Friday, February 22, 2008

What's Wrong with this Building?

A new structure has become part of our streetscape. 1285 Beacon Street, next to the Post Office is a two story structure with 21,000 sq. ft. of retail space. On the first floor is Staples. We are unable to miss the identity of this tenant, as the ubiquitous red and white glowing Staples logo/sign and its equally constant companion Copy and Print Shop signs are firmly affixed to the buildings' facade. I won't get into the wisdom of the Staples corporate logic in choosing their locations other than to say, in my estimation there were already two other Staples within walking distance from my abode... Above the Staples will be a healthclub. Below the building, 49 parking spaces will allow those who wish to, to drive right to their destination and park, in defiance of the sites' location, within steps of the T and surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods.

But, parking and the chain storification of Coolidge Corner are surprisingly not the subject of this blog. What I find most disquieting is the building itself and its designs' utter lack of sensitivity to either the context of its setting and its down-right hostile pedestrian interface. Let's first look at how the building "fits" with its neighbors. Beacon Street as a whole is on the National Register of Historic Places. This has of course not saved us from getting some monster buildings in the past, but it highlights the fact that the corridor's history has a story to tell about how Brookline came to be built the way it is and how, in its architecture we can read the progression of taste and lifestyles through exemplary examples of housing types built to be the best. This should at least cause an architect designing a new building destined to reside here to be thoughtful and considerate of context.

It is hard to see any evidence of that thoughtfulness in this building. It appears instead to be some sort of amalgam of 60's fads, with the geometric angles formed by the triangular window with a wedge of black polished granite and 1920's art moderne represented with the rounded window on the end of the building, metal window casings and the flush mounted "art decoesque" light fixtures. The yellow rough stone seems to be chosen to contrast with the smoothness of the granite, but is an uninviting material in and of itself. The roof is flat and there is no detailing or ornament happening at the roof line. Over all it looks as if it were designed to look good from across the street as you drive by, with no regard to the traditional red brick, gabled entrance structure of the post office next door, or the predominate style of architecture on Beacon Street as a whole, the bowed front townhouse made with red brick or stone. Next door, across Charles Street, is the beautiful Elizabeth P. Sears house a Colonial Revival built in 1889. Now, of course one would not expect this new building to mimic or reconcile all these divergent and powerful influences. But surely, with just a minimum of restraint and effort, a structure could have been designed that would have been both distinctive and harmonious.

But I concede that my comments so far are to some extent matters of taste, and perhaps there are those of you who love this new building! After all we do already have a jumble of styles going on and is some cases it actually works.

What I find most unsettling is the experience of walking past the building. Every building creates the public space around it. Here is where this building has failed its Beacon Street mission miserably. The smooth shiny solid granite slabs, forming a sharp angle (see photo above) as you approach from the west are nothing but hard and cold. There is no detail to attract your eye. It is an expanse of stone. The scale of the windows and granite "accents" is all wrong. It was designed for a distant viewer only, not someone walking by. Then there is the matter of the doors and windows. The first door is recessed, which makes it much more inviting, but the other door further down the building is not and therefore functions more like a window. The windows are too high off the ground to begin with. Because of the declining grade of the street, by the time you reach the end of the building the windows are very high. You are eye level with the window sill, with nothing but a rough stone wall with a fire hose connection pressing in on you. The cold hard materials of the building are overwhelming your experience.

All of these details may seem small. But the effect they have on how we relate to the building and its contents are profound. How comfortable are we standing on the street window-shopping? Do we feel welcomed or threatened. Does the store and its merchandise reach out to us and communicate with us as we pass, creating a feeling of community? These are basic biological responses.

Now is we compare these features with the features of those buildings elsewhere in Coolidge Corner we identify the significant differences. Just what is it about the design of the shops along Harvard Street or elsewhere on Beacon Street that make it so pleasurable to walk along the sidewalk to window shop, see friends, shop, etc.? Look at the pictures of Paper Source and the portion of Harvard Street north of the Arcade above. In both of these cases and throughout the district shop windows are positioned low, not more than 1 to 2 ft above the ground. Doorways are recessed and frequent, making the entrances easily identifiable and increasing the display area for the store. A pleasing rhythm or "articulation" of the building frontage is created, and even if the store itself is large, frequently recessed doors helps break-up the frontage wall, maintaining this visual and spatial rhythm. The awnings add a nice softening touch too, and help shops express identity. We are fortunate to have inherited these older buildings in their setting of a tightly woven street grid.

If we implemented a few basic building guidelines, our new structures could continue to create the inviting and visually stimulating human scaled shopping area we enjoy elsewhere in Coolidge Corner. We could prevent another building with the types of problems we see at 1285 Beacon Street from occurring again in the future. For instance, by specifying the maximum height that store front windows should be located off the sidewalk, (for instance 12" - 24"), requiring entryways to be recessed by at least 2 ft. and specifying that recessed doorways would occur approximately every 20 ft. new buildings would have those key features that are all important to creating the look and feel of a pleasing walkable shopping district. Build-to lines would maintain a consistent building frontage line and height maximums would ensure a human scaled proportion between building and street. Perhaps we would include specifications about window proportions and dimensions to avoid the problems of scale we see at 1285.

These types of prescriptive requirements would be welcome by both those designing the buildings and those reviewing those designs. It is all clear. We know what we want and the developer knows what we want, so they do not need to dread the never ending process of vague objections.

These types of ordinances are called form-based codes because they focus on the form of the building rather than just the use and basic mass of a building as traditional zoning does. This is in recognition of the fact that the form of the built environment creates our shared public realm. This is a seismic shift in how we regulate building and is a valuable tool that helps us create human-centered environments. If we wish to build a better Brookline, we should consider adopting this type of building ordinance.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sustainable Brookline Conference

Last Sunday a gathering was held at Wheelock College, called Sustainable Brookline. Coordinated by many individuals, most notably the ad hoc Steering Committee for a Sustainable Brookline, its stated mission was to "develop a coordinated strategy for making Brookline a truly sustainable community". Over 60 members of our community gave up their Sunday afternoon to meet, discuss and plan future coordinated actions. Don Weitzman of the Climate Change Action Committee ran the meeting with supreme efficiency, ensuring that everyone present was able to participate and the ideas continued to flow.

Many groups and individuals were represented. Each presented up to three "actions" that would bring Brookline closer to sustainability. Many, many good ideas came forward, some were clearly predictable, doable and valuable such as expanding recycling programs to businesses, others were more innovative and perhaps challenging to implement, such as the Conservation Commission's Green Streets program that seeks to manage storm water flows with vegetation. Building, energy and vehicle efficiencies were all pinpointed by numerous groups. Many spoke of the need to promote alternative transportation including bikes, transit and walking while reducing auto-dependence. Hugh Mattison spoke of the need to interest young people in street tree stewardship through a tree buddy program. The GreenSpace Alliance stressed the education of youth too in it's presentation, clearly thought was given to the need look ahead.

Our actions are intermeshed and carry rippling repercussions. Some of these connections were identified at the conference. Transportation Board policies impact the Bicycle Advisory Committee's planned bike routes. Implementing green building standards will redirect a building contractor's business. As my previous post outlines, our zoning ordinances' requirement for excessive parking has far reaching impacts on the livability of our community. Future discussions will hopefully bring into focus the benefits of promoting localized economies, food production and social structures.

And yet, the purpose of the gathering was no doubt in response to the growing awareness of the need for action to prepare for the changes that will undoubtedly come our way. Sitting in a room full of "environmentalists", (an antiquated term I feel because it now has a history of adversarial politics and "holier than thou" attitudes that have not been particularly constructive), took me back to the original Earth Day, I vividly recall participating in it. I was in grade school, I pinned a "Give Earth a Chance" button on my shirt and we cleaned up our play yard! It seems almost ridiculous that a species living on the planet had to have an Earth Day at all, but there it is, I guess we did. The river just down the street from my school churned and foamed a putrid green with the effluent from the paper mill just upstream. It eventually got cleaned up. I am sure everyone around me had similar memories. I recall too, learning in college courses about the true impacts of our industries and way of life. We studied natural resource economics, world food systems, community environmental field studies and resource dispute resolution, all trying to bring reason and humanity back to the center of things.

In truth we are all in this together, going along for the ride. We are all both part of the problem and potentially part of the solution. It was inspiring to see so many dedicated individuals who were truly trying to put forward positive solutions. I salute each and every one of you.

Perhaps future generations will read over the minutes of our meeting and think, "thank goodness they finally started to get their act together and tried to do something." Or perhaps they will say, "it was too late and they just didn't know it, and the things they talked about didn't make any difference anyway". There were those voices at the conference who urged a more drastic reaction and response. (Like what?, they didn't say.) Fear and panic do not seem very useful. While others spoke of the need to process and adjust. So in the end, I believe it was the middle road that was taken. A call for action within the state of things as we know them, never losing sight of the need to continually push ourselves for further progress.

While I do not have faith in technological solutions alone, as some do, I believe in our ability to adapt, change, evolve, and innovate. Solutions will be combinations of things more intertwined and complex than we can imagine, an infinitely dispersed network of problem solvers will come up with a great many things. So I guess I am a glass half full person. I thank the ad hoc committee for organizing the conference and look forward to seeing the progress we make working together towards a sustainable Brookline.