Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What's With the Gray Box?

It's hard to miss the unique new structures going up around the former Presbyterian Church on the corner of Harvard Street and Pierce Street. These days, lots of folks passing through Brookline Village or visiting Town Hall, Pierce School or the Library stop dead in their tracks and gaze up at the strange, almost windowless gray cube that seems to almost float, detached from its surroundings, hugging the sidewalk. The exterior material appears to be something with a matte finish that resembles cardboard and despite its cube-like visage, its shape actually includes a jaunty angle or two.

We learn from the sign posted on the corner of Harvard and Pierce that this is part of the new Community Center addition for the Korean Church at this site. In addition to the gray cube the site design includes an extensive concrete wall surrounding a "plaza" and an overly large modern structure with anti-angled roof next to a house on Holden St., right across the street from Town Hall. The illustrations from the project boards, while giving the improbable bird's-eye viewing angle, nevertheless, illustrate something of the finished products. (I digress here to note that these types of presentation views fail to offer any insight whatsoever as to what the buildings will look like from the point of view of a person walking past on the sidewalk, or from down the street or for that matter driving past. Therefore, those charged with reviewing the proposal must be able to read the plans and drawings and envisage the resulting experience for themselves).

It is hard to see how these structures "fit" into the context of their surroundings. While this is not a blanket condemnation of modern architecture, I have to say there was no attempt to design the buildings or to design the site layout in a way that would in any way create a pleasing street scape or pedestrian experience. In fact, I don't think the building's users will find much delight here either, considering all that harsh concrete, lack of windows and strangely shaped interior space. As a pedestrian on Harvard St. we are confronted with a form molded concrete wall, getting taller as we proceed southward until it is eye level or higher before we get to the cube, which seems strangely shoved to the sidewalk's edge, despite the lack of structural bulk between it and the church building. Walking along Pierce Street, as the new formed concrete wall begins, we are treated to what seems destined to become a large electrical service box (the base for the box is there now), placed right in the former front lawn of the existing church building.

As for the Holden St. side of the project. Imagine living in that house next to the seemingly massive, wedged-in-there oddly angled building. It appears that this structure too will have a similar exterior material. What was once a residential setting has become something else altogether. This structure no more relates to the church than it does to the house on the other side of it. It seems to be deliberately designed to be as distinct as possible. Are we dealing with Brookline's own version of a "starachitect". An attempt by a singular personality to make waves by creating a structure so unique that it can't be ignored? Why would we want that here, in this closely knit setting of historic homes, businesses and public buildings?

The cube itself is a monolithic presence, kind of like a big stereo speaker in a room of antique furniture, as we look across the street to the fine historic red brick buildings, with their inviting doors and windows, fine detailing and timeless simplicity. It would have been entirely possible to design a modern structure that nonetheless fit in this setting. Had it had some elements remotely in common with the structures in the vicinity, namely the original church, the house on Holden, or the brick buildings on Harvard, be it materials, height, massing, roof height and angle, the rhythm of windows, shape, form, etc. But these structures have none of these.

Just what is that material that the cube is made of? I believe the architect said it was a colored "cementitious" material, but I must say it doesn't look as if it will weather very well.

So how did this project get approval? Our zoning ordinance includes special consideration for building proposals on Harvard St., calling for additional design review. This is obviously in recognition of the need to "get it right" when it comes to designing for this prime Brookline Village location. The zoning for the site is G 2.0 which allows a building floor area that is twice the lot area, a maximum height of 45 ft. and has no set back or open space requirements. So, almost anything could meet the bare minimum of the zoning, hence the need for the design review and one of its key standards, "Relation of Buildings to the Form of the Streetscape and Neighborhood" which states that the proposed development shall be consistent with the use, scale, yard setbacks and architecture of existing buildings and the overall streetscape of the surrounding area.

When I asked a Planning Board member about this project, I was told that this development was brought to us courtesy of the Dover Amendment. The Dover Amendment (M.G.L. Chapter 40A Section 3) is a state law that states that "No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes or for educational purposes on land owned or leased by the commonwealth or any of its agencies, subdivisions or bodies politic or by a religious sect or denomination, or by a nonprofit educational corporation; provided, however, that such land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures and determining yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking and building coverage requirements."

As I understand it, the main purpose behind the Dover amendment is to disallow local governments the option of denying (or making such restrictive requirements that it amounts to a denial) building permits to churches and educational institutions. It is assumed that this is needed to counterbalance the preferential treatment that local government permitting bodies might bestow on taxable developments over non-profits. As in the case of affordable housing, it is thought that the competition between local communities for tax dollars creates a disincentive for allowing the publicly beneficial or necessary functions that non-profits bring. It is a blunt club trying to even the playing field. There have also been arguments made that the Dover amendment is needed to prevent discrimination against certain faiths or ethnic groups, etc. As with most laws, the true meaning is derived through case law as those left to interpret its meaning become embroiled in disputes about the meaning of various aspects, such as whether or not the building is "integral to the mission" of the educational institution or just how "unregulated" does the project have to be. The give and take between local governments and religious and educational institutions wishing to build and expand has of course led to a continuous parsing of the finer points of interpretation of this bit of legal code.

A question in this case might be are the "community center" buildings that comprise the church expansion "integral to the exercise of their religion"? The house of worship already exists. These buildings are to accommodate various community functions. If they are not integral to the practice of their religion, than they would not be protected under the Dover Amendment and their design could be made to comply with the above mentioned design standards.

These buildings probably do meet those limited elements of our zoning code that can be regulated under Dover, (height, bulk, lot coverage, etc.). However, it is nonetheless common for towns to seek dialogue and review on project proposals.

In the case of this project the architect was asked to appear before our Planning Board for a "courtesy" design review. Amazingly enough, it turns out that for the most part, our Board members said they liked the design. I doubt seriously that our Board members were able to conceive in their minds eye the way this project actually looks from the various angles we are destined to experience it, such as what the concrete wall will be like to walk next too for half a block, or how "detached", ill-placed and odd the cube looks from the perspective of the pedestrian walking on Harvard. Had they done so, I would hope they would have realized just how "out of context" and frankly ridiculous this project really is, and armed with that visage of the future, they might have tried to negotiate for a better design, or looked into the question of Dover applicability a bit more robustly.

Here is what our Planning Board members said about this project's design, as quoted from the minutes of their 04/18/07 meeting with Brian Healy, the project's architect.

"Linda Hamlin said she likes the modern design of the building, and
appreciates the strategy to address adjacent buildings in the residential
and commercial areas. Linda Hamlin said she is concerned about the
concrete wall along Harvard Street, and replacing the existing stone wall,
in regards to maintenance and friendliness. Brian Healy said he
understands her concerns with the wall, and says he will do mock-ups to
select the best design. Linda Hamlin asked about the windows on the east
elevation. Brian Healy clarified, and showed the Board the plans and
elevations. Steve asked about the height of the wall. Brian Healy said
it will be from 3’ to 5’ in height. Steve said he also appreciates a
modern design, but has also shares Linda Hamlin’s concerns about the
concrete wall. Steven Heikin said he does not feel the design addresses
the residential and commercial contexts of the two streetscapes. Kenneth
Goldstein said he likes the design on Harvard Street, but feels the design
on Holden Street elevation does not address the residential character of
the street.

Jerome Kampler said he is not a fan of modern architecture. Jerome
Kampler said he was concerned the house on Holden Street would see a
concrete wall out of their north windows. Kenneth Goldstein agreed, and
said the addition is not residential in character. Jerome Kampler asked
why they weren’t taking advantage of the windows on the south side. Brian
Healy said they wanted to better utilize the play of light within the
chapel by keeping the wall dark.

Linda Hamlin said she felt the building scale was appropriate considering
the institutional nature of the area. Jerome Kampler said he felt no
residential neighbor would want to open a window and see a blank concrete

The architect has been described to me as "arrogant", and it may be that, because of the Dover protections, the Town would not have been able to gain any concessions on this unfortunate design. But I would have liked to think that our public servants (planning board, town councel, planning staff, etc.) would have more clearly seen that this design was a negative for the village and pursued all avenues to seek a better result. I don't think that happened and now we are stuck with it for a very long time.