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.

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