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.

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