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.

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