Something Old, Something New

Simply Civics Brookline Bell

Like many Brookline and Boston apartments, our building is kind of old. We may complain that the heater doesn’t always work in the winter. But that’s part of the charm of living in a historic town– especially in New England.

Some buildings in Brookline are actually located in historic districts, a designation that comes with many implications for residents.

I went to my first Brookline Preservation Commission hearing on Monday night.

Luckily for me, it began with an overview of the hearing process and the task of the Commission. In brief, here’s his overview in a nutshell: The Commission is charged with enforcing both the Demolition Bylaw and the Historic District Bylaw. As I learned throughout the hearing, it’s no walk in the park.

Historical Significance

To start, if a homeowners applies for a demolition permit (or partial demolition), the Commission has to determine whether the building or garage is historically significant. According to the By-Laws, section 5.3.5, a building is historically significant if it’s:

  1. Located within any Local Historic District;
  2. Listed on or is within a area listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places; is eligible for listing on the National or State Registers of historic places; or is a building for which a preliminary determination of eligibility has been made by the Massachusetts Historical Commission;
  3. Associated with one or more significant historic persons or events, or with the broad architectural, cultural, political, economic, or social history of the Town or Commonwealth; or
  4. Historically or architecturally significant in terms of its period, style, method of building construction, or its association with a significant architect or building, either by itself or as part of a group of buildings.

If a building meets any of the four criteria, it’s considered historically significant and therefore the owner can’t demolish it. The Commission isn’t supposed to take into account any plans for after demolition, so they aren’t really supposed to ask what the property owners intend to build.

Permits Up for Debate

The Commission took up seven demolition cases at the hearing, ranging from garage demolition permits to full home demolition permits. Each time, we watched a powerpoint with pictures of the houses from different vantage points, including aerial views. We heard a lot about the history of each property and the original architects. I absolutely fell in love with one of the houses and I would move into it in a heartbeat if I could.

The Commission members discussed the architects’ legacies, the architectural styles, the materials and foundation of each house, the surrounding neighborhoods, and what a passersby could see from the street. They debated the very meaning of historical significance, and the extent of their power as a Commission.

As I listened to the homeowners, their reasons for demolition surprised me. A lot of their testimony was very personal and moving, involving aging parents, or houses sitting on the market without buyers.

As you may imagine, since the houses are historic, some of them are, well…very old. Therefore, architects did not build them to support today’s lifestyle.

For example, a Commission member described one house as “gorgeous but not livable.” Because this particular house had electrical heating, the homeowner pays about $1000 per month for heating in the winter. Similarly, in another case, engineers had deemed a garage unsafe because the roof was caving in. Under these circumstances, the family can’t park cars inside it because it’s too risky. They don’t want their daughter anywhere near it.

Preservation or Demolition?

Ultimately, the Commission approved some of the demolition permits. It’s sad. For one thing, some of the most endeared New England architects designed those houses. Each home tells its own unique story. As I learned, it’s not easy to parse out the most “historically significant” few homes from the many. Indeed, each house or neighborhood contributes its own character to the Brookline community.

I’ll surprise my family with these words…But sometimes change can be good. Especially when a little change can make a home much safer, environmentally-friendly, and livable.

The Commission and residents approached each case with such respectful dialogue. Throughout the hearing, they walked a careful line, to preserve our history yet be open to change when necessary.

As they walked out of Town Hall on Monday night, some of the residents had a go-ahead to pursue demolition. Others will be back next month or next year to apply for a permit again. In essence, this is the local democratic process–slow and steady.

To hear about future Brookline Preservation Commission meetings or hearings, subscribe to alerts here.

To end, I’ll share some wisdom from William Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”

Sometimes a little change goes a long way.

Jane Jacobs & River Road

Simply Civics

25 Washington Street, Brookline

Boston Urban Analysis was one of my favorite undergraduate classes at Boston College. It was an elective offered through PULSE, the academic service-learning program at BC. David Manzo, the course instructor, taught us about what makes an urban community, particularly Boston, thrive. We spent the second half of the semester downtown, walking the sidewalks of Boston and seeing for ourselves how residential, commercial, and public spaces interplay in a city.

Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a pillar of the Urban Analysis curriculum. I highly recommend that you add it to your summer civic reading list. If you read it, or have read it, let me know because I’d love to hear your thoughts!

To begin with, Jacobs’ book was a reaction to rationalist urban planning policies in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those implemented by Robert Moses in New York City. She was a leader of community-based urban planning. Here’s a link to the 1961 New York Times book review.

To break it down, Jacobs wrote about the 4 generators of diversity in an urban neighborhood:

  • Mixed primary uses;
  • Short blocks;
  • Buildings of various ages; and
  • Density of people.

Two years after first reading the book, Jacobs’ ideas still resonate with me. I’ve been thinking about what they would mean for an urban community like Brookline, which is not very diverse but which I believe should aspire to be in the future.

With these four generators in mind, I walked into the River Road Study Committee Public Hearing on Monday night in Brookline Town Hall.

Planning Parcels

River Road is next to where Route 9 and Brookline Ave meet. With the Emerald Necklace and Jamaicaway to the east and Brookline Village to the west, River Road is an awkwardly shaped, narrow “island” with a few commercial properties. Here’s a map so you can visualize the area. I find its odd shape really fascinating.

To put it simply, Brookline is considering rezoning the area for redevelopment. Claremont Corporation purchased a parcel of the district, 25 Washington Street, with the intention of building a hotel on the corner of Brookline Ave and Washington Street. Currently, the Zoning By-Law doesn’t permit a hotel on the parcel, so the town is looking at options for a zoning overlay. Basically, a zoning overlay is a special zoning district, where a town can adopt specific provisions in the zoning for a specified area.http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/pulse.html

Constraints & Opportunities

As Brookline considers redevelopment, the ommittee and the Planning Department are facing a few constraints. First, there just so happens to be existing stores and businesses on the parcel. Next, there is a storm water easement in the middle of the “island.” Third, the land happens to be in a FEMA flood zone. Fourth, the building height is capped at 40 feet. Furthermore, planning for parking ramps has proven to be immensely challenging. All this being said, there are enormous opportunities to redevelop the property.

Picture this: enhanced pedestrian amenities, storefronts, and new residential properties, landscaped with sidewalk trees and grass inspired by the nearby Emerald Necklace.

Massing Models & Schemes

Developing it will be a challenge, but the committee and interested town residents seem committed to the project’s success.

Throughout the meeting, I listened to members of the committee and representatives from Claremont cover a lot of ground in their presentations. They talked about current market conditions and other financial feasibility factors, the capitalization rates on the parcel, draft overlay zoning, the landscape plans and massing models, architectural schemes, and next steps to the plan. The massing models looked pretty neat!

I had never before seen people so consumed by parking plans. Parking is a hot issue in Brookline. By statute, every residential unit must have two parking spaces. (Quick note: at two of the three community events I’ve attended, people have brought up the idea of revisiting this statute at the next Town Meeting. We’ll see!)  Since there is an easement in the middle of the “island,” the committee has had to think strategically and creatively. Therefore, they’re plotting out where to position parking ramps, how many floors of parking there should be, whether a hotel  could share parking with other commercial properties on the parcel, etc. It sounds like they’ve come up with a solution that works with the space. I’ll trust the experts on this one!

To conclude the presentation, representatives from Claremont presented schemes of the proposed hotel. I personally liked a scheme where the height of the building drops off towards the Emerald Necklace. The tallest part of the hotel would be at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Washington Street. That’s just my preference!

What would Jacobs think?

After the presentation, the committee opened the hearing up to public comment. It was really heartwarming to hear from residents about their priorities in the area. This is where Jane Jacobs comes in.

To recap, Jane Jacobs wrote about 4 generators of diversity: mixed primary use, short blocks, buildings of various ages, and density of people.

From what I gathered during public comment, Brookline residents want to see mixed uses along River Road. They want a mix of residential and commercial properties, and possibly a hotel with an outdoor cafe. Also, they want a high density of people, diverse businesses, and green space.

Next, the streets in Brookline aren’t laid out in a grid, so the short blocks idea doesn’t really apply in this case. However, Jacobs wrote a lot about wide sidewalks. That was certainly a focus of the meeting. To the extent possible, the sidewalks will be wide and lined with trees. One resident proposed having a gelato café on the parcel. That would be lovely!

I would venture to guess that Jacobs would probably have some concerns with the redevelopment, though. She would ask what will happen to the businesses already there. Will they be included in the project? This committee has thus far proven to be very collaborative, both in tone and in gathering public input, so I hope this will continue to be the case.

Key Tenets

Not only has the committee been collaborative, but so have the residents. The residents have expressed a genuine interest in seeing the project succeed and fit the character of Brookline. The public comments on Monday were very thoughtful. Again and again, I heard residents thank the committee for all the work they’ve done so far.

The types of questions residents posed were really productive and rigorous, too. In other words, they put the committee and Claremont to the test. How can the plan enhance the nearby cycling path? Also, will the café be a spot that local residents will want to go to, or just guests of the hotel? What will happen to the existing users on the property? Will there be more traffic? How will we support Brookline’s portion of the Emerald Necklace through this project?

Actually, cherishing the Emerald Necklace was a major theme. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks through Boston and Brookline. The thinnest part of the Necklace happens to be in Brookline, right next to the River Road parcel.

Throughout their productive comments, the residents taught me some pretty valuable tenets of civic engagement. Briefly, I learned that in order to effect policy locally:

  1. Get to know the character of your town,
  2. Show up to meetings,
  3. Voice your perspective, and
  4. Collaborate with others to build a vision.

next Steps

If you’re interested in learning more about the River Road project, here’s the committee site. Once the minutes from Monday’s meeting are approved, those and the presentations will be posted on the site.

I’ll share a tip I learned the other day, too, for getting and staying involved in Brookline. To hear about future meetings, subscribe to the committee alerts here. You can choose which committees and boards to subscribe to. I may have subscribed to many committees already….

Someday in the near future, I could be one of those active residents who contributes meaningfully at a public hearing through public comment. You can also in your own community!

The River Road Study Committee has accomplished a lot the past 5 months. It’ll be interesting to see how the project progresses. Soon there could be a hotel, businesses, apartments, and who knows, maybe a gelato café!