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.