Sunday, February 3, 2013

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

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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, 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.