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...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-9: Washington Beech is just the latest in a line...

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

...of HOPE VI redevelopments here in Boston

Location: 4560 Washington Street, Roslindale, MA (Boston Housing Authority's Washington-Beech project, currently undergoing redevelopment) (MAP)

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration
: 2010-2012

The Photos:
In order, taking a walk through the first phase of the redevelopment, from a new Beechland Street and along the backs of the attached town houses (Photos 1 and 2), up along a new Beechland Circle past the town houses and row houses toward Washington Street (Photos 3 and 4), looking down Washington Street toward downtown Boston with the large multi-family building on the right (Photo 5), then from across Washington Street back toward the site (Photo 6), an internal street and sidewalk area detail shot (Photo 7), and finishing with two photos from the intersection of Beechland Circle and Beechland Street looking up toward Beech Street (Photo 8) and toward Washington Street (Photo 9).

The Story: By now, the story of how the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has funded the redevelopment of hundreds of distressed public housing projects across the county is almost as well known as the distress of those properties to begin with. Almost, but not quite. I'm sure most can easily name one or two of the truly horrific public housing projects such as Cabrini-Green in Chicago that became poster children for everything that was wrong with urban America in the 1970s and 1980s. That list at one time included Columbia Point in Boston, which was one of the first public housing project redevelopments in the late 1980s.

HUD's HOPE VI program (the acronym stands for "Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere") emerged in the early 1990s as part of the department's response to the report of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. The report put the capstone on 30 years of withering, across-the-board criticism of public housing projects in the U.S. as generally dead-end disasters designed, constructed, and under-maintained in a manner that ultimately maximized alienation and separation from the broader community through super-blocks, high-rise construction that offered a twist on the Corbusian "Tower in the Park," and a lack of "defensible space." Among that report's major recommendations was prioritizing the redevelopment of the most distressed public housing projects into mixed-income, mixed housing-type neighborhoods that would reconnect with their surrounding communities both socio-economically and physically.

The physical, urban design component of HOPE VI has always been viewed as integral to the program, reflecting the significant influence of the Congress for the New Urbanism on HUD policy under the Clinton Administration. That administration's first HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros, was hismelf a signatory to the Charter of the New Urbanism in 1996. The guidelines for the HOPE VI program sent strong signals that HUD was serious about the urban design elements of each redevelopment. By and large and even as the HOPE VI program was put on life support by the second Bush Administration, that has meant that HOPE VI redevelopments fit much better with their surrounding communities. In fact, it's often a bit difficult to tell that they are even publicly-assisted housing. In Boston, HOPE VI redevelopments have included Mission-Main in Jamaica Plain, Orchard Gardens in Roxbury, and Maverick Gardens in East Boston. These redevelopments share an important feature with Washington-Beech: they were all done by the Boston Housing Authority with the help of Trinity Financial, a local developer that has also completed HOPE VI projects in Connecticut (Quinnipiac Terrace) and Rhode Island (Newport Heights).

As can be seen from the photos and the images below, Washington Beech is a true HOPE VI redevelopment from an urban design standpoint. It has mixed unit types in a variety of building types -- apartment building, row house, and attached town-house -- that respect and contribute to the surrounding and internal street network. The street network provides for real streets with curbs and sidewalks, on-street parking, and other elements that reflect a serious commitment to the public realm. The redevelopment also provides a centrally-located and publicly-accessible park space in the playground and basketball court.

All of this is to be contrasted with what existed here for the prior 50+ years: bare utilitarian brick structures located in a pattern that suggested a military encampment far more than a residential community. No real attention was paid to the street and the buildings were all surrounded almost uniformly by asphalt. Photos 6, 7, and 9 provide some particular points of comparison between old and new. Among them, I think Photo 7's depiction of the new sidewalk, curbing, street lights against the essentially undifferentiated treatment of the street on the opposite side is most instructive. And to take it a step further, it should not be surprising to see a dumpster facing into the street between the two older buildings on the right. In the old pattern, there really was no front, back or side to any of the buildings. They simply floated in an asphalt pond that meant it didn't really matter where you put something like a dumpster. In the new design, each buidling and therefore each set of units has clearly defined front (on the street), side, and back sides, providing an understandable logic for the location of entrances, utilities, and services (such as trash and general household storage). To say that the redeveloped Washington Beech will fit into the surrounding neighborhood far better than its predecessor is merely to state the obvious.

As can also be seen in the photos, the first phase is nearly complete and RTUF understands a ribbon-cutting will be held at the site on Saturday, June 29 at 11 am. Subsequent phases will fill in the rest of the overall site plan over the next 2 years.

RTUF sketch of the restored urban fabric: No hand-sketches this time. Instead, a link to the City of Boston's Assessing Department database for the pre-redevelopment configuration here, and an image provided by Trinity Financial (with credit to Icon Architecture), of the redevelopment's overall site plan (with Washington Street located at the top of the plan).

Friday, May 7, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-8: Three Things...

Really in no particular order

Ok, maybe some order:

1. More on City Hall Plaza. As a follow-up to the last post regarding Boston City Hall Plaza, Kara Wilbur forwarded me a link to a Providence Journal blog piece by Martin Brussat from yesterday entitled "Boston City Hall Plaza as it ought to be." The vision there, by Robert Helfand, is certainly arresting and presents a far more tightly-woven street network through the plaza than we now have. For instance, it brings Hanover Street up the hill from its current terminus at Congress Street all the way to Cambridge Street, restores Brattle Street around the Sears Crescent, and creates a new cross-street that does a little eyebrow around what is apparently a new Boston City Hall built in a full-throttle classical style. In addition to the new City Hall, we have a central fountain, a campanile, a low-rise replacement for what is now the JFK Federal Building, and a row of new buildings along the Congress Street frontage now occupied by the existing City Hall. There's even a new apparently classically-inspired version of the Government Center MBTA station headhouse. I confess to liking the vision a lot and wanting to sit on the edge of the fountain and watch what might be happening in the plaza. I also confess to thinking that the vision veers dangerously close to the intentional amnesia of those who brought us the current plaza. The vision would be a massive departure from the present and the last almost 50 years making it almost seem like it never happened. As my post suggested, I'm not convinced we need to go quite that far to see some progress and get a better plaza.

2. Performance art + urban planning. Russ Preston's blog -- Life + Urbanism -- recently linked to a really interesting exercise in performance art plus urban planning down in Dallas. Texas. The idea was to simulate a pedestrian-oriented set of buildings and streetscape on a one-block stretch of what is now, by the look of things, a fairly auto-oriented street in the city's Oak Cliff section. The original intent was to use "crowdsourced placemaking" to create a fun, rewarding place -- a "Better Block" -- over a single weekend and for just a $1,000 up front. There's a lot packed into what is shown on the videos, blog posts, and online news articles that are linked together at the Bike Friendly Oak Cliff site. Impressive stuff. I especially like the way the blogger at Bike Friendly Oak Cliff refers to his fellow travelers as "BFOCers." Seriously, though, guerrilla urbanism has a place in the toolkit, no doubt.

3. And on it goes. I'm really not sure what to make of the extremely public way that developer Don Chiofaro is taking on the Mayor over height limits and development potential on the Greenway here in Boston. I mean, I thought the multiple-article frontal assault through the pages of the Boston Globe was a bold enough move. But when you call a press conference, as Chiofaro did late last month, for the express purpose of calling out someone who is now in his 5th term as the Mayor of Boston and really isn't that old, you're playing with fire. Maybe the thinking is that the Mayor is eventually going to be gone and Chiofaro plans on being around when that happens. Maybe he thinks his relationship with the Mayor can't get worse, and so he's got nothing to lose. Who knows? It's certainly a different way of going about things. We here at RTUF will keep our friends around this great country of ours updated as this continues to unfold.