Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-18: In which we finally visit the High Line

The Photos:

Photo 1: Looking east across W. 23rd Street.
Photo 2: View northeast with Empire State Building in background.

Photo 3: Looking north along the High Line from W. 23rd Street.

Photo 4: View southwest toward Hudson River.

Photo 5: View south from around W. 23rd Street.

Photo 6: Detail of water fountain. Sticker: "Out of service for winter season."

Photo 7: View north along 10th Avenue.
Photo 8: Terroir Cafe near W. 16th Street.

The Location: The High Line, between Gansevoort Street and West 23rd Street, 9th and 10th Avenues, New York, NY. Map here.

The Story: And so, to close out the year, we return to New York and the signature product of landscape urbanism, American-style: the High Line. Though I remain a sceptic of LU, you may consider me a fan of this particular piece of urban fabric restoration and you can put this in the category of "by their fruits shall you know them, urbanism-wise." When a project works, and the High Line unquestionably does, you give credit where credit is due. All at once, this former elevated freight railroad line on Manhattan's lower west wide is a piece of industrial art, a pedestrian travel corridor, and a promenade. The level of attention to detail and curatorship is extraordinarily high. Even putting aside the multiple pieces of contemporary art that have been installed along the route, the entire High Line itself is given great care in all of its details. Thus, to take just one example, the sticker on the water fountain in photo 6. I can assure you as a native New Yorker, that I have never seen a public water fountain in the city provide any information whatsoever, let alone accurate information as to why it is not presently in service.

I would also put this in the urban revivication category alluded to in the recent post about the Islanders moving to the borough of Kings. According to the Friends of the High Line website, the High Line was originally built above old surface tracks serving the West Side waterfront in the 1930s as a means of eliminating grade crossings and the attendant hazards of frieght trains running down active urban avenues. However, with the demise of shipping from the Hudson River piers in Manhattan and the rise of trucking in the 1950s and 1960s, the facility rapidly declined in use and all train service was eventually ended by 1980. Thus, the High Line stood as a symbol of industrial decline for over 20 years, becoming a target of efforts to completely demolish it and eliminate the easement rights it embodied so the space could be privatized. In other words, the High Line had no future, which should sound familiar, since around that time the conventional wisdom was that all of urban America, as a concept and as a group of places, had little to no future itself. I exaggerate only slightly.

It took a railroad enthusiast with the quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful notion of restoring rail service to save the High Line early on until a small, but determined group of citizens joined together and saw in it an opportunity to create a unique urban amenity. Thus, a structure left for dead and surely seen as a symbol of blight and decay was transformed into something that adds to its surrounding neighborhood and has become a focus for new investment, even to the point where the Whitney Museum of American Art is expanding with a new, Renzo Piano-designed building directly adjacent to the southern terminus of the High Line at Gansevoort Street. From any perspective, the High Line is a remarkable achievement for its organizers working through Friends of the High Line, the City of New York (which remains the structure's owner), and for James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the LU designers who were chosen to bring the High Line to life. The High Line's take-away, perhaps, is that people who care about their own cities, towns, and neighborhoods and what happens in them might do well to contemplate what they presently see as physical negatives -- abandoned buildings, structures, and areas -- and consider them as opportunities to enhance their surroundings. Yes, we're looking at you, Old Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston...

Blog Post Script: The walk from 23rd Street down to the end of the High Line in the West Village gave your correspondent the opportunity to stop by and snap a photo in front of 555 Hudson Street, the house immortalized by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Photo 9: In front of 555 Hudson Street.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-17: What McMorrow said about the Financial District in Boston

Regular readers of this weblog may have noticed that I link to Paul McMorrow stories from time to time. And for good reason - he's focusing on many of the issues near and dear to our hearts here at RTUF and he's always a good read. His recent piece in Boston Magazine is another example of why that's the case. It's called The Empty Quarter: Boston's Financial District is hollowing out. That's a big problem - but it may also be an opportunity. I encourage you to read the whole piece as I suspect that the shifts in demand for office space that McMorrow describes may also be happening elsewhere in the US. I think I have it right when I say that McMorrow seems to suggest that one part of the emerging solution is to convert much of what became Class B or Class A- office space when the new towers were built -- the smaller existing office buildings built principally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- to apartments and condominiums. Those buildings are better configured with smaller floor plates that allow conversion to residential much more easily. The other part seems to be to re-brand the boiler room-style lower floors of the major office towers of the 1970s and 1980s, which are structurally ill-suited to residential use, as tech/start-up office space. You may recall that this was the topic of a blog post last year in Blog Post No. 2011-14: Shedding light on the boiler room...has to be one of the keys to making it at least potentially rentable in today's economyPaul believes such space is well-suited to the open office configurations preferred by those companies and approximate the layouts, if not the aesthetics, of the old industrial space in places like East Cambridge and Fort Point Channel that have been the preferred locations for those companies. How it all shakes out remains to be seen, but it does seem clear that change is coming even to the Financial District.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-16: First the Nets, now the Islanders!?!

Your faithful RTUF correspondent blogged earlier this year (in Post No. 2012-6) about the resurrection of Brooklyn's railroading heart with the recent reconstruction of the LIRR Atlantic Terminal at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. At the time, because it was a relatively brief post, I merely touched on two major themes that, at least to me, the new building represented: first, that Brooklyn was very definitely doing very well, and second, that this performance was particularly sweet vindication for me because as a kid, it was quite simply accepted fact that places like Brooklyn (where I was, you know, born and then growing up) simply had no future.

Well, the first major theme just received another substantial boost with the announcement a couple of days ago that the NHL's New York Islanders will move from their antiquated arena on Long Island in Uniondale to the Barclays Center. Barclays is, of course, where the relocated Brooklyn Nets will be playing their first regular season game very soon.

Photo source: wikipedia.

According to the linked Bloomberg piece, the move is set for the 2015-2016 season, assuming the NHL someday ends the lockout and actually starts playing hockey games again. Putting that aside, for those of you keeping score at home, the deeper sports story here is that both of the pro teams that started playing at the Nassau Coliseum -- ABA New York Nets of Dr. J fame, and the New York Islanders -- in the early 1970s are now going to be reunited in Brooklyn, of all places. Call it fate.

Now, the Islanders aren't just any team to me. They were quite simply my hockey team as a young lad and my God they were good. During their glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the team was replete with the likes of Denis Potvin (whom Ranger fans still jeered wtih "Potvin Sucks" more than a decade after he retired), Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Bobby Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Billy Smith, and Butch Goring, just to name a few, they won 4 (!) Stanley Cups in a row and played some of the most exciting, balanced team hockey the league has ever seen. Since then, it's been a long, painful and effectively permanent descent to the basement for the Isles. A descent punctuated, at least in my mind, with the criminal, after-the-whistle hit that virtually talent-free Washington Capitals enforcer Dale Hunter put on Pierre Turgeon after Turgeon's goal clinched the 1993 Wales conference semifinal series for the Islanders. Psychologically, Hunter didn't just crumple Turgeon, he injured the whole franchise. Whether the move to a new arena will be the thing that shakes the Islanders out of their doldrums and makes them competitive agian remains to be seen. There's at least some hope that it will lead to a brighter future.

The second theme, the one about sweet vindication and the phoenix-like revivication of the County of Kings, is also boosted by the imminent coming of the Islanders. As is well known, the borough's beloved Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958, leaving behind a deeply distraught and embittered fan base that I can still remember as deeply distraught and embittered as a young child, more than a decade later. Even though the Mets had been bestowed upon the region and had success in 1969 and again in 1973, everyone knew, deep down, that soul-less Shea Stadium (an armpit the day it opened) was hardly a replacement for the intimate Ebbets Field and an expansion team was no match for the blood, sweat and tears Brooklyn had put into the Dodgers. Branch Rickey deserved immense credit and a place in the Hall of Fame for integrating major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947. But what Rickey and Walter O'Malley did to their host city a decade later was undeniably devastating.

And as Brooklyn and the entire city itself entered into a painful decline over the ensuing quarter century, including, without in any way implying limitation, such joyous events as two major blackouts, the Son of Sam murder spree, municipal bankruptcy, the mayoralty of Abe Beame, the Westway debacle, the loss of a million residents, and the rise of Donald Trump, it was hard to deny what many were saying: that our best days were behind us (I seem to recall a New York magazine article that even pinpointed 1946 as the city's best year, period -- thank you New York magazine!), and the future was elsewhere. Turns out the future was in Brooklyn all along, with its growing population, two major sports franchises, state-of-the-art arena, newly-rebuilt train station, and perhaps the greatest per-capita hippitude of all stripes on the planet, led by a troika of moguls from 3 very different worlds - hip hop, real estate, and precious metals. Go figure.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-15: Something like this (though maybe not exactly this)... what your correspondent meant about Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross:

Photo 1: Existing facade of St. Paul's Cathedral, Tremont Street, Boston. Note
the blank, unfinished pediment above the columns. Copied from Architecture Boston website.

Photo 2: Selected finishing design by Philadelphia-based artist Andrew Lipski, based on the whorl of the Nautilus shell. Copied from Architecture Boston website.

Photo 3: Night view of Lipski's design. Copied from Architecture Boston website.

So, you may argue with the aesthetics and, if you have a viewpoint on the subject, the question of whether the pediment of a religious building should convey an expressly religious message directly tied to the congregation that meets within, or if an essentially aesthetic or natural subject's depiction is can itself be a subtle appeal to the existence of a deity that is the root of such beauty and order. But there is no doubt that the Epicopal Church in Massachusetts is sending a message to the broader community that it is still alive and kicking by spending considerable time and energy on presenting a new, finished face to its surroundings. The location at stake here is critical as well. St. Paul's Cathedral is located on Tremont Street, across the street from Boston Common, in the heart of the Downtown Crossing area of Boston, facing up the lower part of Beacon Hill toward the State House. A map to help RTUF Nation orient itself is here.

The decision to go with this design, made by St. Paul's with the help of MassArt, was made back in March. But it only recently came to your correspondent's attention. The essential story, which can be found on  WBUR's website, is similar in its broad outlines to the story with the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, at which we here at RTUF took a gander last year around this time. St. Paul's original builders apparently had intended for the pediment to include a sculptural depiction of St. Paul preaching to Herod Agrippa II of Judea. When funds ran short during construction in 1819, the pediment sculpture was dropped and the space where it was supposed to go has remained blank for the last 190+ years. Why fill the pediment in now? Ostensibly, it's a way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the designation of the building as the Episcopal diocese's cathedral church. As Dean Jep Streit indicates in the WBUR story, though, the diocese is trying to do more with their decision and send a message of continuing relevancy and vitality.

Now, as to the aesthetics themselves, Bostonians have long been active in historic preservation and the architectural community's reaction was at least mixed, if not tending toward critical, at the outset, as you can see from the commentary on the Boston Society of Architects' website here and on Universal Hub. And the reasons are many why that kind of a discussion would be warranted. The design of the church is an early and excellent example of Greek Revival architecture. The architects of St. Paul's were Alexander Parris and Solomon Willard, between them responsible for two of Boston's major landmarks: Quincy Market (Parris) and the Bunker Hill Monument (Willard). The interior of the church was redesigned around its hundredth anniversary by  Ralph Adams Cram, a well-known proponent of Gothic Revival architecture whose designs include the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. You'll see that there's a bit of referencing of the "Saint John the Divine Approach" in the BSA comments, where there's some hand-wringing over the failure to complete the original design in stone sculpture, much like the way the completion of the massive Saint John's has been pursued using traditional masonry methods eschewing modern methods. St. Paul's has obviously taken a different approach with the selection of the Nautilus pediment.

In the final analysis, count me with the group who see the pediment design as worth at least a try, if not entirely appropriate. Remember that the church design is itself Greek Revival, a design aesthetic that initially had absolutely no intrinsic Christian meaning (being, you know, pre-Christian by several centuries). The artist, Donald Lipski, ably and with obvious seriousness described his design idea and meaning as follows (I am quoting in full from his own blog, which can be found here):

St. Paul’s is a house of Prayer for all People.  Carl Jung saw the spiral as the archetypal symbol of cosmic force, focusing both inward and outward.  The spiral occurred to me because it speaks to all people.  We see it in most every culture, from primitive rock carvings to the scroll of the Torah. It’s a ubiquitous form in nature—from the motion of subatomic particles to the vastness of galaxies.

The church itself gets its Greek proportions from the golden rectangle, which generates the Fibinacci spiral.  This is how the idea first came to me.  I visited the church in November, and in the Commons came upon a woman making a spiral in the leaves, and walking it back and forth like a labyrinth.  This was like a divine sign.

I’ve based it on a slice from the shell of the Chambered Nautilus, one of the Earth’s oldest creatures.  The Nautilus each year outgrows its chamber and builds a new one, which is a beautiful metaphor for spiritual growth.  Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his great poem, The Chambered Nautilus, reflecting on just this.  He called the nautilus “The Ship of Pearl”, and I have made this the title of the sculpture.  

Here is the last stanza:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

I plan to make it look like the stone tracery on Gothic churches.  St. Paul’s was once a prominent building, but as tall office buildings have grown up around it, it has lost its impact.  Folks have felt that it looks like a bank.  I think this will change that.  I expect it will be a new and welcome landmark on Tremont St.

-Donald Lipski

How inspiring would it be if your correspondent's own Archdiocese of Boston could find within itself the resolve to finish the vertical elements of its massive Roxbury Puddingstone edifice, designed by P.C. Keely, perhaps the most prolific church architect of them all?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blop Post No. 2012-14: What would possess us to outlaw...

...long-standing and generally satisfying built environments?

That's a question that's always begged when you see a graphic like this one, which my friend and fellow panelist Ted Brovitz included in a presentation at this past Thursday's Southern New England APA regional conference in Hartford:

Figure: Conformity/Non-conformity Map for Merrick Neighborhood,
West Springfield, MA. Credit: Ted Brovitz, Howard/Stein-Hudson.
The neighborhood shown here is the Merrick section of West Springfield, Massachusetts, which Ted described in his presentation as a typical turn-of-the-last-century mill neighborhood wedged between railroad yards on the west and the Connecticut River on the east. A substantial swath of the neighborhood was leveled by a tornado that swept through this and other parts of western Mass. a year ago last June. In addition to the tragedy of losing everything to the storm, the event also seems to have been a kind of "regulatory revelation" to the Town and the neighborhood's residents, who suddenly discovered the meaning of the image shown above.

Properties that are colored reddish-brown are non-conforming (i.e., they are currently in violation) of the minimum lot size requirement for their location as set forth in the West Springfield Zoning By-Law. Properties that are colored blue are conforming for lot size and properties that have been left white do not have sufficient information to establish whether they are conforming or non-conforming. In other words, the approximately 80-85% of the map shown in reddish-brown could not be legally rebuilt after being damaged by the tornado because the lots were too small. Without the changes to the zoning rules that Howard/Stein-Hudson has been helping the Town sort through, the owners of those properties would, in many cases, have to obtain zoning relief (possibly including variances, which would, according to the extremely strict standard in the state's zoning act, be both improperly granted and legally indefensible in virtually all cases) just to build what was there before the tornado. In other words, the Merrick neighborhood as it has stood for 100 years was quite simply outlawed by local regulation. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it?

Well, it isn't, at least if you understand the basic thrust of the vast majority of the zoning ordinances and by-laws that control development in our country. Put simply, almost all of these regulatory enactments were first adopted more than 50 years ago and were then premised indiscriminately and with almost no meaningful planning on auto-oriented suburban residential and commercial development. Neighborhoods like Merrick, with houses and business built in a traditional, pre-automobile form, close to the street and in a relatively tight pattern, were given the equivalent of death sentences by zoning. Whenever and however they finally succumbed, as the neighborhood ultimately did to the tornado, they simply weren't going to be allowed to come back. Luckily for Merrick (if anything in this episode can be called lucky), their calamity came after the discussion of this phenomenon has become widespread and well-understood and no longer tolerated without question. New Urbanists have long tried to raise consciousness about this issue, warning anyone who would listen that beloved places like Nantucket or Alexandria or [pick your favorite neighborhood] could not be built under today's zoning codes and were just one natural disaster away from extinction. The work in Merrick indicates that these warnings have finally made an impact.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-13: An interesting way to shake up the "figure-ground" view of cities

My friend and R&C colleague Dwight Merriam shot me the following link last week and I finally took a look this morning:

Odd things happen when you chop up cities and stack them sideways

It takes you to "Krulwich Wonders - an NPR Sciencey Blog," a weblog maintained by Robert Krulwich on NPR's website. Krulwich's post is a comment on the work of Armelle Caron, a French artist who has performed an act of desconstruction on a total of 6 major cities (the 2 not shown in Krulwich's post are Le Havre and Montpellier). 

The starting points here are known as "figure-ground" views of the described cities over a set area in which the buildings are solid, colored shapes and everything else is white space. I must confess that I have always enjoyed the immediate, intuitive information conveyed by figure-ground graphics, so much so that when my kids were younger and we found ourselves at the beach, I wouldn't build sand-castles but instead lay out rock and shell versions of figure-grounds (Roslindale Square was very often the subject). Figure-grounds convey, perhaps better than any other method, the way in which buildings and how they are arranged in relation to each other create or fail to create meaningful and satisfying places, and they're especially good for comparing cities:

New York Figure-Ground (Credit: Armelle Caron)

New York deconstructed (Credit: Armelle Caron) 

Istanbul Figure-Ground (Credit: Armelle Caron)

Istanbul deconstructed (Credit: Armelle Caron)
 The deconstructed version is also interesting, and the method of laying out the separated pieces is obviously an art, not a science. Interesntigly, Krulwich's vote for most interesting deconstruction goes to Istanbul, and he indicates almost-disappointment with New York. I must say I'm not entirely with Krulwich that the city of my birth comes off that badly, especially considering that if the area shown were dropped another half mile or so, it would show more variety since it would take in all of Lower Manhattan.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-12: Making the Hynes behave on Boylston Street

Photo 1: Looking east on Boylston Street, Hynes in the midground, and
the Hancock Tower in the far background.

Photo 2: Looking diagonally across Boylston Street, at Hynes' NW corner
and The Capital Grille.

Photo 3: towne restaurant, at the NE corner of the Hynes
Convention Center (sorry for the delivery trucks).

Photo 4: The eastward facing entrance of towne, shot from the
sidewalk in front of the courtyard adjacent.
Photo 5: The courtyard adjacent, with towne's outdoor seating.
Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2010.

The Story: We have spent no insignificant amount of time and digital ink here at RTUF talking about the many changes, large and small, that have been made over the last decade at the Prudential Center (of which the Hynes Convention Center is not technically a part, though it is directly adjacent), including in both Blog Post No. 2009-3: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel (discussing the Mandarin's success in replacing what had been a particularly lifeless cluster of auto access drives along Boylston Street between Essex and Fairfield Streets), and Blog Post No. 2010-21: Seizing the presently available opportunity to continue the campaign to bring the Pru out to meet its neighbors... (highlighting a then-proposed residential rental tower that filled in a major gap along Essex Street, and also pointing to the still-proposed 888 Boylston Street tower that would fill in the last plaza space next to towne as well as several other changes around the complex's perimeter such as 111 Huntington, the Belvidere residences, and the two-story section along Huntington to which Shaw's supermarket was moved). It has been an impressive string of improvements, and one to which Cityscapes of Boston itself pointed with anticipation even as far back as 1992. After lamenting the "wasteland of grim towers and empty plazas" by which "Boston's Prudential Center blights everything around it," Robert Campbell expressed hope at the then-new ownership's plans for "filling the worst of its dead plazas with new shops and offices," concluding that "[i]f all goes well, the Pru may some day be a revitalizing agent for the very street frontage it now kills." (pp. 208-209)

That day can now be said to have fully arrived, two decades on. So much so that even publicly-owned buildings are getting in on the act. Your RTUF correspondent will stipulate that we are looking in this case at a fairly subtle, kind of small bore change to the formerly long, blank Boylston Street frontage of the Hynes Convention Center. For our non-Boston readers, the Hynes is the erstwhile main convention center for the Boston region that ultimately became too small and was replaced by the massive Boston Convention and Exposition Center (or "BCEC") out in what is now the Innovation District in South Boston. (Of course, there's already a proposal floating to expand the BCEC beyond its current footprint because it is already in danger of becoming too small itself, less than 10 years after it was completed (!), but I digress...)

Now, to return to the Hynes and the subject of this blog post. The convention center authority has retained the Hynes and kept it operating as a venue for smaller conventions and meetings that don't compete with the BCEC. At least one source from around the time of towne's opening ("towne makes Hynes tastier") indicated that the authority's impetus for bringing in both towne and The Capital Grille was to improve dining options for visitors/convention-goers. I also suspect that part of the discussion around keeping the Hynes open after the BCEC came online might have included running some numbers and trying to figure out a way to enhnace non-event revenue, including from such things as then underutilized space along the Boylston Street frontage. Whatever the reason, the insertion of both restaurants within the existing footprint of the building at its two corners was a very good move. No, not earthshattering, but a smart decision and one recognizing a couple of key imperatives in creating a workable urban fabric: first, avoid long blank walls along important street frontages, whatever is going on behind them, and second, pay special attention to corners. The result is that this stretch of Boylston now has activity on both sides of the street, something that almost has never been the case (recall that before the Pru was built, there were extensive railroad yards all the way from Mass. Ave. to Dartmouth St.), but which Campbell rightly pointed out in Cityscapes (at p. 208) is critical for a successful commercial street, though being located opposite the Hynes was never quite as bad as being located opposite the un-reconstructed Pru's plazas. Note also that both restaurants have extensive outdoor seating, which used to be dismissed in Boston as simply incompatible with a region that has as long a winter season as we typically do, but is now recognized as a highly desirable amenity for any urban eatery.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric:

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-11: No, we didn't just imagine it...

...Mitt Romney really was a strong proponent of Smart Growth when he was Governor of Massachusetts

For what it's worth, your faithful correspondent is a praiser of vibrant urban places at least in part for the same reason I'm a registered Democrat - I was born and raised that way. I also happen to truly love cities and hold progressive political opinions, so it's not as if I categorize myself unwillingly. In other words, at some level, we simply are who we are (for reasons both in our control and outside of it) and we need to admit it.

How, then, are we to understand the whiplash-inducing spectacle of position-reversal that is the campaign of Mitt Romney as the Republican Party's nominee for president of the United States? Because it's not just his positions on things like health care that have swung so far to the right as he has pursued the presidency that you begin to wonder if the present campaign is really more like a schizophrenic battle of present-day Romney against Romney circa 2002-2006 than it is Romney against the incumbent. No, indeed. Romney also very warmly embraced Smart Growth, which is now so totally anathema to his party that it has been associated with the unholy trinity of the U.N., black helicopters and one-world-ism. This was true during both the 2002 gubernatorial campaign and Romney's administration, and well do I remember it. And thankfully my recollection is confirmed by an insightful piece - "Romney, once an anti-sprawl crusader, created model for Obama 'Smart Growth' program" - posted earlier this year by Lisa Hymas at Go check it out. As the quotes from Doug Foy and Anthony Flint suggest, Romney's support for Smart Growth really did have a kind of "Is he for real?" quality to them. Nothing, at least nothing publicly known, that he had done or said before the 2002 campaign suggested that Smart Growth was a major issue for him. But he and his administration really made some real progress on it while he was governor. And, given his silence on the issue, one can now only assume that he shares his party's revulsion for the entire notion, let alone its implementation as policy. The whole thing would be amusing if we didn't actually need Smart Growth (or whatever alternative name people would like to apply to it, whether that's sustainable development, traditional neighborhoods, walkable neighborhoods, or any combination of those terms and others) so desperately for a whole host of reasons.

RTUF Note: This post was updated since its original posting to improve readability and correct certain phrasing. - MJL

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-10: Sacred Heart Parish takes care of its physical assets...

...both sacred and profane

The Photos:

Photo 1: One of the church's interior stations of the cross, recently restored.

Photo 2: The restored exterior niche statue.

Photo 3: The repaired slate roof.

Photo 4: The re-sided rectory.

The Location: 169 Cummins Highway, Roslindale, MA (MAP)

Years of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2007-2012.

The Story: We're in Roslindale again, this time at Sacred Heart Parish. For those keeping score at home, we are also back to restorative actions similar to the May entry about Community Boating down on the Charles River. In this case, Sacred Heart has undertaken a series of repairs and renovations over a five-year period under the heading of "Project Slate." [You can see the pre-existing general exterior condition of the church and rectory in the google streetview available at the map link above.] The fundraising campaign kicked off in 2006, and in relatively short order, the necessary funds were gathered. Construction then began, first with, you guessed it, a new slate roof over the entire church building, followed by repainting of the interior of the upper church (like most urban Catholic churches built in the massive wave of European immigration of the second half of the 19th century, the church has both an upper church and a lower church which in an earlier era held multiple Sunday masses each), repointing the exterior brick work and the main exterior stairway, and re-siding of the rectory. After some additional fundraising and patience, the stations of the cross were also completely restored (after two were initially restored early on).

One relatively unheralded change was the removal of the old, badly-stained and unfortunate-looking plexiglass that covered the niche statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart. As you can see in photo 2, that statue is now back in the open air with the heart itself painted red as is most common. Why and when the statue was encased in plexiglass is not known to your correspondent. But I will say that the removal of the plexiglass is one of those relatively small but highly symbolic events that cumulatively add up to an urban fabric that is functioning and telling its participants that there is confidence in the durability and significance of its various components. The restoration of the stations of the cross is another such action that means more than simply putting gold leaf where it belongs (though as you can see from Photo 1, it's an impressive piece of work). Again, I don't know why and when these stations were painted entirely white (which was their state just before the recent restoration). Yet they were, a poor decision whose reversal required raising relatively substantial funds just to have stations that express the artist's original intent. It's a cliche, I admit, but the cumulative urban fabric effect of Project Slate is greater than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-9: Arboretum Place establishes a strong northern gateway for Roslindale...

... and begins the evolution of Forest Hills

Photo 1: Arboretum Place from the south.

Photo 2: Looking across Washington Street at the southern building corner.

Photo 3: Looking across Washington Street at the northern end of the building's facade.

Photo 4: Looking south on Washington Street.

Photo 5: The finished product.

The Location: Arboretum Place (Washington Street), Jamaica Plain, MA (MAP).

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2012.

The Story: Or is this more accurately described as the southern gateway to Jamaica Plain? I must say that I've always thought of this particular location as being part of God's Country (a.k.a, Roslindale), but I stand corrected. Regardless, this is a very good piece of work by everyone involved, running from the City of Boston (and its Forest Hills Planning Initiative) and the MBTA (owners of these sliver parcels along what was to have been the Southwest Expressway) to the neighboring community and the developer, WCI Realty, and their design team, including extremely local player Vozzella Design Group (whose office is literally two doors down from here). The building will be oriented tightly toward the street, with retail uses on the entire first floor and parking located on either side instead of between the building on the front lot line. It's going to be a strong presence at this location.

I will also confess both (1) that I'm jumping the gun slightly (in that the project is not yet complete), and (2) that this isn't technically about "restoring" the urban fabric here because, truth be told (at least according to our friend George Bromley and his series of atlases from the late 19th and early 20th centuries), this is the first time a building has been placed on this particular location. As you can see from Bromley's 1884 and 1923 maps, this space between intersecting railroad lines (today's Amtrak/MBTA mainline on the east and the MBTA's Needham Heights branch on the west) has previously lain unused despite development nearby. The anchor tenant for the retail is going to be Harvest Co-op, a natural and organic foods grocer that has a location not far away on South Street in JP as well as in Cambridge. The space here will be a big step up for them (according to the Jamaica Plain Gazette, at about 8700 square feet, it's double the size of the current JP store) and you may well find your RTUF correspondent shopping there from time to time once it opens.

Forest Hills generally appears on the verge of rapid evolution from a kind of afterthought at the edge of two neighborhoods lying underneath the Casey Overpass to a destination in its own right. Once completed and occupied, Arboretum Place should play a major role in moving this gateway to the southwestern section of Boston forward.

The Not-RTUF Sketch: The developers of Arboretum Place have a definitive plan view of the development on their website (the building profiled here is the larger one in the center of the sketch), so no need for RTUF to reinvent this particular wheel:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Polishing a jewel in Boston's treasury... Community Boating renovates and restores its front and back doors

Post No.: 2012-08.

The Photos:

Photo 1: Looking west from the footbridge near the Longfellow Bridge, CBI is in the middle-ground.

Photo 2: CBI's front door on the Esplanade, restored and repainted.

Photo 3: The rate schedule, now indicating a sliding scale of $1-$200 for 10-18 year olds.

Photo 4: If it's on the Esplanade, it's likely Mrs. Storrow had something to do with originally funding it, and CBI is no exception.

Photo 5: The fully replaced and improved dock space.

Photo 6: The new Dock House.

The Location: Community Boating, Inc., on the Charles River Esplanade. MAP.

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2011.

The Story: It was a hot one yesterday in Boston, and your correspondent was lucky that it was his turn to take RTUF's Next Generation down to sailing class on the Esplanade. [The trip itself was somewhat poignant -- we took the Needham Line into town on the 6th to last Saturday on which weekend service will be offered for the foreseeable future. Service cuts needed to balance the MBTA's FY2013 budget will give this particular urban amenity the old heave-ho as of June 30th.] As I said, it was hot, but the breeze was blowing down on the Upper Basin as the red flag in the final photo attests. Being there yesterday morning reminded me that CBI recently undertook a really well-done renovation and restoration funded by a virtual cast of thousand including the Commonwealth (and the current landlord, the Department of Conservation and Recreation), The Esplanade Association, The Solomon Fund, the Mugar Foundation, and CBI itself. To this non-sailor's eye, it looks like they did what they needed to replace and greatly improve the dock space, which had been in pretty tough shape, built new structures (not only the dock house but also a new shed for storing windsurfing sails and and other equipment), and did some curating of the front entrance (new doors, restoration and repainting of the grillwork with the sailboat motif). Nothing earthshattering, but not inconsequential either, and something worth pointing out as one of those incremental, small changes that add up to vital signals that the participants in the urban ensemble that makes up any city or town have cared enough to put resources behind their physical plant in a way that furthers their mission and says they are here to stay.

And CBI isn't just any player in Boston's ongoing urban production. Its mission is really important, enough that the title of this blog post is not hyperbole. CBI's mission since its founding in 1946 has been the "advancement of sailing for all," originally by offering classes and access to the water for all kids between 10-18 for $1 per year (now based on a sliding scale up to $200 per year based on family income, but a great value at a huge discount regardless). With the new dock, CBI also bolstered its commitment to remove physical obstacles to sailing because the new dock provides better access and functionality for those with physical disabilities.

The founding and early history of CBI is itself a classic Boston story, summed up at the article linked here -- Sailing for All: Joe Lee and America's First Public Community Sailing Program. For your correspondent, high points of the article include the fact that the second story of the boathouse was added in the 1987 (you really can't tell just looking at the building), more than 45 years after the initial structure was built in 1941, as well as the story of bureaucractic turf battles and the careful application of class and ethnic distinctions by certain of the powers-that-be in the late 1930s and early 1940s to frustrate and delay the implementation of an idea whose time clearly had come. Luckily, the effort to create and sustain a gateway for everyone to use the Upper Charles River Basin's delightful watersheet has survived and thrived. To return this post to the personal, my father-in-law, a native of St. Ambrose's Parish in Dorchester, never tires of describing how he learned sailing at CBI starting as an 11 year-old in 1952. The twin facts that his grandchildren participate in the exact same program and that that program retains its core mission more than a half century later are worth celebrating.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-07: Hayward Place takes its place on the High Spine...

And a long-empty hole in the urban fabric is finally restored

Photo 1: Looking south on Washington Street, with Modern, Opera House, and
Paramount theaters in view.

Photo 2: Looking across Washington Street from
the front of the Opera House, with foundation excavated.

Photo 3: Looking north along Washington Street,
Lafayette Place in the background.

Photo 4: The project advertising board, showing a rendering
of the competed building.

The Location: The block bounded by Hayward Place, Harrison Avenue, Avenue de Lafayette, and Washington Street, Boston, MA.

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2013 (scheduled).

The Story: We're back on the High Spine, previously discussed here at this weblog some time ago in a post about The W Hotel over on Stuart Street. We've come around the Hinge Block at this point, and are looking at another long-vacant parcel a couple blocks up Washington Street - Hayward Place. Like the W Hotel's site, this was a surface parking lot for many years, even after the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which owned the property, put it out to bid and selected Millennium Partners as the redevelopers in the early part of the last decade. Millennium, having just completed the massive residential, hotel, and commercial complex across Washington Street that is now know as the Ritz-Carlton Towers, somewhat surprisingly proposed an office tower. That plan ultimately gave way to a residential condominium proposal before the downturn, and then finally last year to the residential rental project now under construction. You've got to be patient when you're thinking and talking about relatively large projects in central locations. They take time to come together, and Millennium is now onto an even bigger test further down the street at One Franklin, the spectacularly failed redevelopment of the former Filene's department store site that has left a yawning pit in the very heart of Downtown Crossing.

But let's don't turn our attention up the street too quickly. This is a very nice piece of work that Millennium has underway. The Boston Globe piece by Casey Ross from last fall ("Construction begins on another residential tower in downtown Boston") gives the statistics and a higher quality visual of the completed building. Washington Street is Boston's Broadway, the street that ran from the heart of the old town at the top of King Street out to the Neck of the colonial period, when the Shawmut Peninsula on which Boston was built narrowed down to a finger of land that was just wide enough for what was then "Orange Street" to be built atop it. From there, it ran through Roxbury toward points south. Despite this high level of symblic importance, the downtown section of Washington Street suffered along with all of urban America as broad economic and cultural shifts at the middle of the last century collectively pronounced it obsolete and irrelevant and then dangerous and suited only to the adult entertainment trade. But the good buildings and walkable street patterns that make up worthwhile urban fabric have a way of surviving - or maybe there were just so many good buildings and such a dense street pattern, and the tidal wave that was urban renewal and auto-oriented transportation planning and infrastructure didn't last as long as it seemed. Thankfully, the Paramount, the Opera House, and the Modern theaters, along with the old Boylston Market building (now the China Trade Center) and H.H. Richardson's Hayden Building, among others, all survived, albeit sometimes in dramatically altered forms, in this stretch of Washington Street. And the streets and blocks themselves were left largely intact. Thus, what has come after, including not only the Ritz-Carlton Towers but also Archstone's development as well as the Kensington Place building now under construction a couple blocks down, has something worthwhile and comprehensible to fit into.
The RTUF Sketch: It's really a whole city block in a symbolically important part of town.
Figure 1: The new building will provide desperately needed reciprocating
urban fabric on all 4 of its sides.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-6: On resurrecting downtown Brooklyn's railroad heart...

Mostly just photos this time, RTUFers. It's been a heck of a few weeks at work and it's about to get crazier. At any rate, the views below are from a trip down Memory Lane that your correspondent and the people he most loves in the world took last month to the borough of his birth (a.k.a. the County of Kings. We went by the former family homestead (1970-1981) on Third Street in Park Slope, saw my old friend Erik Engquist, wife Kris and their kids, and then HAD to stop by Atlantic Terminal for the Long Island Railroad at the junction of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues in downtown. More below, but it was supremely satisfying as a kid who grew up in the 1970s, when places like Brooklyn were simply perceived to "have no future," to come back and see the sheer level of activity. The city is just bursting at the seams. Boston is feeling something of the same resurgence, although not quite at the clip New York generally seems to be feeling it. Enjoy...

Photo 1: View from Hanson Place.

Photo 2: Flatbush Avenue facade.

Photo 3: Yes, that many subway lines go through the station.

Photo 4: Thaat's the Williamsburg Savings Bank building. THE tall building in Brooklyn and
where your correspondent had his passbook savings account as a young lad.

Photo 5: You've got to love an understated train board.

Photo 6: And then there's the new vs. the old (credit: MTA.).

P.S. Your correspondent went through the old terminal as a young child, when it felt merely decrepit. It then passed into shuttered status and ultimately demolition in 1988. - MJL