Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A holiday thought...as 2013 becomes 2014 (Blog Post No. 2013-10)

Your humble correspondent had a ferociously busy fall, so the blogposting was a little thin on the ground the last couple of months. In any event, we here at RTUF Worldwide didn't want to let the calendar turn over without at least one final thought for 2013. And this thought comes with a mild and somewhat oblique ding on Geoff Anderson at Smart Growth America. I don't know Geoff, but I have seen him speak and have great respect for the work he is doing at SGA and the work he did when he was at the EPA Smart Growth office before that. That said, I received a fundraising email from Geoff on behalf of SGA and found the following passage worth commenting on:

One of my favorite holiday movies is a story about family, friendships—and smart growth. You’ve probably seen "It’s a Wonderful Life." If you’re like me, you’ve seen it more than once, and you know the story of Bedford Falls. Bedford Falls is more than just a town to the movie's hero. It's a community, it's home. It's the place where friends and family come together along tree-lined streets, sidewalks, businesses and houses. And when the movie's villain threatens Bedford Falls, the hero knows it is more than just a threat to his housing choices. It is a threat to his home. This is what smart growth is all about. Creating places where families, businesses and communities can come together and thrive. Towns like Bedford Falls need your help...Bedford Falls might be fictional, but it’s a story that plays out across the country every day. No town wants to become a Pottersville.

I have to say that appealing to Bedford Falls as depicted in "It's a Wonderful Life" as a symbol of all that is good and place-centered in urban America without any qualification misses the point by a good deal. As depicted, Bedford Falls is certainly idyllic. But at a deeper level there are unmistakable signs that all is not well, and the source of the impending tragedy that will be full-tilt auto-oriented suburbanization is not Old Man Potter but George Bailey himself. It simply cannot be denied that the new housing Bailey Building & Loan is financing in the movie is suburban tract, Levittown-style housing that appears unconnected from the main street and is reachable only by car (or at least, you only see cars in the scene when the Martini family enter their new "castle"). The unbridled greed of Mr. Potter may well be the ultimate source of the accompanying post-war American tragedy of de-industrialization that treated moving jobs to low-wage states and economies as a kind of never-ending parlor game. Yet it is also hard to deny that well-intentioned George is the point of the spear when it comes to the cul-de-sac McMansions that have come to rule suburban America in our time. While I view Jim Kunstler as a decided mixed-bag, his decade-old take on this is essentially perfect and I'm with him that Pottersville looks a whole lot more exciting than what Bedford Falls would almost certainly have become in our time under George's steady hand:

Frank Capra's 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life" has become the totemic American Christmas story over the last couple of decades. It was a box-office flop when it came out, but constant holiday-time TV exposure since then turned it into the classic it has now become. It has replaced Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an updated and more accessible American mythology. But a close examination shows that it contains strange, paradoxical, and disturbing messages for our time. 

The movie was made just after our nation's triumphal victory over manifest evil in World War Two, but it carries a heavy undertone of the Great Depression that preceeded the war. Indeed the story takes place from early in the 20th century to the middle of it and, in a way, can be viewed as a comprehensive social history of America's industrial high tide. To greatly simplify it, the story concerns the denizens of Bedford Falls, New York, a provincial main street town, and one George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who grows up to preside over a little Savings & Loan Association (a kind of bank that no longer exists thanks to the scandals of the 1980s). Over the years, George struggles with his family-owned bank, tries to help his neighbors, raises a family with wife Mary (Donna Reed), and eventually endures a great personal crisis of conscience and self-worth, from which he is rescued by an angel. In the end, the world is made right and Christmas carols ring out as the credits roll. Oddly, George Bailey's greatest accomplishment in the movie is shown to be the development of Bedford Falls' first suburb, Bailey Park, with a scene of much patriotic hoopla when the first unit is sold to the owner of a local restaurant, Mr. Martini, an immigrant. I say odd because of how innocently clueless our collective imagination was about the consequences of that seemingly benign transaction. Like vicious nano-bots, the little units of suburban America metastisized over the following fifty years to consume and defeat all the small towns like Bedford Falls in America, and all the rich local social and economic networks that the movie celebrates, including George's bank and Mr. Martini's family-owned restaurant. Along similar lines is the sequence in which George Bailey is shown, by the angel who saves him from a suicide attempt, how Bedford Falls would have turned out if George had never been born. The town is renamed Pottersville, after the movie's villain, a greedy rival banker played by Lionel Barrymore. How striking and odd, though, what a wonderful town Pottersville actually appears to be, compared to the real horror of what happened to American towns in the late 20th century. In fact, Pottersville looks like the kind of tourist town that demoralized suburbanites now flock to for country weekends. Standing on Pottersville's lively Main Street, George sees the sidewalks full of people. Some of them are carousing drunks. Some of the businesses are gin-mills, with hints of prostitution and all the other usual quaint human vices of an earlier day (including many that are now part of mainstream American culture). But the catch is that Pottersville is actually portrayed as a town brimming with life and activity! Only the content is considered bad -- too many gin mills and loose women, not enough soda fountains. 

As we really know, the many Bedford Falls of our nation have uniformly become hollowed-out ghost towns with no life and no activity. And the George Baileys of our world went on to become the WalMart moguls and real estate tycoons who sold out their towns and ultimately destroyed them. So, it really provokes me to wonder what Americans are thinking when they see this beautifully-crafted but deeply paradoxical movie. Do we notice what it is we really have lost? And how insidious the process was?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

This time, for once, not what McMorrow said... (Blog Post No. 2013-9)

In another of our series on what's happening in coverage of the urban fabric in local media ("they write about it, we give it the once over"), I come today to disagree with the generally very sound Paul McMorrow and his recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe advocating for the demolition of Boston City Hall and its sale as a development site for one or more high-rise towers to punctuate the High Spine's end in downtown west (the last bit about the High Spine is my reading into what Paul is saying). The piece can be found here - Boston City Hall Should Be Torn Down - and while it's as well written as usual, it's just not doing it for your correspondent.

I will stipulate that the building is an affront in almost every way (though it's thankfully not a high-rise itself). But the real problem with City Hall from the perspective of living and working and just being in this, our fair city, is its total lack of urban conviviality, its open hostility in the way in which it meets everything around it. Faithful members of RTUF Nation may recall that yours truly blogged about this issue some time ago in A response and a concern, and what I said then goes quadruple after reading the arguments offered by David Friedman, my fellow Bostonian living up the road in Jamaica Plain who happens, not without importance for the discussion there and here, to be a professor emeritus of architectural history at MIT, in his letter to the editors of the Globe in response to the article ("An American Classic"). Maybe he's more than just a "casual observer," but the good professor's letter merely proves, if there remained any meaningful doubt, the building's defenders are largely, if not exclusively, object building fetishists with virtually no regard for the consequences of foisting what amounts to an oversized modernist sculpture on a critically important urban location. And I quite frankly can't see that opening up the atrium at the middle of the building solves any of the problems with the building that matter to me.

All of that said, I'm not with Paul on tearing the building down. I may have been born and raised in New York and I am very comfortable with tall buildings, but I don't see big height as critical at this location. I'd rather see the city make a real go at opening up the building to the adjacent plaza and, as importantly, Congress Street and filling in the broad array of dead spaces on its perimeter before we decide to tear it down and go somewhere else.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Targeting New Urban Fabric Restoration, Installment No. 1: Cambridge Street at Blossom Street

View 1: Looking across mid-block, from N. Anderson Street to Blossom Street.
View 2: Looking up Cambridge Street toward Blossom Street.
View 3: Looking back across the corner of Cambridge and Blossom
with the main Mass. General complex in the background.

The Location: 239 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA. 

The Series: We've tended to come along after the fact and write about good moves after they've happened. While we here at RTUF will continue doing so, we also thought it might be interesting to point the camera at places that need restoration and give them some attention before that happens (and maybe even encourage something to happen sooner rather than later). So, herewith, Installment 1 of Targeting New Urban Fabric Restoration...

The Story: The Gulf gas station that used to stand at this site is gone, torn down pretty much immediately after the Mass. General bought the site a couple years ago. It looks like the hospital also pulled out the underground tanks at the same time, tossed on some gravel and leveled it off, so the site is ready for action. Unfortunately, there is no action, at least not yet. Let's hope it's not too long before something does happen here. Moving the gas station off was a good thing for Cambridge Street, especially given its suburban/pumps-out-front configuration, but this is an important corner that is now totally blank (MGH isn't even parking vehicles on the site itself, though they are doing it on the adjacent parcels). And it's not like MGH doesn't know how to take an underperforming street front and make it much better, as this weblog has previously reported in MGH creates an enhanced front door on Cambridge Street and as you can almost see behind the trees at the left in View 3, where a more-than-adequate liner building was constructed sometime in the 1990s (I believe) to hide the garage in the block between N. Anderson and N. Grove. The RTUF sketch below tries to point out the critical piece of corner frontage that needs to be created here too, and I do believe it will be important to go up at least a few stories to be a strong counterpoint to the relatively tall, aesthetically challenged hotel across Blossom.

The RTUF Sketch: The corner, as almost all corners are, is most important, though stretching the the building frontage along Blossom to come closer to or even meet the existing building also makes sense.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In the Back Bay Fens in front of Landmark Center...

...sometimes restoring the urban fabric means daylighting a long-buried stream

So, this item is a bit dated (going back to last summer), but the project really didn't get underway on the Riverway/Fenway until this spring: Muddy River restoration begins. We're talking here about the Muddy River as it meanders through the Riverway/Fenway stretch of the 19th century Emerald Necklace greenway system. In particular, we're focused on the part directly in front of the art deco edifice originally built as a Sears department store and later redeveloped, after Sears departed in the late 1980s, to become the highly successful mixed-use Landmark Center. A Boston Landmarks Commission's report on the building dates the paving-over that Anthony Flint references in The Risky Business of Parking Lot Creation to 1965. For those of you keeping score at home, that means that the city and commonwealth bought themselves about 20 more years of Sears at this location by giving up the Muddy River and forcing it underground. Maybe not as bad a bargain as when New York let the Penn Central Railroad tear down Penn Station (to save the railroad from bankruptcy!) in 1963 to build a tragically mediocre skyscraper and relocate MSG, only to have them, you know, declare bankruptcy within 5 years, but still hardly the way to steward part of a masterpiece of Olmstedian landscape design for the long haul. And you can credit our departing Mayor for having the sustained memory needed to bring the parking lot back into public ownership as part of the Landmark Center redevelopment process. We'll have photos once they're done and the Muddy River again sees the light of day. (Blog Post No. 2013-7)

Friday, June 14, 2013

A small, but meaningful marker of tightly knitted urban fabric (Blog Post No. 2013-6)

Tricycle espresso pushcart at Dewey Square, Boston.

A few years ago, on a family trip to Ireland, I happened upon a mini-truck espresso shop in Galway City at a weekend farmers market. I didn't take a picture at the time, but did think it very cool. Fast forward to this spring, when the tricycle espresso pushcart started appearing in Dewey Square, right here in the Olde Towne. That's South Station in the background. He's there most mornings these days. Pretty darn awesome, and, yes, a sign of urbanism in the mere fact that it exists and has a place to set up shop and make enough to live on.

[Blog Post No. 2013-07.]

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial...

Photo 1: Trinity Church and Hancock Tower in background.
Photo 2: The most moving part of the memorial. Each victim named,
with a photo and symbols of important associations in their lives.

Photo 3: Existing 100th anniversary memorial inlay showing marathon route, the BAA
unicorn symbol, and elevation above sea level (Heartbreak Hill would be that last series of upward
bumps before the long decline to the finish).

The visit reflected in these photos occurred three weeks ago, as your faithful correspondent and the three people he loves most in this world were on the way to meet friends in Chinatown for lunch. Over seven weeks on, there has been an awful lot written about the bombing itself, the surreal rampage and chase of the suspects through Cambridge and Watertown, and the inevitable assessment of how this happened and what can be done to prevent terror attacks like this in the future.

One thing that struck me, however, and I clearly wasn't the only one to have this reaction, is that the attackers made their target the quintessential Boston event: the Marathon. This is an event that is historic (this year was the 117th running, the longest-running marathon in the world), occurs on Patriots' Day (a state (and not a national) holiday and a source of huge pride for the region), and coincides, by tradition, with the only morning start game in baseball's major leagues (11 am at Fenway). It's a day when everyone knows not to try to go north to south (or vice-versa) anywhere west of Downtown Crossing because the marathon is effectively cutting the region in half. It's a day that I have typically worked in the morning at a very quiet office and then slipped out in the afternoon to meet up with family and friends and watch one or more runners I know and perhaps even helped along on training runs through the winter come through well after the leaders and the press trucks have gone by. Over the years, I've watched the race principally in Newton, but also at Cleveland Circle and, yes, near the finish line on Boylston Street the year Ann-Marie ran. I've even run the race myself, back in 1999. It's not much of a stretch to say that virtually everyone in and around Boston has had some connection to the Marathon at some point in their lives.

So when the bombing occurred, it seemed people around here took it particularly personally. I don't know if that helps explain what's been going on with the informal marathon memorial that sprung up originally at the finish line and has since been moved to Copley Square, at the Dartmouth-Boylston corner. But I think that must be part of it. Overall, it's an incredibly moving expression of the collective urge of this town to stand taller after this tragedy, to make at least one unintended legacy the idea that Boston, as a place, simply won't accept an attack like this as the last word about what happened on April 15, 2013. Clearly, there will be a need at some point to appropriately preserve the totality of what has been placed at the memorial site, and, just as clearly, there will also be a need to preserve in a permanent memorial that will have to be somewhere nearby, if not right where the temporary memorial is today, the memory of those whose lives were taken. More on this in the days ahead.

[Blog Post No. 2013-6]

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Boston commercial real estate -- now officially all the way back... (Blog Post No. 2013-5)

Unshrouded at last -- Restarting work on the Burnham Building officially
signals the end of the downturn.

Faithful readers of this weblog may recall that your correspondent referred, albeit somewhat in passing, to the "Filene's Pit" in a post just over year ago about the commencement of construction on the Millennium residential project at Hayward Place. At the time, the reference was to the that fact that the Filene's Pit (a.k.a., "One Franklin") remained just that - a pit - as it had stood since the fall of 2008, when construction abruptly halted and the half-demolished rear of the Burnham Building was unceremoniously shrouded in tarp as a result of the real estate and equities market meltdown. The fact that the Burnham Building, the heart and soul of the old Filene's department store assemblage, is now being unshrouded and construction re-started on the project is the unofficial signal that, ladies and gentlemen, commercial real estate in Boston is all the way back. In the language of the CPI Index, if 2008 = 100, then 2013 = 100 as well. Mojo now restored. Allow me to explain.

Filene's department store was unquestionably the leading symbol of downtown Boston for the entire 20th century. Edward Filene is well-known for a number of innovations in the highly competitive urban department store industry, but for RTUF, his importance lies in commissioning Daniel Burnham, one of the major American architectural players of the early 20th century, to design a new home for the retailing behemoth that quite literally was the anchor for Downtown Crossing for decades. Burnham obliged with a fantastic piece of urban fabric - a building that defines its location as well as anything you're likely to find anywhere, made all the more poignant by Burnham's untimely death around the time of building's completion in 1912, leaving it his only work in Boston.

Fast forward almost a century, and Filene's fell on truly hard times in the early 2000s, losing ground to rivals and not finding its footing in the brutally discount-dominated market, and suffered the final indignity of being closed by their common parent company in favor of the Macy's (formerly the headquarters of arch-rival Jordan Marsh) across Summer Street. Still, at first, the future of the site looked bright, as local developer John Hynes, son of a former mayor of Boston and the hero of One Lincoln, brought Gale International and Vornado to the site, permitted it rapidly, and started demolition in early 2008. However, the fall of Lehman Brothers intervened within the year and construction activity halted, virtually on a dime, at the point at which (1) the incredibly crappy 2-3 story (does it matter, the thing had no windows to help us out?) modernistic concrete nonsense that stretched from the Burnham Building's side to Franklin Street, (2) the entire backside of the considerably more worthy edifice at the corner of Franklin and Hawley streets had been pulled off in a classic facade-ectomy, and (3) the resulting exposed sidewall of the Burnham Building was left to look, sadly, into the 2-3 story pit that had been dug to be the foundation of the new, cantilevering tower that was to rise above it all.

You have to admit, dear reader, that the story would be sad enough had it ended there and been picked up only this spring, but, alas, that was not so. No, in a kind of Greek tragedy-cum-nightmare, the resulting blighting influence of the Filene's Pit was made all the more acute by the resulting feud between Vornado and the Mayor over a purported quote from Vornado's chief executive to the effect (and I paraphrase) that in some cases it might strategically make sense to leave blighted sites blighted in order to incentivize the affected municipality to come to the table with more subsidy to restart development. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the current occupant (you may have seen RTUF's recent pre-valedictory to the Mayor in late March here), who took this kind of talk personally, and effectively demanded that Vornado step off the job if anything was ever going to happen once the worm turned. Well, before the worm turned, Vornado and Gale ceded control to Millennium Partners (our friends from down the street at Hayward Place), who redesigned the old cantilevered tower, making it taller and simpler, and have now, at long last, restarted construction on the Filene's Pit. Downturn now officially, for those of you keeping score at home (as Lindsey Nelson used to say on Channel 9, immediately after a play had been officially scored), OVER.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The end of the Menino era...and one reason, originating in God's Country, why that era was a good one for the urban fabric (Blog Post No. 2013-4)

The big news in the Hub of the Universe over the last several days has been the decision of our long-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino, to retire at the end of his fifth term rather than seek re-election this fall. Yes, you read that right - Boston has had the same man in easily the city's most powerful position for the last 20 years. It's a long run, no matter what your frame of reference might be. And there's no doubt that this mayor in particular has been powerful in a sustained and all-encompassing way that few if any present day mayors even come close to matching. It is a cliche, but also as plainly true as such things ever are, that nothing of any significance has gone on in this town while Tom Menino has been our mayor that he hasn't known about and ultimately approved of, and the bar on what qualified as "significant" was a lot lower than the out-of-town observer might first imagine.

We can all argue over the necessarily mixed bag that that kind of tight gate-keeping entails. But one fundamental concept on which it was thoroughly right from start to finish was in first preserving and then helping to flourish neighborhood business distirct across the city through the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Streets program. Blog friend and Roslindale neighbor Carter Wilkie, himself a former mayoral aide in the late 1990s, wrote an opinion piece in The Boston Globe a couple of days ago -- you can find it here -- that accurately sums up the mayor's early, pre-mayoralty insight on the value of the Main Streets program in urban neighborhood settings. In the mid-1980s, with then-councilor Menino's urging, the National Trust made Roslindale Village Main Street the first urban main streets program in the country. The principal idea behind the program was and has remained that traditional, pre-auto-dominance shopping districts -- "Main Streets" understood broadly all across the country -- need and deserve the same kind of attention to overall image and basic infrastructure that privately-owned suburban and exurban shopping centers and malls have enjoyed for decades.

After the Mayor became mayor, main streets organizations were formed all across the city, such that there are now19 main streets organization from East Boston to West Roxbury and almost everywhere in between. Their combined impact is broader than their simple numbers. Collectively, they are operative symbols of the idea that a great many places, not just the big-ticket ones (the Back Bays and Beacon Hills of the world), are worth preserving and working with and moving forward. Rosindale Square (I sympathize with the old-timers who have steadfastly refused to use the word "Village" after "Roslindale" except when absolutely required) is an extremely apt poster child for this idea. I have come to love our neighborhood's walkable and lively center, yet one could hardly call it perfect. And that's the point. A place doesn't have to be perfect to be cared for and made better. It just has to be ours.

Friday, March 1, 2013

More than just re-branding on Post Office Square (Blog Post No. 2013-3)

Photo 1: The main entrance.
Photo 2: The CongressStreet -High Street corner and the former garage space, now retail.
Photo 3: Another view of the same corner, looking further down High Street.
Photo 4: The new High Street entry.
Photo 5: New retail space on the corner of Oliver Street and Franklin Street.
Photo 6: New retail space on the corner of Franklin Street and Congress Street.

The Location: 50 Post Office Square, Boston, MA (formerly 185 Franklin Street). Check out google street view to see what these frontages looked like before: HERE.

The Story: This post clearly belongs in the incremental changes category, without question, though the underlying trend here is definitely not insignificant. We are looking at the re-branded 50 Post Office Square, formerly just plain old 185 Franklin Street and more widely known as the New England Telephone Building for many years. The building itself is a relatively late period example of Art Deco, having been constructed in the late 1940s, when the style was past its prime and already yielding to the International Style. This Boston Globe piece from Casey Ross ("An Art Deco Makeover") does a great job of setting out the essentials. Verizon, the successor to NET through a couple of mergers, emphatically ended the building's first chpater in 2010 when it decided to move most of its employees to other locations and sold to a private developer, in this case a group called Commonwealth Ventures. Clearly, Commonwealth saw substantial upside in the location - across Franklin Street from Post Office Square Park - despite the loss in near-term value that would result from losing most of the main tenant.

To realize that upside, however, Commonwealth needed to do more than simply give the building a new address and hire brokers. They needed to do things that may seem like common sense (at least to this blog, they do), but that still required vision and a willingness to take a certain amount of risk. Because the building had been a single-tenant affair since its construction, there had been little impetus to do more than accommodate the arrival and departure of the employees of that single tenant. Thus, the only entrances were the front entrance on Franklin, admittedly marked by an impressive and distinct architectural expression, and the rather sad couple of doors on High Street denoted by a forlorn canopy more appropriate for an early 1970s bus station than an important regional corporate player. In other words, while not a hostile building, certainly not playing the part it could in the urban ensemble. You occupy a whole city block in the heart of Boston, you need to do more than 2 entrances on the front and back. Commonwealth recognized that imperative, and, as the Globe aritcle indicates, hired Elkus Manfredi to manage the building's renovation, including, among other things, new retail space on basically 1/3 of the ground floor frontages and a new lobby on High Street. Nothing earthshattering here. Just another strand in the fabric doing a lot more than it used to, and clearly reflecting the trend that the level of urbanistic expectation is getting higher every day. And, to bookend the discussion, by snagging a consolidating Brown Brothers Harriman as the tenant that will take almost all of the old Verizon space, Commonwealth has seen their risk taking rewarded, which is a nice bit of positive reinforcement for other downtown landlords that might want to follow their example.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Blog Post No. 2013-2: Launching the Substation Redevelopment

Photo credit: historicbostonblog.org.
NOW, this is how you do two things: FIRST, design a context-sensitive, mixed-use redevelopment project in the heart of Roslindale Square; and SECOND, run a community meeting rolling out and setting the tone for public review of said project.

Loyal and active members of RTUF Nation will recall that less than a week ago, this weblog did a brief update piece on recent developments in Roslindale Square (a.k.a., God's Country). Included in that update was a reference to a then impending community meeting in which RVMS, Historic Boston, and Peregrine Development, their for-profit joint venture partner, would present the design for a proposed redevelopment of the combined MBTA Substation and Higgins Funeral Home site at the southeast corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway. Well, that meeting happened at the Knights of Columbus last Wednesday and it was impressive in both the ways described above.

The proposed project (you can access it here) is about as responsible, in the very best sense of the word, urban design behavior as you're going to find out there. The existing Higgins funeral home structure comes down and the substation is renovated for a signature restaurant space. In place of the funeral home, we have a wrap-around 41-unit apartment building with ground floor office on the Washington Street frontage and liner residential units on the Cummins Street frontage that hide the parking behind. The design on each frontage appropriately differs. On Washington Street, it's a more commercial feeling, flat-roofed building. On Cummins, the building reads more as a larger, gabled residential building, similar to a number of such buildings around the intersection of Cummins and Florence just up the street. I am particularly fond of the way the designers have found a way to pull the ground level of the new building back slightly from both Washington Street (which unfortunately has no on-street parking in this block) and the substation to create a small courtyard with a handful of tables that will provide outdoor seating for the ultimate restaurant tenant. It's just one indication of the high level of skill and care that has gone into this design. Yours truly could readily imagine himself seated at a table sipping a finely crafted IPA from Substation Brewing Company on a crisp evening come fall 2014.

Of course, this being the real world, there are non-trivial issues to be surmounted, including driving the parking ratio down further (it's close to 1-to-1 on the residentail units, which really isn't necessary for as transit- and desination-rich a site as this) and dealing with the floor height of the ground level residentail units on Cummins. Probably the most significant challenge will be coming to a mutually satisfactory arrangement with the neighboring Roslindale Congregational Church, which runs a day care and pre-school in their adjacent complex in addition to their worship activities and multiple community-oriented events. The church building is a handsome, late 19th century edifice in the Romanesque-Shingle Style and listed on the National Register. Anyone with half a brain, and the collective redevelopment team and their designers clearly have more than that, would want to be sensitive to that adjacency and seek in good faith to address the church's concerns about shadow, traffic, parking and construction-period impacts. That appears to be happening already.

Of course, addressing those concerns in an overall context of strong community support for the project would be a plus, and...you guessed it, that's what we had last Wednesday. To describe the meeting as a love-fest would perhaps be slight, but really only slight, hyperbole. The speakers, who included your humble correspondent, were overwhelmingly in favor of the project and even those speakers who expressed concerns did so in a manner suggesting that they understood the value of the project and wanted only to make sure that certain issues were properly considered and addressed. I can honestly say that I was very surprised at the uniformity of support, which, upon reflection, stems most likely from 3 sources:
  1. The long-standing community good will and trust that Roslindale Village Main Streets has engendered through its almost 30 years of advocacy for the Square, including its most recent major achievement, the phenomenally successful farmers market;
  2. The manifest skill of the meeting's organizers (you know who you are, but you especially include Steve Gag, board president of RVMS); and
  3. The worthiness of the design.
These are listed in their relative order of priority. You get nowhere without community trust, and in Roslindale, as in Boston generally, you have to pay your dues by putting in the time. When it comes to development issues, there is a LOT of distrust. Then, even if you have trust in your corner, you can mismanage it. And finally, you can blow your first two indispensible advantages with an awful design. None of that is happening, so we can look forward with at least somewhat justifiable confidence to the not-too-distant day when the substation is finally brought back to life and Roslindale sees another piece of its urban fabric restored.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Blog Post No. 2013-1: Updates on Roslindale Square

First of all, happy 2013 to the members of RTUF Nation! It has been a busy January for your faithful correspondent, so this month's post is coming later than is typical, though it may be followed quickly by an update to this update.

Now, with the formalities out of the way, here's the latest urban fabric news from God's Country (a.k.a, Roslindale Square):

"Traffic" Sculpture Installed

So, it took almost 3 years, but the public art that I referenced in a truly vintage April 2010 post about Alexander the Great Square's almost pitch-perfect traffic improvements has finally arrived. You can see photos of the installation last month here at Wicked Local, and you can view a video from the sculptor here: George Greenmayer Video. RTUF management has a policy against commenting on art and architectural style, but I will say that I am fond of it and it can certainly stay. Public art is, in and of itself, a powerful statement about a community's respect for itself.

Substation Redevelopment Proposal

Meanwhile, redevelpment of the former trolley substation that is, for all intents and purposes and despite its derelict state, the architectural heart of Roslindale Square, looks poised to take a very major step foward toward reality, though much changed in focus since last it crossed the old radar screen. Instead of the stand-alone substation, done on a shoe-string as a kind of event-space-in-the-raw, we are now looking at a much more substantial project and project site that now includes redevelopment of the adjacent F.J. Higgins Funeral Home on Washington Street, with the attendant parking lot that wraps around the substation onto Cummins Highway. To say that the mixed-use project now proposed is right up your correspondent's alley would be an understatement. How the urban design responds to this site, which is critically important for the square, will be a very big deal. That design will presumably be available at the upcoming community meeting, and I'll do a follow up then.