Friday, March 22, 2013

Community by Design: The Olmsted Firm and the Development of Brookline, MA

Cover Photo by Jack E. Boucher.  Library of Congress
I suspect there will be a great deal of interest in this new book, Community by Design: The Olmsted Firm and The Development of Brookline, Massachusetts, by Keith Morgan, Elizabeth Hope Cushing and Roger Reed.  Published by the Library of American Landscape History, University of Massachusetts Press.  Anyone interested in understanding why Brookline looks the way it does will find plenty of fodder here.  Olmsted enthusiasts will get an in-depth glimpse into the workings of the firm with plenty of real world examples of their design philosophy; first delineated in plan form and then realized in our neighborhoods.  Chock full of details (with hundreds of reproduced photos and plans) and meticulously researched, the book exposes the multiple webs of influence; wealth, social hierarchy, design genius and high-minded ideals that came together to guide the development of Brookline at a time when booming population and streetcars brought rapid change.  The authors trace the relationships among the leading trend-setters in architecture, municipal governance, landscape design, engineering and horticulture as they converge in Brookline at the turn of the 19th century, a time when the professions of landscape architecture and urban planning were being born by these very individuals.   The book sets these events into a broader context, describing the forces that drew these taste-makers to Brookline in the first place and the process by which they came to see their home as a template for an ideal residential setting.  Henry Hobson Richardson, Charles Sprague Sargent, Charles Eliot, Arthur Shurcliff, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., John Charles Olmsted, Guy Lowell, J. Randolph Coolidge and Robert Swain Peabody are some of the design and horticulture luminaries that circulated within the elder Olmsted's sphere.

Charles Eliot 1882 Courtesy family of Carola Eliot Goriansky

Imagine a world before graduate schools churned out thousands of architects and city planners a year.  This book gives us an inside look at the birth of numerous allied professions. The first American school of architecture was established at MIT in 1867.  Locating a practice, as H.H. Richardson did in 1874 in nearby Brookline, allowed for a symbiotic relationship between mentor and neophyte, his practice blurred home and office, school and work life, much like the Paris atelier he came from.  In late 19th century America there were no professional schools for landscape architects until 1900 when F.L.Olmsted Jr. and Arthur Shurcliff oversaw the creation of a program in landscape architecture at Harvard University.  Prior to that, it was through internship at the Olmsted firm that one gained the necessary skills to practice.  Charles Eliot, was the very first such intern, who later went on to found the Trustees of Reservations, due to his deep understanding and passion for planning on a regional scale.

In these early days, practitioners were free to apply their talents to best advantage, and in some cases, such as when F.L. Olmsted Jr. was asked to assist with the subdivision of "Holm Lea", the Sargent Estate, they conditioned their professional involvement upon being given control over all aspects of a development.  They understood that the outcome would be enhanced if all aspects of site design, architecture, landscaping, road design, etc. were executed from a unified perspective.  In the case of the Sargent Estate, the heirs were reluctant to give such control to the younger Olmsted.  Due in large part to a history of wealth and insular governance, as well as the presence of these civic-minded design professionals, Brookline established one of the first Planning Commissions in Massachusetts, in 1914, with F.L. Olmsted Jr. serving as it's first chair .  We follow the story of the birth of city planning as F.L. Olmsted Jr. , in 1910 founded the first national organization of city planners, the National Conference on City Planning. Brookline was one of the first municipalities to adopt a zoning by-law, doing so in 1922, just two years after state enabling legislation was passed in 1920. 

Plan for Fisher Hill, 1886 FL & JC Olmsted Copy of Lithograph Courtesy Brookline Public Library
Unlike the hyper-specialization in today's professional world, F.L.Olmsted saw the big picture and could envision change well into the future.  Olmsted's skills and practice reached far beyond the limited role landscape architects are forced to inhabit today.  He did not approach his commissions from a purely "aesthetic" point of view, instead he operated more as a problem solver, applying a few key principles consistently.  His understanding of the benefits of working with nature, such as respecting and working with existing topography, and utilizing the natural flows of water are again in vogue today as influential landscape designers champion the use of native plants, minimal soil disruption and existing water supplies instead of the heavy-handed Army Corps of Engineers approach prevalent in the intervening years.  We see in the design for "Brookline Hill", later renamed Fisher Hill, how Olmsted layed out curving roadways to take advantage of views and create a meandering feel.  He also, to achieve his client's goal, created large lots for spacious homes, complete with deed restrictions.

Olmsted had a profound insight into what today we call "environmental psychology"  he knew how people responded to certain settings and he knew how to create those settings and experiences.  He could envisage the experience of calm pleasure and peacefulness that ensues from traversing a curvy and tree-lined roadway.  All of his plans, including Central Park, Beacon St. and the Emerald Necklace flowed from first designing appropriate transportation and linkages.  In fact, we would perhaps not be experiencing the levels of traffic congestion present today, had the planning professions absorbed the lessons to be learned from the separation of travel mode which where an innovation inherent in all Olmsted plans.

Sketch of Proposed Brookside Roads in Upper Brookline 1894 Courtesy National Park Service, F.L. Olmsted N.H.S.

Development pressures were great and reading this book we learn how the families of wealth and influence who lived in South Brookline hired the Olmsted firm to help them ward off plans for intensive development.  Rather than a narrowly focused response, the firm took a more comprehensive tact, proposing a network of parkways as an antecedent to future growth.  The plan included a partway linking Jamaica Pond with the Brookline Reservoir.

Community by Design will inform scholarship on a great many subjects, and as a resident of Brookline, I am grateful for the depth of insight to be gained from reading about such a pivotal time in our history and the people who helped shape our landscape.  The Olmsted firm worked on hundreds of projects for the town and the town's land owners, with their keen insight creating much of landscape we enjoy today.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bicycles: Can we acheive harmony and respect?

The bicycle is a marvel.  A human-powered machine of utmost simplicity. It is often referred to as the most efficient form of transportation around.  Burns calories, not fuel.  The bike is being rediscovered and celebrated around the world, as a cheap form of transportation suitable for young and old alike.

Enabling and supporting bicycling furthers many important public objectives.  More bicycles means fewer cars on the road.  Fewer cars means less congestion, less air pollution,  fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less parking demand.   These benefits accrue to everyone, not just the bicyclists.  More bicyclists means more healthy physical activity, reinforcing Brookline Health Departments' Brookline on the Move initiative.  A bike can be an essential means of transportation for someone who cannot afford or chooses not own a car.   So, in making it safer to ride a bike by providing designated bike lanes and more convenient bike parking, we are supporting many worthy goals.

Improving bike safety will encourage more people to ride and therefore, more benefits will stack up.  Mobility and access are improved for everyone, including those who do not drive.  The air will be cleaner and safer to breath.  People will get healthy exercise.  Being on a bike lets us encounter our surroundings and the world in a more immediate and direct way, maybe even leading to more community involvement.  With the new Hubway bikeshare system, visitors, employees and residents will have easy access to a convenient, healthy way to get around.  Tourists will be able to enjoy more of what Brookline has to offer.  

So, why is there so much animosity and derision hurled at bicyclists?  Why is there so much vocal opposition and obstruction when it comes to improving conditions for biking in Brookline?  We hear over and over how bad bicyclists are at following the rules and that they don't exercise prudent riding styles.  No doubt there are few bad apples out there, for whom some scorn is justified.  But this does not explain the militant anti-bike fervor we see.  After all, there are plenty of motorists and pedestrians who behave badly too, but we never hear a collective call of hostility and degradation for motorists or pedestrians.  The mean spirited disregard for bicyclists' safety is shocking and inappropriate.  And yet, it seems to be accepted and tolerated.  There is something bigger going on here.

For many years (since the 1950's) planning, infrastructure and street design have all catered exclusively to the automobile.  Much of the American landscape has been transformed into a land of roads, parking lots and private garages, dominating both visual and spatial dimensions completely.  Walking or riding a bike became precarious, dangerous and viewed with suspicion, perhaps a sign of social deviance or poverty.  How inhumane those sub-conscious thoughts are, and yet in most places in the US this reality is all there is and going car-less is virtually impossible.  Fortunately, Brookline was settled well before this time.  We are blessed with compact walkable and bikable landscapes.  We can get around to many of our destinations without driving a car.  Trust me, we are envied for this aspect of our lifestyle.   Yes, we have narrow streets.  Yes, Massachusetts breeds a particularly forceful street behavior, pitting ourselves against those impeding our progress.   All of these forces have carried over into the latest form of this conflict, Article 23.

Article 23, which will come before Brookline Town Meeting this spring, began life as a Home Rule Petition that sought to strip our Transportation Board of its authority to approve and implement a certain type of bike lane, called a contra-flow lane.  This type of bike lane is suitable in rare and particular conditions where a short connector is needed to allow bikes to travel a safe and logical route on a street where cars have been limited to one-way travel.  Opposition to the Home rule petition led to a re-working of Article 23.

So now, Article 23 has been amended to be a resolution calling for our T Board to draft criteria, with the explicit input of certain town boards and commissions, which will define when contraflow bike lanes may be appropriate and to describe what factors and relative weights will be given to various perspectives and concerns. In other words, our staff and T Board must justify and defend themselves to the satisfaction of their critics.  These folks don't trust our professional Town engineering staff to utilize appropriate judgement and they don't trust our Transportation Board to be thoughtful and considerate of multiple stakeholders.  This despite the fact that their decisions have not resulted in any safety problems and they hold multiple well-noticed hearings on each decision they make.  It is hard for some to see the validity of doing anything on behalf of the bicyclist, despite the many benefits alluded to earlier. 

It seems that the idea that bikes require any kind of specific treatment or accommodation really doesn't sit well with those opposed to bikes in the first place.  There was a sentiment expressed that if bicyclists can't follow the rules, then we should not make any attempt to accommodate them.  This is a catch-22, as it is the lack of accommodation that can make biking that much more challenging, leading to unorthodox riding behavior.  It was argued that because pedestrians jaywalk and drivers park on the wrong side of the street, we can't legalize a bike route that might conflict with these other illegal behaviors.  What?  Here we see an articulation of a biased preference and unconscious hierarchy that prejudice some persons' world view.  I don't hear bicyclists decry sidewalks and roadways because motorists and pedestrians don't always follow the rules.  Treating bicyclists as a third class citizen is pervasive.  Pitting one "mode" of transportation against the others fosters aggression, animosity and ill will.

We can't afford to think this way.  Being safe and accommodating each mode appropriately is possible and necessary.  What is lacking here is empathy.  This isn't surprising.  If you've never tried to ride a bike in traffic you cannot understand the degree of vulnerability you feel on a bike.  You couldn't possibly understand the intricacies of how difficult it is to safely navigate a left turn on busy multi-lane streets on a bike.  You would not understand why it seems like a bicyclist is swerving randomly, when in fact they are trying to stay erect by dodging debris and potholes at the side of the road.  And yes, it might make sense and be safe for a bike to travel a short way down a road in a direction prohibited to cars.  The adage "Same road, Same rules" is helpful because it establishes that the appropriate place for bikes is in the street and admonishes everyone to think of the bike as a vehicle.  But, it is overly simplistic.  A bike is fundamentally different, and infinitely more vulnerable.  So let's try to be safe, courteous, conscious and empathetic out there.  We don't need to impose more burdens on our Transportation Board.  If someone doesn't like a decision they can appeal it to the Board of Selectmen.  Let's send a message that we support bicycling and bike facilities.  Vote no on Article 23.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's Wrong with Article 13?

Article 13 began life as a resolution calling for the installation of a pedestrian-actuated traffic control signal at the Green St. crosswalk in Coolidge Corner.  That's the crosswalk going from Friendly's to Upper Crust and the Coolidge Corner Theater at the corner of Green St. and Harvard St. in the heart of our beloved CC shopping district.  The Article has since been amended to call for a study of said light.

The petitioner claims that all will be right with the universe if we do this.  In this alternate universe, pedestrians will line up and press the button, then patiently wait a minute and a half, happy to cross when the whooshing vehicles are finally forced to stop by the red light, the pedestrians will scurry quickly across, then once again the vehicles will resume whooshing.  All this will occur because the traffic lights at the nearby intersections at Beacon and Babcock will be coordinated and perfectly synced to move the traffic in seamless flow.  Too bad none of this alternate reality scenario resembles reality.

I can appreciate the appeal and simple logic of this idea.  Unfortunately, the traffic and pedestrian flows along this stretch of Harvard are anything but simple and the addition of a traffic control signal at Green St. will wreak havoc to traffic flows along this stretch of Harvard.  Consider the following:  1) Traffic flows are two-way and these two-way flows are not equally balanced.  2) There are turning vehicles that enter the traffic stream on Harvard St., even when Harvard St. is red at Beacon.  Vehicles turn right, going north from westbound Beacon, vehicles turn left from westbound Babcock.  3) These folks, along with those at the tail end of the previous green light and other, non-synced flows (contrary to popular belief the lights cannot be perfectly synched due to reasons #1 and #2)  will be stopped for 20 seconds or more at the new light at the Green St. cross walk.  Hardly a recipe for whooshing.  4)  If you think slowing and occasionally stopping for pedestrians at the crosswalk is annoying for drivers now, imagine a light stopping all traffic for one-half of the available time (Beacon green), whenever anyone may have pushed the button, whether they are there now or not.  and 5) The travel lanes widen to two just before and through the Beacon St. intersection, then suddenly tapering down to one again, right before the cross walk.  This bulge and squeeze is the real reason there is a flow issue at Beacon and Harvard, not the cross walk.

The petitioner has told us that the pedestrian light is not a new idea, that its been studied and recommended before.  This is absolutely not true.  The 2005 study he cites had it wrong, (there existing conditions report stated that there was already a light there), and simply recommended the signals be coordinated.  Clearly, these folks had a keen power of observation.  The other 2009 study concluded that the Green St. crosswalk did not seem to be a dominant issue creating backups.  This was based on field observation and not a study of potential impacts.  The petitioner also stated that all other options for improvement had been tried.  Again, not true.  Professor Peter Furth, former Transportation Board member, professor of civil engineering at Northeastern University, PhD from MIT in Transportation Systems and recipient of the 2004, Best Paper award from the Transportation Research Board Committee on Traffic Signal Systems, strongly warns against signalizing the crosswalk.  Peter's advanced traffic signal control class looked at this stretch of Harvard St. as a case study.  They concluded that the core problem was that too many vehicles were passing through the Beacon St. intersection and that this problem could be corrected by shortening the length of the traffic signal cycle.  Professor Furth strongly warns against putting such a light here, and as a resident of Brookline he strongly objects, noting how well the crosswalk works now and understanding the benefits to maintaining a safe, pedestrian friendly shopping district.  Professor Furth's study, complete with traffic flow simulations is the most indepth study done to date, and yet the petitioner did not even bother to read it.   Brookline's Director of Engineering, Peter Ditto testified at the Selectmen's hearing on this Article that his Department did not feel a pedestrian-actuated light should be studied.

There is Town wide desire to improve travel conditions in Coolidge Corner, which is why the petitioner has succeeded in gathering some support for the article, but there is also a clear sense, expressed by many, that we should be looking more holistically at travel conditions near Beacon and Harvard and that we should not be entering into a study already having concluded what the source and solution to the problem is.   The petitioner has assured us that other ideas will be looked at.  Yet, this is not what the resolution says, and the resolution cannot be modified because it would become a fundamentally different Article.  I don't know about you but I am not comfortable giving my support to something based on the assurance that really, its not what it says it is.

The fact is the petitioner has decided what improvement is desirable and concluded that it would have a positive result, all without the benefit of professional knowledge, without supporting facts or analysis, without consultation with the Town staff or boards responsible for these decisions, who have been, by the way, working diligently observing, testing and working with consultants to solve the problem.  Doesn't their opinion matter? 

So, what’s wrong with passing the Article and studying the traffic signal?  Surely, the study will come to the same conclusions as Professor Furth and the idea of the traffic signal will be dropped.  For starters, such a study looks at the wrong thing, making it a waste of Town resources, we already have the advantage of a high-caliber free study showing us the way towards a promising alternative improvement.  Second,  directing the scope, focus and policy direction of a consultant’s work away from the fundamental problem and towards a single, ill conceived and predetermined result is bad science and bad policy and will prevent us from identifying better, more cost effective solutions that work for everyone, whether on foot, bike or in a car.  And third, let's pass a resolution that lets the professionals do their job, instead of telling them what the conclusion is before they start.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Reading Olmsted's Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England

The recent broadcast of the documentary "Olmsted and America's Urban Parks on PBS, inspired me to revisit this article describing Olmsted's early book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which was first published in Our Town Brookline June, 2006.  I highly recommend this early book of Olmsted's to anyone with a sincere desire to understand the man, his vision and his talents.
Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the designer of New York’s Central Park and Boston’s own Emerald Necklace. What is less well known is that he practiced a number of different professions before finding his life’s work. Long before he began designing landscapes, F.L. Olmsted authored his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. It’s a chatty recounting of his month long walking tour through the English countryside. Reading it today, we get a glimpse of the formative experiences of a great talent. Originally published in two volumes in 1852, the book was reissued in 2002 with annotated text and an excellent introduction by noted Olmsted scholar Charles C. McLaughlin. Written from copious journals and letters home, Olmsted’s narrative is intimate, descriptive and often very funny. We are in the company of a young, energetic and inquiring mind.
At the age of 28, F.L. Olmsted, his younger brother John and John’s Yale roommate, Charles Loring Brace set sail for Liverpool, England, a journey that took 26 days. To secure a place on the trip, Frederick convinced his father that he needed to study scientific farming in England to benefit his current agricultural endeavor on Staten Island. To call the trip an adventure is an understatement by today’s standards, as the sea voyage alone was fraught with hardships, potential peril and a great deal of discomfort. Funds were tight and the young men traveled in the hardscrabble mode of students the world over.  At this point, Olmsted’s future was anything but determined. Prior to farming, he had been a surveyor, a clerk in a retail store, a merchant seaman, (a job that took him on a perilous journey to China), and a journalist. Unlike most of his peers, he did not go to college, but was nonetheless widely read and inquisitive.
Knowing what we do about F. L. Olmsted’s later achievements and remarkable career, reading this, his first book is a chance to witness the gestation of the many skills, attitudes, beliefs, and aesthetic preferences that, when blended together, would result in Olmsted’s wholly unique set of abilities. Open, amiable, adventurous, inquisitive, and exacting in his observations and critiques, Olmsted approaches England, “the mother land” with an affectionate regard, yet also with an eye for the distinctions and improvements his newly free America has wrought. He pursues a wide variety of subjects, including social class structure, land economics, scientific farming, religious beliefs, treatment of prisoners, status of the poor, landscape and its effect on psychology, health and social cohesion, architecture, and city form. Yet none of these were abstract concepts to Olmsted, his genius was his ability to connect his observations with the wider forces that were in fact shaping those experiences he was witnessing. He had a reformers heart, but a realist’s view of the world.
His many analytical skills are put to good use as he systematically gathers first hand knowledge through penetrating observation and conversations with people from all walks of life. He acquires vast technical knowledge about soil, climate, engineering techniques and the conditions necessary for healthy plant life. While the resulting long, detailed passages may prove tedious for some readers, the knowledge Olmsted gains will undoubtedly prove invaluable when it comes time to transform the barren and swampy lands he was often given to work with into pastoral paradises.
We also meet Olmsted the social critic and reformer. His traveling companion, Charles Loring Brace would later found the Children’s Aid Society in New York City and it was probably at his urging that the trio visited prisons, alms houses, jails and village schools. In this context Olmsted is pragmatic, practical and open minded, displaying an eagerness to embrace divergent points of view, and yet he still forms his own definite opinions. Despite the trip’s focus on learning and research, Olmsted was above all else acutely open to the experience of his immediate surroundings and as a skilled writer he is able to capture and share those sensations.
Olmsted’s month long walking tour through the English countryside would have a profound and lasting effect on the rest of his life. Many of the scenes and events that captivate and enlighten him mark the genesis of some of the core passions that would later propel him towards his ultimate profession. On the Isle of Wight Olmsted considers the profoundly soothing effect of nature when he writes, “ Dame Nature is a gentle woman…Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; the beauty has entered our souls; we know not exactly when or how, but going away we remember it with a tender, subdued, filial-like joy”. A pleasant walk on a public promenade in Chester gives rise to his belief in the social benefits of shared public spaces. He experiences the extreme contrast between the dismal slums of industrial Liverpool and the beauty of the surrounding countryside and would go on to devise new metropolitan forms that better blend the advantages of both urban and rural life.
We are witness to Olmsted’s epiphany at Birkenhead Park, a public park outside of Liverpool. It was by happy accident that he visited the park at all and yet it was an experience that changed the course of history. Created by landscape gardeners Joseph Paxton and Edward Kemp, the entire park was under-drained, with wide carriage roads and paths, rock gardens, pavilions, trees and shrubs and ponds stocked with fish and swans. Olmsted observes that “…large valleys were made verdant, extensive drives arranged - plantations, clumps, and avenues of trees formed, and a large park laid out. And all this magnificent pleasure-ground is entirely, unreservedly, and forever the people’s own. The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British queen. More than that, the baker of Birkenhead has the pride of an OWNER in it. Is it not a grand good thing?”  This was a revelation to Olmsted, for at this time there were no such public parks in America.
It sometimes took private wealth to create great art, as in the case of Eaton Hall in Chester. Eaton was one of over 1,000 private estates in England at the time, many of which were known the world over for the beauty of their lavish grounds. The private ownership of so many great parks in England fueled Olmsted’s conviction that public ownership and access to such natural beauty was a vital necessity in a democratic America. The artistic lessons to be learned here would not be lost on Olmsted, either. Immediately upon seeing Capability Brown’s landscape, Olmsted finds himself identifying with the creator and exclaims, “What artist, so noble, has often been my thought, as he, who with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions” These sentiments describe the far reaching vision that necessarily define the yet to be born profession of landscape architecture.
Landscape viewing had become an intellectual as well as recreational pursuit in America by the mid 19th century. Olmsted’s father, John had read Sir Uvedale Price, William Gilpin, Richard Knight, and John C. Loudon, writers who waxed poetically about landscapes that were picturesque, beautiful and sublime. A definition of these terms evolved as a common lexicon and fostered the popular pastime of extended outings seeking vistas and views of scenic value. Picturesque scenery made a good, sketchable picture and fell somewhere between the soft, rounded tranquil aesthetic of beautiful landscapes and the awe and grandeur one finds in sublime settings such as Niagara Falls. As a young boy Frederick’s father had taken him on many such outings. In this way he was already tuned into “analyzing” a landscape, a skill he developed to a remarkable degree.
In the English landscape he found that form of the picturesque he most admired, a domesticated land that has been cultivated for centuries, one that fell somewhere between natural and civilized. He would later strive to recreate his idealized versions of the Victorian English landscape back home on American soil. Upon first seeing it he exclaimed, “The country-and such a country!-green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous! We stood dumb-stricken by its loveliness…-in an English lane; with hedges, English hedges, hawthorn hedges, all in blossom; homely old farm houses, quaint stables, and haystacks; the old church spire over the distant trees; the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere...” Through observation he was able to identify the precise combinations and relationships of scenic elements that made up this landscape, as when he observed, “The great beauty and peculiarity of the English landscape is to be found in the frequent long, graceful lines of deep green hedges and hedge-row timber, crossing hill, valley, and plain, in every direction; and in the occasional large trees, dotting the broad fields, either singly or in small groups…here is everywhere a great deal of quiet, peaceful, graceful beauty, which the works of man have generally added to.”
It seems a special privilege to accompany a young Olmsted on his trip. Reading Walks and Talks is meaningful for those interested in learning about Olmsted’s early experiences, but the book can also stand on it’s own as an enjoyable travel book, giving a descriptive narrative of the English countryside of the mid 19th century.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Landscape Urbanism vs. The New Urbanists

Let me get this straight.  A group of landscape architects are claiming that the road to urban sustainability can only be found if we place primary importance on protection of the natural environment (i.e. leaving the land as undisturbed as possible).  They claim that suburbia (sprawl) has a greater potential to achieve their vision because of it's dispersed settlement patterns.  In their minds they are in opposition to the New Urbanists' led by architect Andres Duany, who say that the built environment's form should mirror walkable town center's to enable a denser, more compact and social development pattern. The relevant point here is that we have landscape architects and architects each devising "systems" that are anything but systematic or holistic in their scope.  Is it any surprise that the landscape architects are yelling "it's all about the landscape stupid" or the architect's screaming, "it's all about the buildings stupid!"  Of course it is about both, and there are plenty of enlightened planner's who have grasped this reality for a long time.

To me, the one truly valuable contribution brought by the landscape urbanists' is their fundamental questioning of the long-term ecological viability of our over-engineered, mechanistic storm water infrastructure.  They wish to see a more cohesive melding of human settlements and the natural functioning of land.  This is not a new idea, and it is one that can be brought into urban settings, bringing the life enhancing benefits of living in close proximity to naturally functioning landscapes to urban dwellers.  But to think that this implies that suburban development patterns are superior ecologically is to live in denial of the fact that human populations have already swelled beyond the capacity of our land resources to support a completely dispersed population,  it also denies the devastating waste and environmental toll wrought by sprawl in terms of the very land resources they wish to protect, not to mention,  the vast about of infrastructure and fuel needed to support the exclusively private automobile transportation system.  I cannot agree with their assertion that suburbia is "what Americans' want".  As we all know, cheap land, and federal subsidies to the oil industry and mortgage business have fueled this so-called "choice".  Young people today do not seem to be making the same choice, whether it is because of shifting economics or lifestyle choice, the demand for walkable urban housing is growing drastically.  The landscape urbanists'  "anti-urban" urban vision also denies the fundamental fact that humans are social creatures who thrive on live exchange of ideas and shared experiences.

There are familiar "holes" in the New Urbanists' theories too.  From the very beginning it has been pointed out that just building the "bones" does not a living, thriving community make.  In other words, just because a newly planned community contains office space or retail space there are no guarantees that there will be a "match" between these jobs and goods and the nearby residents.  Expensive, "faux" neighborhoods do not make a real neighborhood, where people care about the place and look after one another's interests without the modern planned communities' regulatory deed restrictions and covenants.  Yet, the New Urbanists' insights were a leap forward; they helped us understand the role of walkability, street grid patterns, pedestrian scale and mixed use in creating livable places.  These lessons are still just as valuable today.  Are these lessons all that we need to create sustainable communities?  Of course not.  But then, neither is the Landscape Urbanists' theory of land protection.  There are still the fundamental questions of life support systems, such as fuel for heat, electricity, water, food, transportation, the economy, family life, community and all the other basic necessities. 

The fact that these two "camps" consider themselves in opposition is laughable.  Both make interesting and valuable points.  Both have huge blind spots and holes in their theories.  Neither one of them is good in isolation and neither one of them is an appropriate blue print for future action in the real world.  Since we can't wipe the slate clean and apply either one of these theories on a large scale in a pristine setting, I suggest that both camps get busy working on real world applications.  Better yet, how about talking directly to each other and to others who have been thinking systemically for a long time?  I have a great deal of tolerance and even delight in research and theorizing when it comes to urban planning.  After all, how would we ever get new ideas if we focused only on the here and now.  But in this debate, we see the ivory tower run amok. 

It's amusing that their testosterone fueled debate has vaulted this spitting match to the pages of the Sunday Boston Globe. I can't remember when I last saw an article in a major newspaper covering an academic debate between two "competing" theories of urban planning.  Perhaps this is due to a growing awareness that the tools and techniques of urban planning are useful mechanisms for helping us navigate the challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.  More of the general public has an interest in urban planning than ever before it seems.  It would be nice if that attention didn't get dissipated by watching a school yard wrestling match.  Rather, the time has come to collaborate and apply all the good ideas we can find to the massive problems we face.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Case for Article 10

I just tried to watch the Article 10 Town Meeting debate on BATV.  Sadly, the sound was completely messed up.  For that reason, I am posting the text of my presentation here. Special Thanks to all of the excellent presenters speaking in favor of Article 10 at Town Meeting, those who had a chance to speak, and those who did not.  Linda Hamlin, AIA, Brookline Planning Board; Eunice White, TMM Pct. 2; Jim Batchelor, AIA, Preservation Commission; John Bassett, TMM Pct. 6; Brian Kane, Brookline Transportation Board, TMM Pct. 6; Werner Lohe, Conservation Commission, TMM Pct. 13, Rob Daves, TMM Pct. 5; Andrew Fischer, TMM Pct. 13; Anita Johnson, TMM Pct. 8

Well, I guess no one really cares very much about parking in Brookline do they?

Why did I bring this Article to Town Meeting?  I’ve been immersed in this subject professionally and personally for many years. The Selectmen’s Parking Committee was a dedicated and talented group of individuals and as a member of that Committee, I thought it would be unfortunate not to see progress towards implementation of our recommendation to lower residential parking requirements.  I believe this action is necessary to protect the beauty of our neighborhoods and our quality of life.  I appreciate the focused attention and interest so many of you have paid to this topic and look forward to continuing our collective efforts towards achieving better parking policy in Brookline.

Article 10 is a proposal to reduce the minimum amount of parking we require for new multi-family residential construction within ? mile of MBTA T stops.  The new minimums would be 1 space for a studio/1 bedroom unit, 1.2 spaces for a 2 bedroom unit and 1.4 spaces for a three bedroom unit.  Two and three family homes would be required to provide 1.3 spaces per dwelling unit and Single family homes remain virtually unchanged, with a two space minimum.  The requirements are applied to new development and when a dwelling is converted or added onto.

Some have raised concerns that the proposed minimums may not be appropriate for new housing, because high-income buyers want more parking.  That’s debatable, but irrelevant because the proposed rates are only minimums, there are no maximums.  Anyone wishing to build more parking would be able to.  But by not requiring such a high level of parking, we are getting closer to allowing need, market, location and good design dictate the amount of parking to be built for a particular building.  If the choice is to build luxury units, then let the market decide rather than regulate for that.  If the choice is to target those seeking newly constructed units with less parking, lowering the minimums is the only way to allow that option.

What doesn’t Article 10 do?  Article 10 does not increase the amount of building allowed.  It also doesn’t take away any existing parking or change the equilibrium already established between rental parking and the buildings with little or no on-site parking.  It is not about forcing people to give up their car or making them take the T.  But it is a response to the fact that our residents within a 1/2 mile of the T have chosen to live in a transit-oriented setting and don’t collectively need as much parking as we currently make them build and buy.  The key word there is collectively.  Article 10 doesn’t prohibit those households who need two cars from having them, it just acknowledges the fact that not everyone does.

We’ve seen how emotional an issue parking can be.  It’s hard to be objective about it.  Whether you think we need more or less, we all think about parking through the lens of our own experience and observations.  Collectively these observations make up a kind of truth, but we’re not hearing the full range of viewpoints and experiences.  Among those we do not hear from are those who don’t drive.  But, when asked to think about parking policy, we project our own wants, needs and desires onto that hypothetical household we are trying to plan for.  But Brookline is home to a diverse population of individuals all making choices that best suit their own unique situation.  So, as far as prediction goes, the best we can hope for is to observe what has happened and objectively quantify conditions as they are today, which is the approach we took on the Parking Committee.

But there is a bit of the aspirational in any planning policy.  After all isn’t that what the Comprehensive Planning process was all about?  Trying to articulate our vision for the Brookline of tomorrow?  Choosing goals and implementing them through policy is what planning is all about. We set priorities and make trade-offs.  Our Plan articulates a lot of worthy goals. We want to encourage the use of transit. In fact, our Plan cites a Town survey in which Brookline residents identified access to transit as their number one criteria for choosing to live here. We want to preserve our historic structures, streetscapes and neighborhoods.  We want a community friendly to pedestrians and bikes.  We want to support local businesses and preserve open space. We want a diversity of housing types and affordability ranges. We want to limit traffic congestion and yet our zoning by-law requires parking for more vehicles than most of our residents even choose to own. Bringing more traffic into our neighborhoods, making it harder to walk and bike, increasing the cost of housing and threatening open space and historic structures.  So we’ve managed to implement a policy that works against our stated goals.

How we treat parking in our zoning by-law makes a big difference. Today’s parking requirements are twice as high as they were until 1986. The pleasing streetscapes and walkable neighborhoods we enjoy would not have been possible had today’s parking requirements been in place when they were built. Instead, we would have streets lined with garage front houses, underground garage ramps, and surface parking lots and roadways that could not handle the traffic volume.  High minimum on-site requirements mean we must fit all that extra parking onto each tiny lot and it takes its toll.  Beautiful historic structures are lost to new buildings that must be designed around parking, often resulting in first floors that are garage fronts and parking.  Yards are paved, pedestrians harassed and streetscapes destroyed.  When we raised the parking requirements, we threw an additional significant spatial demand into the equation, throwing off the balanced equilibrium designed into the by-law between Floor Area Ratio, Setbacks, Open Space and parking.  We require all these standards be met, but they can’t possibly be, so special permit violations must be given.  There is no special permit provision for a reduction in parking requirements for new residential construction.  Instead, the bulk and height of the building is often increased because it incorporates the parking.  Over time, if left unchanged, these requirements will transform the form of our town, replacing our homes one by one with hybrid garage homes.  There are no design standards that will “fix this problem” or preservation mandates that will protect our structures.

Some Hybrid Garage/Homes

The Selectmen’s Parking Committee was appointed in 2008. With the help of Town Planning staff we undertook an in-depth study of our parking requirements and existing parking conditions, and we learned a great deal.  Based on our research:

We know that the average multi-family household, including two and three family dwellings within the overlay zone owns about 1 car.   23% of these same households own no car.

We know that 47% of commuters living in the overlay take public transportation, walk or bike to work.

We know that the total number of cars in Brookline has declined since 1998 while the population has increased.

We know that Brookline Zipcar membership has increased from 40 to 3,300 in the last decade.

We know that existing buildings with parking requirements matching Article 10’s meet the parking needs of their residents on-site with the amount of parking they have. Some have extra spaces that they rent.

We know that the multi-family parking lots surveyed by the Committee had an average vacancy rate of 25% and some of those locations are actively advertising spaces for rent.

We know that of the 300 or so publicly available resident overnight parking spaces less than half of them are occupied and that the prices for private overnight rental parking have not increased beyond cost of living increases in the last decade.

We know the Article 10 proposed rates are consistent with other peer communities who also have over night parking bans, including Newton’s 1.25 and Arlington’s 1.3 spaces per unit.

We know the proposed rates are consistent with professional standards for similar settings, such as the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s 1.0 to 1.2 per unit and the Urban Land Institute’s 1.2 – 1.4.  Our current parking requirements exceed even recommended suburban standards for multi-family housing.

We know that some multi-family buildings predate the auto era and were built without parking, we also know that enterprising property owners have creatively met the parking needs for these buildings. Signs asking for parking or selling available parking are a sign that spaces in the underground market are turning over, not of desperation.

Requiring extra parking to be built in new buildings is not an effective or efficient means to add to the public parking pool.  New building parking is not necessarily built where extra parking is needed.  Many new buildings limit access to their garage areas, so that expensive extra parking represents a huge waste of money and resources.  It passes the cost of parking onto the buyers and residents of the new buildings.

The Parking Committee’s recommendation to lower residential parking rates was based on the totality of all these findings and more.  The recommended requirements in Article 10 are above the minimums that were in the primary proposal considered by the Parking Committee’s regulatory sub-committee. They are based on the number of vehicles residents say they own, sorted by housing type and size, and include a 25% positive margin of error.

The proposed rates work because a building’s population is a microcosm of the population as a whole, containing singles, couples, families and friends at different stages in their life, with varying needs for parking.  Building to the average, with a moderate upward cushion factor built in, is how we meet resident’s parking need without over or under building parking.

It seems every time Brookline’s parking requirements are assessed by transportation professionals, the recommendation is the same, they are too high.  For instance, in the Coolidge Corner District Plan pg. 67, which reports the consultants findings it says:  “Coolidge Corner typifies what is meant by TOD, with the exception of parking standards for new development.  As outlined earlier in this section, zoning amendments to reduce parking requirements for new development…should be considered as revisions to the Zoning Bylaw.”

At the well attended Brookline Parking Forum held on June 9th 2008, Jason Schrieber of the Transportation Planning firm Nelson/Nygaard noted that Brookline’s residential parking rates were 25 to 50% higher than other greater Boston communities. He then presented examples of recent residential projects built in Boston neighborhoods, the Alewife area of Cambridge, and Arlington, all of which were within 1/2 miles of transit. Parking provided for these projects ranged from .69 to 1.23 spaces per dwelling unit.

Research has been cited that concludes that removing or lowering parking requirements allows for increased density and that areas putting in new transit lines see an increase in land values, drawing wealthy residents who bring vehicles.  Well this is precisely what happened in Brookline at the end of the 19th century.  The trolley line was put in down Beacon St. and suddenly it became possible to live in an apartment building close to the T.  Land values increased and new development possibilities were created.  Those case studies are about areas that are trying to create new areas of transit oriented development, not places like Brookline where history has built the form for us.  But, the point of needing to match the parking requirements to the built form still holds true.  Imposing suburban parking requirements onto an already densely built setting wrecks havoc to the built form.

Yes, parking is a complex subject.  Yes, we will continue to debate and study it. Yes, there are other zoning reforms we should undertake.  But re-setting our minimum parking requirements to levels in harmony with our built form, vehicle ownership and peer communities will not bring Armageddon and it is ultimately a policy choice.  The intent of Article 10 was to restore the balance between space for our cars and the spaces we live in.  Resetting our parking requirements will give our regulators the ability to demand better design, preservation and protection of our neighborhoods.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Article 10 for Fall Town Meeting

Article 10 would lower the amount of off-street parking required for multi-family residential development.  Below is some general background information on the Article, and you can follow the link below to download the full text and explanation.  Please feel free to write to me with any questions or comments.  I will be using this blog to post information and updates about the article as we approach Town Meeting, which begins Tuesday, November 16.

Passage of any zoning change requires a 2/3 majority vote in Town Meeting, which is a difficult threshold to meet. Therefore, it is important for anyone in favor of this measure to call or write your Town Meeting representatives.  Download a full listing of Town Meeting Member's contact information by clicking Town Meeting Members A-Z on the right. You can determine your Precinct here, if you don't know it by typing in your address.

It is also very important that supporters voice their support in person at the various review meetings that occur prior to Town Meeting.  This is the public's chance to express their thoughts.  Direct input from the public is very influential to those Committee members considering Town policy.  Please show your support for lower parking requirements by attending these upcoming meetings.

Upcoming meetings:

Zoning By-Law Committee
Monday, September 27, 2010
6:30 pm  Room 103  Brookline Town Hall

Notes:  The meeting begins at 6:30, but there are four other articles that will be discussed prior to Article 10, interested parties should arrive by 7:30, although it is possible the order may be changed.

Planning Board
Thursday, September 30, 2010
7:30 pm 6th Floor Selectman's Hearing Room Brookline Town Hall
Send Comments to Polly Selkoe.  Make sure you put Article 10 Comments for Planning Board in Subject line and ask her to distribute your comments.
Notes: The meeting begins at 7:30, but there are four other articles that will be presented prior to Article 10, interested parties should arrive by 8:30.

Advisory Committee/ Planning and Regulatory Sub-Committee
Monday, October 4, 2010
7:30 pm  Rm 103 Brookline Town Hall
Send Comments to Neil Wishinsky. Make sure you put Article 10 Comments in your Subject Line and ask him to distribute your comments to the Committee.

I'm proposing Article 10 for Fall Town Meeting.  My proposal would lower the off-street parking requirements for multi-family residential parking. Right now, Brookline's Zoning By-law requires 2 or 2.3 parking spaces for every multi-family dwelling unit built, even studio and one-bedroom units near transit. Each parking space requires 330 sq. ft. of space, so in the case of small units, the amount of space devoted to parking is close to the size of the unit!

My proposal would lower the minimum parking required to between 0.8 to 1.4 spaces per unit, depending on the size of the unit.  These rates are very similar to the parking requirements in Brookline's By-law from 1962 to 1986, namely 0.8 to 1.3. Prior to 1962, the only parking requirement was the one space per multi-family unit that has been required since 1922.

It was only recently that two substantial increases, one in 1987 and then another in 2000 brought our requirements to their current peak of 2 and 2.3 spaces per unit.  The new proposed rates have been crafted to reflect Brookline-specific auto-ownership and travel behavior for each dwelling unit type.

A full text of the Article and a detailed explanation (two separate files) can be downloaded from the Town of Brookline website here:

Town Meeting Warrant Articles and Explanations

Our existing requirements exceed those common in suburban locations, where the only way to get anywhere is to drive a car. Brookline is not like this, which is one of the reasons so many of us find it such a desirable place to live. We have options. We can walk or bike to our neighborhood stores, schools and parks and we can take public transit to employment, culture and recreation.

Our history as a streetcar suburb created the land use pattern we find so pleasingly human scaled.  Blocks are small, houses are close together, concentrated pedestrian commercial areas surrounded by leafy neighborhoods. Denser housing nearest the T lines. It all happened before the automobile became ubiquitous.  An auto-oriented development pattern would look quite different.  This is for one simple fact: automobiles take up a great deal of space.  They spend 95% of their time parked and for each car there exists approximately 4 parking spaces.

The negatives of requiring too much parking have become apparent, we:

1) Lose more of our limited green and open space to pavement for excess parking we don't need.

2) Threaten Historic Structures.  Re-use or expansion of existing buildings becomes impossible with the high parking requirements, thereby incentivizing the tearing down of historic buildings.

3) Degrade building design. First floors become parking. Facades become garage fronts and side yards are driveways.  Buildings become taller and bigger to recoup the cost of the parking and to accommodate the sq. footage desired on the same lot.

4) Decrease Housing Diversity.  The extra costs of the parking are added onto the cost of housing, smaller units are not built and the continuing maintenance costs are born by residents.  Occupants are not given the opportunity to save household transportation expenditures from opting out of purchasing excess parking.

5) Incentivize Auto Use and Degrade Pedestrian Environment.  Mandating excess parking encourages excess auto ownership, shifting individuals away from other modes.  More autos, driveways, curb cuts and garages makes it harder  and less pleasant to walk.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Visit Brookline Park(ing) Day, 2010!!!!

September 17, 2010 is Park(ing) Day,
Join us in Coolidge Corner for a day of fun in the "Park"

 What is Park(ing) Day?

It's an annual worldwide celebration where metered parking spaces are transformed into temporary parks for the public good.

Originally invented in 2005 by Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, Park(ing) Day asks the question, "What if we took the 200 sq. ft. of space normally dedicated exclusively to parked cars and reinterpreted it as a usable public space?

Brookline's Park(ing) Day parks will be located on both sides of Harvard St., just north of the Green St. pedestrian cross walk.

In front of Upper Crust and CC Theater by Derrick Choi

 In front of Upper Crust Pizza and the Coolidge Corner Theater there will be a colorful activity center with games and "movies" showing pavement to parks improvements from around the country.

In front of Friendly's by Derrick Choi
Across the street, in front of Friendly's there will be an urban oasis where visitors can sit on the grass or in a beach chair and dangle their toes in the water or play in the sand.

An underlying theme of Park(ing) Day parks is the exploration of the fact that approximately 80% of the public space in an urbanized setting is the street, which is usually the exclusive domain of the automobile. If we want to enliven our streets and make more accommodation for people places, we might be able to find a way to share the valuable public space of the street.

Our goal is to enliven our commercial area and create fun interactive people spaces that make it enjoyable to spend time "in
the street".  Brookline's Park(ing) Day is sponsored and supported by the Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, Brookline Garden Club, Livable Streets, WalkBoston, Brookline Park's Department, Brookline Transportation Department and Transportation Board.

Park(ing) Day has captured the collective imagination. In 2009, there were 700 parks in 144 cities, in 21 countries on 6 continents and 2010 promises to be even bigger. To learn more about the movement in general, visit

To help create or staff Brookline's Park(ing) Day, please contact me! (See the email me button to the left!)

Hope to see you in the "park"!

[where: 02446]

Friday, July 9, 2010

Over-Building Brookline: One "Preservation" at a Time

or Extreme Building: The New Normal? In my previous post, I wrote about the threat to our historic homes from development interests looking to tear down homes in order to extract maximum value from the high cost housing market in Brookline. An older home is found and purchased often in a distressed or stressed sale condition, which can then be replaced by a multi-unit building. In a recent Boston Globe article entitled "Neighbors Decry Development of Historic Sites", Jeffrey Feuerman is quoted as saying, "You can get a bigger project with more units with a demolition".  He went on to say that, "...Keeping the historic elements of such properties is not prohibitively more expensive than tearing them down and starting fresh, it takes longer, often included expensive surprises, is harder to build and is less attractive to buyers". (This coming from the same individual who was listing his preservation award winning, three bedroom unit in a renovated 1855 carriage house on Harvard Avenue for more than 1.5 million.) I don't know about you, but I know plenty of buyers who place a premium on authentic historic architecture and character.

As a further point in favor of demolition, Feuerman went on to say that "single family homes on such sites means much lower tax collections than a new multi-unit building. A quality condominium complex will also translate into higher property values for nearby properties.  A single-family is not the highest and best functional use of the property." Spoken like a true developer. However, his claims about value are questionable. When the adjoining property's views, light, air and trees are removed to make way for these new condos, it clearly diminishes that property's value. When the street scape is harmed by the loss of front yards, historic homes and trees, some of the publics' collective ownership value is taken. There will come a point when Brookline will lose enough of these things that the "quality of life" premium that property owners in Brookline enjoy will be gone. "Highest and best use" means only that use that will make the most money for the individual property owner or developer. It fails to account for what is most valuable or best for the Community. Further, while tax collections may be a bit higher for condominiums rather than a single family house, there are increased costs to the town associated with additional residential development too, which may or may not be off set by the increased tax revenue, such as Schools, police, fire, open space and recreation, libraries, trash, roads, etc. It is not a clear "win" for the Town fiscally, and clearly not a win for abutters, whose property values are in fact more likely to decline.

My point here is not to say that all new development is bad. But it is to say that we need to think critically when we hear these "truisms", like "highest and best use" bandied about. But more importantly, we need to recognize, protect, and build upon the amazing assets we do have. The historic landscapes and neighborhoods, planned and designed by some of the most brilliant and talented designers to have walked on the planet. These are our assets, and if we lose these, or degrade them beyond recognition, we will have lost the beauty and soul of what makes this place so desirable to begin with.

In response to the community's distress about losing some truly priceless pieces of historic architecture, (many of which play a key role in defining our community character), a new "model" has been proposed. In the same Boston Globe article cited above, Scott Gladstone is quoted as saying, "the hope was to start a trend in Brookline where old houses are preserved, and Jeff Levine, Brookline's Planning Director proposed using 99 Winchester St. as a model". Let's look at 99 Winchester St. from above, to give us a sense of site design and scale.

99 Winchester is in the center of the image, the reddish building with the turret. As you can see, the renovated house has a large addition on the back, which seems to be built extremely close to the property line, completely filling up all available space on the lot. (Lot lines are in yellow). While this scenario may be lucrative for the developer, it clearly comes at a price to the community, in terms of declining values to surrounding properties,  due to the loss of open space, loss of light, air, sky views and trees.

The idea behind the Winchester model is that the preservation of the house is such a great benefit to the community that it justifies extreme violation of our zoning by-law, thereby allowing for the granting of special permits, etc. The proposal pictured above, 70 Sewall, requires 9 special permits/variances. It is not to object to special permits per se that I raise my concerns. It was expected that some "wiggle room" was needed to make an adaptive re-use project work. But it has gone far beyond "wiggle room". While no one wishes to see these historic structures destroyed, I believe the developers proposing these scenarios, are in fact going beyond any reasonable standard with their proposals, taking advantage of the Town's desire to preserve the house and using the threat of demolition to go to extremes. Convincing us that they are making a sacrifice by preserving the house. When in fact, the proposed development becomes extremely valuable. The historic structure is saved, adding beauty, character and quality that no new construction could ever achieve and a super-sized addition is allowed, even though it violates all minimum standards of sound building and planning practices. Because we are so afraid of demolition, we fail to realize the truth of the fact that even with demolition, a new full build FAR building would not fit on this lot either. In fact, in the case of the 70 Sewall proposal, (above) a building of only 1.14 FAR (not the full 1.5 allowed) would fit, and even then this assumes underground parking and a height variance.

A look at the site plan for the 70 Sewall project reveals the full extent of the site design violations.

Side yards are reduced to 4', at the smallest point the rear setback is 36". These miniscule setbacks are insufficient to allow adequate light, sky views, and freedom from shadows for the abutters. They will not function in terms of safely accommodating circulation of persons or machinery. There is not sufficient space to support plant life to aid in buffering the building from neighbors.

The historic house is moved forward on the lot 15 ft. Fundamentally changing the setting of the house, alters one's view and experience of the house from the sidewalk and street. It is no longer the same house. The 36” oak tree at the front of the property is unlikely to survive the movement of the house. In addition, four other 10”- 12” trees are slated for removal from the property. New trees that are proposed would in fact grow onto adjoining property, would be difficult if not impossible to maintain and would also so severely limit circulation on the site due to the close proximity to the building that they seem impractical. Given the extremely dense development in the area, the value of these trees as softening, humanizing elements cannot be overstated. Key historic elements are being altered or eliminated from the house. Only 245 sq. ft. of usable open space remain on the property. The scale and mass of the addition overwhelmes and dwarfs the original structure, the beautiful 1889 Schweinfurth designed Queen Anne house.

Our Town boards and staff have forgotten that the maximum size (or Floor Area Ratio) allowed in a given zone is just that, a maximum, not a de facto right, and that at least basic standards of safety, functionality and protection of abutters must be maintained. These are the core functions and purpose of zoning.

The question then becomes, does the partial "preservation" of this house justify the extreme violation of our Zoning By-law and by extension the rights and privileges of the citizen's of Brookline? Has Extreme Building become the New Normal?

It seems to be catching on. Jeffrey Feuerman has submitted his plans for a project at 59 Green St. Here we see a two family home being turned into one giant condominium and another giant condominium being added onto the back, resulting in a long narrow housing development stuck into the back yard, next to homes with open back yards.  This too was a case where demolition was threatened before the Preservation Commission stepped in.

Both of these proposals will be discussed at the upcoming Planning Board meeting next Thursday,  July 15 in room 111 at Brookline Town Hall, starting at approximately 8:00 pm.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Stretch Energy Code: It's Good for Brookline

Article 11 on this Spring's Town Meeting agenda would strengthen the energy efficiency portion of  Brookline's Building Code. The standards have been set to be easily attainable, predictable, and desirable. I won't go into all of the details here, for more information, please visit the town website and look for Stretch Code Information.

I believe that adopting the Stretch Energy Code is good for Brookline for several important reasons:

1) Greater energy efficiency saves money for Brookline's residents and businesses. 

Let's face it, energy is going to get more expensive. Even at today's prices, the small additional costs associated with the additional Stretch Code compliant efficiency improvements are quickly paid back through energy use savings.

2) Less energy use is better for the environment and reduces our dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels.

Conservation is a key component to any policy or technological strategy that reduce harmful emissions and slows our consumption of energy resources. Here in the Northeast, heating and cooling our homes and commercial buildings contributes significantly to our energy use. In Brookline, about 60% of our total greenhouse gas emissions are from residential buildings.

3) Home owners and builders achieve consumer protections, receiving verified levels of energy efficiency.

Required energy efficiency measures are determined and verified through a 3rd party professional modeling and testing procedure, or through the installation, from a check list, of specified product types and construction techniques. Therefore, the consumer, in this case either a home owner or builder, is assured that the finished building will in fact meet the energy efficiency standard. This knowledge will surely become valuable information to prospective buyers and tenants as they rightly compare the "operating" costs of various property purchase options.

4) Savvy tenants and buyers are seeking energy efficient buildings.

It is in Brookline's best interest to position itself as a community that understands and promotes energy efficient, quality building. Doing so will attract residents and businesses with long term objectives who value stability and continued viability.

5) Adopting the Stretch Code gets us closer to becoming a Green Community.

As a result of the recently passed Green Communities Act state legislation, a Green Communities Division (within EOEEA) was created. Their mission is to establish and administer the Green Communities program, whereby cities and towns can adopt certain energy conservation or renewable energy generation policies and in return gain access to grant monies to pay for all manner of energy efficiency, management, conservation and renewable energy generation projects. Access to these funds would allow Brookline to be on the forefront of implementing state of the art energy saving projects. Becoming a Green Community could benefit Brookline both directly through grant monies for projects and secondarily through energy cost savings.

Some of the frequently cited objections to adopting the Stretch Code are principally founded on a faulty understanding of the Code's applicability.  For instance it's been stated:

  • We can't afford to place an additional cost burden on home owners/businesses at this time.
The Stretch Code does not require anyone to make any changes to their existing home or HVAC systems. It does become relevant when an individual builds an addition or changes out windows or furnaces, but only applies to those things being replaced. If you choose to change one window, that new window must be an Energy Star window.  You will not be required to replace all your windows or change anything else about your home. As stated previously, the additional cost associated with the higher energy efficiency is quickly paid back. Also, there are frequently utility rebates available to help home owners and businesses make energy improvements, as well as federal and state tax incentives.
  • If Brookline adopts the Stretch Code we will drive away certain contractors who don't want to deal with the new requirements and this will hurt our competitiveness relative to surrounding communities.
The improved building practices embodied in the stretch code are already being adopted by quality builders and will be required in a few years anyway.  The resulting buildings are the ones that buyers and tenants are seeking in the market place. Therefore assuring this higher standard of building actually helps Brookline's competitiveness. As of April 28, 2010 18 communities have adopted the Stretch Code, with many more considering the option this spring. Newton and Cambridge have already adopted it and Boston has it's own high level energy efficient building standards.
  • Extra energy efficiency measures will require me to make inappropriate changes to my historic home.
As stated earlier, no one will be required to make changes or energy improvements to existing buildings because of the Stretch Code. When renovations, additions or new building occurs that triggers the energy portion of the building code, then the Stretch Code will apply. The performance standards can be met in a variety of ways, and do not require changing historic features. Properties listed (or certified as eligible for listing) on the State of Federal historic register or as part of a local historic district or designation are exempt from both the base and Stretch energy codes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Demolishing Brookline one House at a Time

As I react to the flurry of demolition requests in and around my neighborhood, I think, this must be what it feels like to be on a volunteer fire department. You try to get on with your everyday life, yet your antennae is up, ready to receive the alarm at any moment. You and your comrades run to the scene of impending devastation and you do what you can. Once in a while you are victorious, at least to some degree, and the dreaded devastation is kept to a minimum. When this happens, you acknowledge that luck had something to do with it. Your tools are inadequate, your frustration and sense of failure great. A sad heaviness clutches your heart.

Three months into 2010 and there have been 8 demolition requests for houses in Brookline. Five of these requests have been delayed by the Preservation Commission because the house has been found to be historically significant. These five homes are 70 Sewall, 64 Naples, 163 Kent, 19 Hilltop and 59 Green. Usually, this action simply delays the inevitable, but as our preservation staff has said, "sometimes miracles happen".

 70 Sewall Ave. 1898 Home of Charles Flagg, Architect, Julius A. Schweinfurth

It's worth asking the question, why is this happening? It is of course difficult to generalize to all cases, but it is fair to say that for those tear downs that are most disconcerting, i.e. those where significant historic architecture is lost and neighborhood fabric is torn asunder, there are a confluence of particular circumstances. First of course is the high value of land and the high price to be had for housing in Brookline. (i.e. money to be made). Next, is the reality that our zoning allows the construction of  buildings much larger than those commonly found in the surrounding neighborhood and, adding to the mismatch with context, the required setbacks do not necessarily match those of neighboring structures. Third, then, if you are a developer, you simply wait for an existing house to lose some of its value through age and neglect, perhaps a death or divorce in the family, (i.e. eager seller) and you have a recipe for a successful tear down and build scenario. Sadly, the result is often the loss of a unique, finely made home that contributed to the beauty and fit the context of the neighborhood. In its place, often comes modern cookie-cutter construction, built to maximum size with minimum amenities. There are no regulatory protections in place to prevent this scenario from happening over and over again throughout our neighborhoods. The higher the density of the underlying zoning, the greater the pressure, or allure, from the developers' point of view.

Each time this scenario is about to play out, neighbors rally, acutely aware of what's at stake. In vain they look to our Town planning staff and volunteer boards for assistance. They begin to wonder why the potential for this occurrence wasn't anticipated. Why is there such seeming indifference towards protecting what they know to be the key assets of our community? They are told that they can participate in "design review" of the new project,  but as this process proceeds they find their influence often limited to superficial aspects of the design of the new building, such as colors or siding materials. The major decisions seem to have already been made by others, elsewhere. These decisions were in fact dictated by rules and regulations already in place, financial considerations and a deference to the rights of the land owner to maximize profit with minimal effort. 

Finding themselves in this situation, citizens often realize that the one remaining regulatory mechanism available to them is the establishment of a Local Historic District. In the best of circumstances, an LHD would be created organically, with plenty of time and care, based on a realization by homeowners and preservation officials of the value of protecting worthwhile properties. This has not been the case in Brookline, where LHD's have become the de facto planning mechanism for neighborhoods who can muster the organization and will to save themselves. We are now hearing from our preservation and planning staff that they are overburdened, they cannot handle another LHD. This is extremely ironic, given the fact that the plethora of LHD's is a symptom of the lack of proactive planning to begin with. Spontaneous, neighborhood lead LHD organizing efforts represent a grass-roots movement to deflect the rapacious churning under of our cultural and built heritage, and yet we do not seem able to commit the necessary resources to facilitate this effort. What does this say about the Town's ability to be stewards of our community?

What we are seeing played out in this drama is the classic conflict between use value and exchange value. It is really helpful to understand this distinction, for it colors every decision we make about planning and zoning. Our culture and laws seeks a precarious middle road between the two and depending on your perspective you likely value one over the other. The use value of real estate is what everyone who owns a home and lives in it enjoys. They choose their home because of the particulars of the structure as well as purchasing a share in a neighborhood, town, community, school district, etc. with a certain set of assumptions about what that means. They love the look and feel of the street they live on, the park across the street, access to Brookline schools, or their proximity to the T, etc. All of these things factor into the value of their home, both to them and to any one else looking for a place to live. If the park across the street were suddenly paved for a parking lot, their property would lose value. Their homes' value remains anchored to its current use as a home.

The exchange value of a property however is something else all together, and because of the disparity between the size, scale and form of existing structures and the generous and general standards in our current zoning ordinance, the exchange value of a property is inflated significantly. This gives the owner who does not value the use value, (i.e. they don't live there) a strong incentive to want to tear down and build big. Now, buying the land, tearing down and building new is not cheap, so the developer feels they must max out the sites' potential to get a decent return.

The problem with all this is that an essential conflict of interests has been created. Maximizing the exchange value by one individual reduces the use value of the remaining properties on the block or in the wider community. That "look and feel" of the street that you bought into when you purchased your home is no longer there.  If you believe that that the beautiful historic architecture contributes to the desirability of Brookline as a place to live, then its destruction diminishes the value of housing in Brookline. The private actions and gains of a single land owner has caused negative impacts to ripple out into the community. Zoning is meant to prevent this. Planning boards are meant to act on behalf of the public to protect their interests, to help balance the equation between the maximizing of exchange value and maintenance of use value.  It is entirely possible to have regulations in place that would be fair to both parties while giving better guidance on form, size, scale, setback, on-site amenities, etc. generating better results.

Beyond the "out of scale" etc. issues there is of course the sad fact of tearing down one-of-a-kind craftsmanship and solid, beautiful structures. It is just not possible to build such quality today. Why would it make sense to send it to the landfill? Just look closely at some of the new construction around town and ask yourself if it looks like it will still be viable in 100 + years? We cannot afford to waste these precious resources. It doesn't make sense. Not from an energy point of view, not from a resource and materials point of view, not from a cultural heritage point of view. This level of craftsmanship will never be created again, why throw it away as if it is of no value? And yet, we have no way of "internalizing" this external cost. This thing of great value, (the exquisite craftsmanship and beauty of the historic home's interior and exterior features) has no value in the equation. Unless the developer has sufficient vision and understanding to realize that potential buyers will value and therefore pay a premium for this quality, they are likely to choose quantity over quality for their building plans.

The LHD mechanism may be, in some cases a clumsy and ill suited "planning" mechanism.  Adaptive re-use is a positive. Large single family houses may not be practical for many of today's smaller families and adding additional housing units without tearing down existing structures seems like a good idea. Shifting demographics will create the need for a range of housing alternatives, such as assisted living, co-housing, group living structures,  live/work spaces, commercial space, etc. Proactive planning for better neighborhood design need not preclude these options.

In the meanwhile, I hope you will let your voice be heard if you value these homes and their contribution to our community. Speak out about what their destruction will mean to you and your neighbors.