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.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Rethinking Coolidge Corner Lane Scheme

I have some serious concerns about the latest Transportation Board proposal for lane changes at the Harvard/Beacon intersection at Coolidge Corner.

The most recently proposed plan, to reduce the number of southbound Harvard Street lanes to one on the north side of Beacon St., remove the median on this same side of the intersection and add an additional northbound lane,  has come about as a result of focusing entirely on trying to solve the problem of gridlock or “blocking” that occurs regularly at this intersection. While this is a serious problem, I do not think the proposed solution will be effective, nor does it address the most prominent contributing factor. However, in addition to these shortcomings, I fear we have overlooked some of the serious negative consequences likely to result from this narrowly focused attempt to “fix the problem”.

We can surely all agree that there is a heavy volume of vehicle traffic flowing North on Harvard St. Beyond this point, I fear there are as many opinions as there are individuals. My professional experience leads me to the conclusion that there are two principle reasons why the traffic fails to clear the intersection before the green signal activates (and then frustrates) the westbound Beacon St. flows. Number one is the simple fact that two lanes of traffic must merge into one. Allowing a bit more space for this to occur by having an additional lane accepting traffic on the far side of the intersection will not sufficiently accommodate the merging traffic. To complicate things, your proposal retains curbside parking here. While I support maintaining the parking for its traffic calming and pedestrian buffer functions, the “friction” caused by parking vehicles and the inevitable double parkers will minimize the effectiveness of the scheme you are proposing if your goal was to maximize traffic flow through this bottle neck.

A much more effective solution would be to eliminate the two to one lane merge all together by making the northbound right hand lane on the south side of Harvard for right turns and buses only. That way only one through lane would be crossing Beacon St. to begin with. Yes, this will extend queue’s on Harvard St. A don’t block the box treatment and enforcement would be necessary at Longwood. Otherwise, there is sufficient storage capacity for the resulting queue. Yes, traffic will back up on Harvard, it already does, but the “flow” will be regulated before it enters the intersection at Beacon and the problem will be eliminated.

Another contributing factor to the gridlock problem relates to the width of Beacon St. It appears that the signal timing does not adequately compensate for this. It appears that some vehicles entering the intersection on the yellow (and sometimes red) do not have adequate time to travel the full distance to clear the intersection, regardless of or made worse by the delay at the merge. If the clearance time were lengthened, that is if the signal on Beacon St. simply stayed red longer, drivers would be spared the frustration.

Even if, after considering my comments you still believe the proposed changes will work for the limited goal of moving more vehicles through this very small segment of our roadway network, I ask that we take a moment to stand back and ask ourselves what our overall goal should be and what the wider consequences from this change may be.

Coolidge Corner is, for many a vital transportation and commercial hub. Thousands of commuters from the T stream through daily, stopping at shops and restaurants on their way. Thousands more visit daily from home on foot. It is for their comfort and safety that I object to this scheme. The median in the middle of Harvard Street is a vital refuge for many a pedestrian, especially those who have difficulty speedily crossing in front of impatient drivers. I think it should be extended rather than eliminated. Consider also the effect of combining the through and right turn lane in the southbound direction. Who hasn’t been walking across the street, only to hear the car behind the car waiting for you lay on its horn? The volume of pedestrians is heavy at this intersection. We should be really glad for the high pedestrian volume because if each one those people were in a car, they would be taking up 60 times more space than they do on foot, none of us would be going anywhere.

Because of the heavy volume of pedestrians, right turning vehicles will sometimes wait a long time before they can turn, thus blocking the through travel. How patient will those drivers be after waiting through a light or two? How safe, comfortable or relaxed will the pedestrian crossing the street in front of those drivers be?

Already, the automobile is favored over the pedestrian at this intersection. There is no protected pedestrian phase, despite the heavy pedestrian volume. Many times car drivers play dodgem trying to turn through a group of pedestrians. All of this is particularly menacing for elderly or disabled people. Most people have no idea that they must press the very distant button (which is often blocked by snow mounds) to get a walk signal. They either wait and wait, or finally give up and go. This is especially problematic for parents with young children who are trying to teach their kids how to cross safely using the signal. If we make it more difficult and dangerous and unpleasant to walk, which I think this scheme does, we are “shooting ourselves in the foot” in terms of mitigating congestion or maximizing the capacity of our infrastructure, as walkers will take to cars because they no longer feel safe. Infrastructure is a precursor to activity. Make room for more cars and you get more cars. Make it more pleasant to walk and more people will walk. It is that simple. Make Coolidge Corner more people friendly and you get more people.

Paying attention to and giving greater accommodation to those on foot focuses our attention on the human scale and impacts the quality of everyone’s experience in Coolidge Corner. We have a choice. Can we find a balance between accommodating the through traffic and making Coolidge Corner a people place? I hope so.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SHIFTBoston Ideas Competition

On the frigid eve of January 14, 2010 the Institute of Contemporary Art was the setting for unveiling of the winners of the SHIFTBoston ideas competition. I was there. It was fun. Lots of folks who love the city, many of them unemployed architects, were enjoying the shared buzz of dreaming and creating a more lively and meaningful city. Check out the winners and significant contributions at the website below.

The brief for the competition, (from their website, says this:

Let’s make Boston dynamic!

The SHIFTboston Ideas Competition 2009 called on all architects, artists, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers and anyone to submit their most provocative wild visions for the City of Boston: WHAT IF this could happen in Boston?

SHIFTboston seeks to collect visions that aim to enhance and electrify the urban experience in Boston. Innovative, radical ideas for new city elements such as public art, landscape, architecture, urban intervention and transportation. Competitors were encouraged to explore topics such as the future city, energy efficiency and ecological urbanism.

This competition is intended to collect and inspire. The goal is to attract greater public interest in future possibilities for the urban environment of Boston. We want to inspire and engage the city community while encouraging positive awareness and a hunger for change. We believe a collective desire to push boundaries and challenge the familiar are the necessary seeds with which to grow a more dynamic city!

We seek to drive a SHIFT in thinking, perception, attitude, definition, process, method, planning, and organization in order to re-energize Boston’s urban environment. We are here to move Boston forward. Be part of the SHIFT!

Despite their plea for open endedness, the brief actually gave a lot of direction, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but it is easy to see in hind sight how the entrees fit within the topics. I actually think they did a good job of provoking a direction just enough to contain the range, while still encouraging creativity. Remember too that entries were visually rendered. The world as defined by trained architects. So while the competition was named an "Ideas" competition, the realm of possible ideas was clearly visual/spatial. Again, not a bad thing, but a niche nonetheless. A reshaping of the world achieved through building or using space in a different way. To be able to enter, a person needed to have a profound mastery over rendering software, so the universe of possible entrants was delineated.

Some clear themes emerged. 1) Active use of public space. Such as urban farming on the Greenway, floating temporary park barges, or the winner, which proposed turning the unused Tremont subway tunnel into a theater space. 2) Interactive environments, using technology in response to natural forces to heighten our awareness of our environment. Such as the wind and light responsive dynamic light display in Fort Point Channel, or the harbor cleaning floating responsive technological play/learn barge. 3) Responses to climate change, these ranged from the simply profound blue chalk "water line" marking the new water level after sea levels rise, to the adaptive response to flooded land that proposed an acceptance of change rather than resistance. The green underpass walls, wind and water technology collaborative learning center and shared use kayaks hinted at an acknowledgment of building a more "harmoniously integrated" environment. A profound reawakening of our relationship to the ocean seems destined for our future, and was on the minds of many entrants.

After introducing the judges,  presenting the runners up and discussing the "dominant entry themes" the event's MC Brian Healy yielded the floor to the political luminaries in the audience. There was a Boston City Council member, who liked what he say and spoke about the need for Boston to be attractive to young people, which meant creating more opportunities for active public life, and Kairos Shen, Boston's Chief Planner, who stressed realism perhaps more than anyone else there that night, all the while noting that if the mayor were here, he would be wildly happy. A representative of the State's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development pleaded for help and ideas for solving the problem of matching building opportunities that he oversees with truly creative talent. A valuable identification of a solvable problem, and I am sure many in the audience were more than happy to learn about a new source for employment opportunities.

While those present clearly yearned for a loosening of the restrictions and negativity that so often meets new ideas, there was no shortage of inspiration. The temporary nature of many of the proposals held out the greatest hope for implementation. What many fear, (and rightly so in many cases), is the imposition of "of the moment" fads and fancies of architects that will not stand the test of time and are hopelessly out of scale and context to their surroundings. Loss of meaning through destruction of our built heritage is not necessarily the best route forward. But there is also the need to create and to respond to present needs and life styles. The ideas generated here, pose a third alternative with their innovative, and often temporary re-use and re-claiming of unused and unwanted spaces and places. This seems particularly appropriate in our short-attention span era and somehow suits the needs of a limited energy , finite space and financially constrained reality. The cry for more human contact, interaction and fun was palpable. While striving to be futuristic, the entries were, in reality, sublimely of the moment.