Saturday, October 30, 2010

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