porch, and front facade; (4) Looking back down Fairview; (5) Scale comparison shot for 26 Mendum Street (it's the little yellow house on the right, partially hidden by the street tree); (6) Broader view of 26 Mendum.

The Story: You can actually see the rear of 16 Fairview from my backyard. It was built just a year after we moved to the Peters Hill section of Roslindale. I've met the resident builder-owner -- Bill Re -- a few times and most recently seen him at the site of a residential rehab project he's doing around the corner on Symmes Street. My poor photos, taken late in the day last week, really don't do his house justice. It is about as perfect a job of doing residential infill as you're likely to find anywhere. The scale of the house is right, it sits up on the street, and it has great detailing in a Victorian style without being overbearing. Every time I walk by this house, I especially appreciate the strong statement made by the wrap-around porch. Porches are ubiquitous in Roslindale, as in many other former streetcar suburbs built in Boston around the turn of the last century. But getting a porch right is not easy. Too often, the porches on new houses are too shallow to be usable, ending up as little more than appliques that are sort of nice to look at (unless you realize they're too shallow to fulfill their supposed purpose). The architects here were Vozzella Design Group, a Roslindale outfit with offices near the Forest Hills MBTA station. They are to be commended for a job very well done.

I am aware that Vozzella designed the house because I checked out the City's online building permit information for the property as part of a very small research experiment that produced the precise results I thought it would. Given how absolutely right-on this house is, how it is scaled and located like every other house on the street, how well it agrees with its surroundings and practically proves the point that you can in fact build new houses that work just as well aesthetically as old ones, the uninitiated might think that the process for approval of this house was easy. All Bill Re had to do was walk down to the Boston Inspectional Services Department with Vozzella Design's plans in hand, pay the appropriate fee, and pull a building permit to make his neighborhood a better place, right? Alas, my friends, that was not the case here. And it is not the case in the vast majority of American cities and towns, even to this day. You see, the City's zoning for Roslindale as it existed in 2000-2001 outlawed this kind of house. Yes, Bill could build a single-family house here, but it had to abide by the dimensional requirements for the City's old, 1950s-era R-.5 (Residential -- 0.5 ratio between the floor area of the house and the area of the lot) zoning district. So, in order to build this pitch-perfect piece of infill, Bll had to obtain relief from a variety of dimensional standards that screamed "Levittown!" not "Roslindale," among them: too-narrow side yards, too little street frontage, too small a lot, too-shallow rear yard, etc. Bill therefore found himself in a several month-long process run through the City's Board of Appeal that, ultimately, let him do the right thing. Roslindale's zoning has, in the last few years, been rewritten and brought into line with the more recently-adopted standards governing the City's other neighborhoods. I confess that I haven't checked to see whether this house would still require relief under the new provisions, but I hope it wouldn't.

Put another way, the zoning code of the 1950s was built for some bizarre parallel universe version of Roslindale (and much of the rest of Boston's neighborhoods) that would someday become, well, pretty much entirely like the house at 26 Mendum Street, shown in the last 2 photos and also on Peters Hill, a few more blocks up the hill on the last street before the Arboretum itself. I'm picking on 26 Mendum in particular because friend and ace realtor Linda Burnett (a.k.a., "Roslinda") lives in this house, takes great care of it, and has agreed that it's OK for me to show it as a counter-example to Bill Re's house. In short, Linda is happy, as a realtor, to own the ugliest house on a great block. And it really is. It isn't a total disaster, but it is out of scale with every other house on Mendum Street, which are generally 2 1/2 to 3 stories in height with steep roof pitches, generous floor-to-ceiling heights, and deep porches. This house, perhaps not surprisingly, was actually built in 1956 according to the City's records. You can immediately imagine that the house would be perfectly acceptable in a neighborhood of similar houses (Levittown again). But here, given the character of the street and the surrounding neighborhood, it's a missed opportunity that is nearing its 55th anniversary. And yes, you guessed it, this house did not require any relief from the zoning code's provisions back in the 1950s. Perverse is perhaps too strong a word to use to describe the effect of the woefully-misapplied zoning code that Roslindale once had. But it would be accurate.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-11: Words to live by...

if you want to actually get something done (First in a continuing series)

Saturday's Boston Globe carried a story by correspondent Robert Preer entitled "Not even a whisper against this wind farm." Preer's piece is about a proposed wind farm in the town of Wareham that, unlike the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound and another major wind farm proposal at Brodie Mountain in Berkshire County, is moving through the state's environmental review process with a minimum of controversy and appears headed toward construction commencement this year. Now, the narrative here is a bit odd, as you can tell from the headline alone. It's almost as if the Globe can't believe that a wind farm proposal of any magnitude can actually get through the approval process without the usual circus of NIMBYs (both reasonable and unreasonable), climate change critics, and general naysayers. Obvious substantive differences that distinghish the Wareham project, dubbed the "Bog Wind Power Cooperative," from a project like Cape Wind include size (8 turbines for Bog Wind vs. 130 turbines for Cape Wind, lessening the visual impact), location (inland in Wareham instead of offshore in Nantucket Sound, near major highways and power lines), and immediate, deeply invested local project supporters (in the cranberry farm owners where the turbines will be located (hence the "bog" and "cooperative" elements of the project name) as opposed to Cape Wind's federal waters location).

All of the foregoing is true, but I want to focus on what I believe is an absolute MONEY quote from Glen Berkowitz, the president of Beaufort Windpower, the Boston-based company that is leading the project. This quote reveals what may be the real difference maker between Bog Wind and projects like them that seem to move quickly through the review process and the many, many other projects that hit huge snags and erupt in disastrous controversy. Says Berkowitz, about halfway through the article:

"We want to design, permit, and build the project in a way that creates public trust."

Don't we all want this? Don't developers want this? Don't project neighbors want this? Don't elected officials and municipal staff want this? Don't environmental advocates want this? Doesn't the public at large want this?

Yet, this seldom happens. Initially, the public attitude is almost always going to be one of distrust and suspicion. Everyone thinks they've seen this show before -- the greedy developer will screw the local townspeople and move on to their next opportunity to do the same someplace else. To a greater extent than we realize, we've been programmed to believe that any physical change in our community will make it worse -- more development necessarily means more traffic, more noise, more environmental degradation, and more people. And, of course, given most of what we've built over the last 60+ years in this country, project opponents aren't necessarily wrong. That said, it takes massive quantities of patience, belief in what you're doing, and confidence to not be put off by the inevitable first reaction and keep working in an open and inclusive way that (hopefully) gives everyone time and space to come to terms with something new and different. It looks like Glen Berkowitz may have substantial measures of all three traits. For that, he is to be saluted and he is therefore our first RTUF Words to Live By if You Want to Actually Get Something Done awardee. Thank you, Glen.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-10: And this too restores the urban fabric:

Renovation of the Brewer Fountain is finally complete!


The Photos: (1) and (2): Set-up shots, looking roughly northeast from the Common toward downtown; (3) Looking at the fountain and then across Tremont Street to St. Paul's Cathedral (the classical building with fronting colonnade); (4), (5), and (6): Close-ups of the lower and upper groups of statues; and (7) Looking from Tremont Street back up the hill toward the State House (golden domed building in the background).
Location: The Brewer Fountain, Boston Common, near the intersection of Park, Winter, and Tremont Streets, Boston, MA. MAP.
The Story: So, the Globe ran a very good story on this the other day. That would be the day after the day that the fountain was turned back on after an extensive renovation over the last almost 12 months brought this gem of a fountain back to life. As the article describes, the fountain was inoperable for the last several years, and has been restored with a combination of city, federal, and privately-raised funds. This piece of news points up a fact of life in late 20th century/early 21st century America, and a critical truth about urban life.
First, the fact: The fountain's stature as the oldest fountain on the Common was not enough to save it from such dramatic neglect that it stopped working altogether in 2003 and became so deteriorated in the years that followed that its restoration apparently became, in the end, an urgent matter needed to keep it from being a total loss. This kind of neglect of critical public infrastructure, from fountains to bridges to transit systems, from water mains to sewers and just about everything that we have inherited from prior generations as our built inheritance, is epidemic. Public budgets are always too thin to maintain everything, and politics are always such that building new things and having ribbon cutting ceremonies will almost always win out over the boring tasks that keep the things we have already in a good state of repair. Of course, it costs more overall to let those things wear down to such an extent that they require massive repair and restoration. But that is the way of it.
Second, the truth: The urban fabric most certainly includes major public amenities like the Brewer Fountain. That the fountain is now working again and playing its role in beautifying and enhancing a hugely important location in Boston -- right on the Common, near one of the busiest stations on the MBTA, just down the hill from the State House -- is more important to the city's sense of well-being and fulfillment than might at first seem the case. Broken fountains are like broken windows, in a sense. When anyone -- a resident of Boston, a visitor from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, someone from out-of-state or from another country -- sees a fountain this beautiful and obviously important not working, there is a sense that the city is not capable of taking care of its own, that it lacks capacity, that is not working. On the other hand, when it is working, one gets the impression that the city is just the opposite: a place where things work, that cares about keeping its iconic places in good shape, that is putting its best foot forward. Come check it out next time you're in town...