Can A Commercial Hub Refocus East Boston’s Maverick Square?

By Benjamin Paltiel, Custom Content Writer at BisNow, in conjunction with Form + Place

Published in BisNow on September 17 2019

Rendering of Maverick Corner, looking along Maverick and Chelsea Streets

Rendering of Maverick Corner, looking along Maverick and Chelsea Streets

East Boston is having a moment. The neighborhood, which for years has been a relative backwater for real estate, is now piquing the interest of developers who see potential in its proximity to public transit and picturesque water views.

But an emphasis on multifamily buildings has kept East Boston largely a bedroom neighborhood that lacks many of the commercial services that draw in modern city dwellers.

Maverick Corner, a new commercial project developed by Linear Retail and designed by Newton-based architecture and planning firm Form + Place, is hoping to capitalize on new demand for businesses and reshape how residents experience the neighborhood.

“Great neighborhoods come from having a mix of people working, living, eating, shopping and taking part in civic life, all in close proximity,” said John Rufo, principal at Form + Place. “Maverick Corner was the logical next step in the neighborhood’s resurgence.”

Numerous large apartment buildings have sprung up along the waterfront periphery of East Boston, with names like The Eddy, Portside and Clippership Wharf. But away from the water, around the Maverick Square T station, the sites are smaller and development has been more granular.

Planted at the northeast corner of Maverick Square, Maverick Corner hopes to become the nucleus of a more vibrant East Boston. Plans are for the project, recently approved by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, to include a café, a fitness tenant, and a restaurant with a third-floor deck and views of the Boston skyline.

Rufo sees this development leading the charge in East Boston's resurgence, but noted that Maverick Corner's design has purposefully drawn inspiration from its surroundings. As the development team worked through the neighborhood review process, the project evolved from a two-story building with a contemporary glass and steel exterior into a more substantial three-story building with a brick and stone facade that recalls the brick row houses in the area.

Maverick Corner from Chelsea Street, showing the building’s three elevation profiles

Maverick Corner from Chelsea Street, showing the building’s three elevation profiles

"Every time we consulted with people in the community, they offered constructive feedback, and the building got better and better,” said Joel Kadis, partner at Linear Retail, the developer behind Maverick Corner. “They really wanted something they could identify as belonging in Maverick Square, and I think we achieved that."

One of the biggest surprises of neighborhood review was that longtime locals wanted the project to be bigger. Even as they worked to preserve the feel of their neighborhood, Kadis said, there was a clear demand and need for more businesses.

To help the development feel organic and compatible with its East Boston home, Form + Place broke up the massing of the building, so that the structure appears to be composed of three distinct buildings. Though it has a larger floor plate than its neighbors, it does not seem to dwarf them, instead blending smoothly into Chelsea Street and Maverick Street, two of the neighborhood's main thoroughfares.

While the idea of a residential building at Maverick Corner was floated numerous times, Linear Retail was resolute that East Boston needed a commercial re-centering, and Form + Place helped Linear realize that goal.

“Our process starts with listening deeply to the developer’s goals, but also listening closely to the community’s needs and aspirations,” Rufo said. “Maverick Corner is really part of a larger mixed-use, transit-oriented project that encompasses the whole neighborhood.”

While Maverick Square still has a long way to go before it can be called bustling, its growth has been foreshadowed. Beyond Maverick Square, Form + Place's community building efforts have continued to help breathe new life into neighborhoods around Boston.

In Winthrop, Form + Place’s recent master plan, produced in conjunction with MassDevelopment, is fostering the first mixed-use developments in the town's heart. And in Watertown, the firm was involved in the creation of a new mixed-use district along the Arsenal Street corridor, best known for the development of Arsenal Yards.

In its architecture, planning and rezoning efforts, Form + Place draws inspiration from the local context to help each area maintain a unique feel.

“In the planning and design world, we’ve been talking about placemaking for more than a decade,” Rufo said. “Now developers are catching on and realizing the difference it can make in driving the revitalization of areas that need it most.”


This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Form + Place. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

Declining Volunteerism and the Case for Connectivity through Mixed-Use Density

By John Rufo

We were intrigued by a story in CityLab by Linda Poon last week where the cause and effect of a national decline in the rate of volunteerism was connected to lower rates of home ownership and higher levels of economic stress. Decline in volunteering rates however fell more steeply in rural and suburban areas than in urban areas, suggesting that higher levels of economic distress and social isolation may be more common outside of urban areas. Robert Grimm director of the Do Good Institute says the Social Capital Index measures how “connected a community is” by looking at such data points as “how often residents volunteer in a given year, the number of civic and social organizations per 1,000 people, and how much members trust one another”. In urban areas, where decline in volunteer rates was evident, lower homeownership rates were a common theme. “You can imagine that if you buy a home in a community, you tend to be more anchored to it, and be in it long-term,” says Grimm. “Historically, those kinds of behaviors have led people to be more engaged.”

As architects and planners we asked ourselves what steps should the design and development community be taking to foster community building and engagement? As we strive to solve the housing crisis, how is community connectivity impacted by more rental housing and less home ownership? The inevitability of increased density and a lower rate of home ownership that is the natural result of development in urban areas, does not have to lead to less connectivity.  

Civic spaces transformed for teaching, learning, shopping and connecting

Civic spaces transformed for teaching, learning, shopping and connecting

Advocating for good mixed-use design is one important ingredient in pushing back against disconnected communities. Thoughtful mixed-use planning emphasizes synergy between commercial and residential uses. Successful mixed-use developers will tell you that amenitizing a project with commercial tenants that residents want to be near is a no-brainer. Likewise, retail tenants, restaurants included, want to know how many “roof tops” (read “dwelling units where people sleep”) are in walking or easy commuting distance from the project.  While initially the goal of the developer is getting deals done and securing a financial return on the investment, today’s enlightened developers will tell you that the over-arching mechanism making all this possible is integration and connectivity to the larger community.

Well-designed edges fronting on green space and the Time Out Market at 401 Park Drive Boston

Well-designed edges fronting on green space and the Time Out Market at 401 Park Drive Boston

In our experience community connectivity is strengthened when the citizens of a neighborhood can take symbolic ownership of the public realm, even when it is owned and programmed by a private developer. Spaces that invite you in, provide synergy with ground floor businesses and allow for art and engaging programming will ultimately be identified as a key part of the neighborhood. Historically these spaces have played host to speeches, community action, recreation and moments of serendipitous connections. Today they might play the same role or be a place for an outdoor yoga class, a kid’s fair or a farmer’s market. Programming flexibility is key as are well designed edges that people want to occupy.

Davis Square, Somerville + Depot Square, Upper Falls Newton - Small urban spaces programmed for community events, art and leisure

Davis Square, Somerville + Depot Square, Upper Falls Newton - Small urban spaces programmed for community events, art and leisure

While not all projects can satisfy every community’s wish list for favorite tenants and project design, if a development team listens long enough and carefully enough to a community, it can glean the general ethos of a neighborhood and use this as a litmus test for programming and design decisions in an effort to find common ground. At Form + Place our strategy for community building is to creatively engage all voices to find an optimal balance between certainty and flexibility in the development process.

Mixed-use development and careful neighborhood visioning can also yield another critical tool in combating social isolation as evidenced in phenomena like declining volunteer rates.  Projects developed in urban areas with good access to public transportation can cut down on commuting time of residents. “Commuting time is also connected to how people give,” says Linda Poon of City Lab. “The longer it takes people to get to work, the less time they spend on their community and civic obligations.”

It’s interesting to think about this aspect of connectivity in conjunction with the gig economy. “When fewer people engage with each other, that’s where you’re going to have a greater level of social isolation and lower levels of trust in each other” Says Grimm. This may be why co-working and retail co-working have been such popular trends of late. While more of today’s workers may be sole practitioners or connected to very small organizations with little or no workspace footprint, people still want to be around other people. Retail co-working – the use of restaurant spaces that are inactive during the day as co-working space - is a fascinating answer to the isolation problem. A restaurant space by its very nature creates an ambiance of social interaction. Allowing that space to be utilized as a workplace in off hours is a kind of sustainable response to the need for connection and neighborhood resource utilization.

 
Spacious – The Milling Room – Upper West Side New York – Open daily 8:30 to 5:00

Spacious – The Milling Room – Upper West Side New York – Open daily 8:30 to 5:00

 

Each city, each town, each neighborhood is different and the attributes that define their character are varied in nature and ever changing. With so much in flux it’s a wonder we can ever feel that a particular project got it right or that an effort to move the needle will bear fruit. But we think that the need for flexibility can be one of the great catalyzing qualities of a development project. Knowing that some tenants will turn over, that economies will change, that fads and styles are ever evolving, and that community consensus will shift, necessitates and inspires us to begin with dialogue and pledge our selves to a continuing conversation.

Newton to Implement Design Guidelines to Help Permit Complex Mixed-use Developments

By Michael A. Wang

The City of Newton, Massachusetts is in the process of simultaneously permitting two large-scale redevelopment projects – Northland Newton and Riverside Station – both of which consist of more than one million square feet, including a variety of commercial uses and a significant amount of multi-family residential product. The projects have interesting similarities in that they are both sited in “gateway” locations along the Rt. 128 corridor and rely on a compact urban approach to development which, in addition to density, focuses on creating a new public realm of streetscapes and open spaces.

Northland Site along the Needham Street Corridor + Riverside Station Site adjacent to Route 128

Northland Site along the Needham Street Corridor + Riverside Station Site adjacent to Route 128

Recent local community visioning efforts for both areas have helped to identify similar overarching goals for redevelopment that include preferred land use, environmental health and transportation issues. Each site, however, also presents unique qualities that need to be thoughtfully addressed. The Northland project bridges between the Needham Street commercial corridor and the Newton Upper Falls Village, and includes the historic Saco Mill Building, which the development team has chosen to embrace. Mark Development’s Riverside project, while in a more isolated context, will include the redesign of a highway interchange and the integration of an MBTA terminus station, along with its associated parking and multi-modal requirements.

 
Needham Street Area Vision Plan

Needham Street Area Vision Plan

 

The City of Newton, and their Planning & Development Department, has been forward-thinking in its approach to the approvals process for these complex redevelopment projects. One of the greatest challenges in permitting these types of projects is ensuring that the initial master plan vision for the site is consistently executed over the many years that neighborhood developments of this scale may be phased. Newton’s strategy for addressing this challenge has been to create a new set of Design Guidelines that will help the City evaluate each successive building permit application to determine if the evolving “sum of the parts” continues to work towards the original vision.

Form + Place, a Newton-based architecture and planning firm, which is an Urban Design On-Call Consultant for the City, has been working closely with the Planning & Development Department, as well as the projects’ proponents, to craft a Design Guidelines tool. The Guidelines, as currently developed for the Northland project, are structured to address architectural design and place-making issues at a range of scales, including at the District Level, the Block Level and the Building Level. Among the specific areas of focus, the Guidelines establish expectations for how the project will connect to its surrounding context, how public space will be designed and integrated, and how the finer grain details of streetscape design and building architecture will all work together to help realize a cohesive vision.

Newton’s Design Guidelines reference a range of contexts and architectural vernaculars

Newton’s Design Guidelines reference a range of contexts and architectural vernaculars

Unique place-making precedents from Storrs, Ct and South Boston waterfront

Unique place-making precedents from Storrs, Ct and South Boston waterfront

The intent of the Design Guidelines approach is to allow for Site Plan approval to occur without the complete details of the development’s design having been finalized. The framework is intended to give the City necessary assurances that the final execution of the project will be of the highest quality, while giving the developer some flexibility to respond to evolving market conditions over an extended period of time that may, for example, change the desired mix of uses. While approval will ultimately come from Newton’s Commissioner of Inspectional Services, “consistency” recommendations will be provided by Staff, Peer Reviewers, the Urban Design Commission and the Land Use Committee of the City Council using a new Design Guidelines Evaluation Template.

Having helped author a wide range of zoning mechanisms - including hybrid form-based codes, overlay districts and new mixed-use districts - for communities throughout the northeast corridor, Form + Place’s interest in facilitating context-appropriate redevelopment continues to be founded in the belief that form-making and place-making must be wholly integrated, and in touch with current economic development realities. At the root of Form + Place’s collaborative approach to community building is a fundamental understanding of how to find common ground between the development world and community goals that have been articulated in local area visions.

Integrated Form-Making: Crafting Buildings and Places with the Client and Community

By John Rufo

Whether in the adaptive reuse of an existing structure or ground-up development, built form often draws from its immediate context for initial design cues. The neighborhood that a project is designed for need not dictate style, material, or even scale, but ultimately the building and place it creates are always in dialogue with their surroundings. The process of design is not simply a straight line from context analysis to the realization of built form. Rather, it tends to be an exploration that pulls in many voices, influences and opinions. The process therefore needs to be crafted to weigh and integrate many ideas about space, form, place, materiality, function, time, etc… and the definition of “the design team” needs to include architects, developers, community stakeholders and proponents of the public realm. In the end all aspects of building design, from conceptual site planning to architectural detailing should reinforce a building’s form and help it become an integral part of its neighborhood.

1.      Reading the Neighborhood: Context as Precedent and Context as Place

What defines a neighborhood? Ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 answers. Is it a historic ethnicity? The combination of residential and commercial streets? A system of open spaces? The fabulous café on the corner that everybody knows? The scale of the buildings? The quality of the sidewalks? Yes… it’s everything. The neighborhood is always the place of the project, but should it be the precedent for form making? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. A project might have a very similar scale to adjacent buildings. Then again, it may be much larger or much smaller than nearby buildings. The design team can address this type of issue with massing elements that respond by breaking down the larger forms or accentuating the smaller ones. Similarly, the design team might feel the materials of a building need to be quite similar to the surrounding facades. Or they might decide it’s important to use a distinctly different palette of materials and a different overall style. The questions are many, and while the answers may not be directly drawn from the context, they certainly will impact the reading of place.

Main Street Combined 2.jpg

2.      Reading the Client: Instincts and Goals

As long as we have been in this business (+/- 30 years), it is still impressive to realize just how well our clients understand the context of the project and how much they’ve thought about just the right response to it. Because of this the owner of a project often exerts as much will on the form making as the architect. And, while most clients don’t read the context as trained designers, they sense the life of the neighborhood, they always know where they stand in the marketplace, and they’ve begun an internal intuitive response to it that is, in most instances, laser focused. Most of our projects, whether commercial or residential, typically feature some amount of retail / commercial space at the ground floor. Our clients tend to identify creating good sight lines to merchandise and creating flexibility of commercial leases as one of the important design goals. This immediately begins to influence initial ideas of form, transparency, solidity and visibility. Our clients, having read the context, understand through instinct and study what the most important view corridors are and how they’d like the building to present itself in those corridors.

Riverwalk Combined 1.jpg

3.      Synthesizing Goals into Form: A Balancing Act

Our job as designers is to read this analysis, balance it with our own instincts and explore the architectural impact of the resulting forms as the design process advances. For instance, if our client defines visibility as the most important issue, then should all ground floor facades be simple glass curtain walls that maximize transparency? Or in a certain context is it also important to integrate an architectural language of more traditional forms, such as masonry piers that frame storefronts in order to bring a variety of scales and material palettes to the immediate public realm? This might also create a certain kind of curb appeal, which may have a less measurable but still important impact on the quality of place, encouraging more people to stay longer, adding again to the sense of vitality and interest in the neighborhood. In this way a balanced dialogue within the design team might be the best tool for creating rich and diverse forms as well as inspired places.

Hyde Park Combined 1.jpg

4.      The Devil is in the Details… and the Teamwork

So how does that teamwork thing really work? Well… a project of any significant scale probably has a roster of team members that includes the client, architect, civil engineer, landscape architect, MEP engineer, structural engineer, lighting designer, etc. That’s a lot of opinions to weigh and take feedback from. Form-making in the conceptual phase may be mostly aspirational but is informed by a knowledge base of various design and performance requirements. As the project goes into documents and “becomes real” the performance criteria for aspects of the building such as the exterior wall systems, insulation values, light emittance, and others shape how the building is detailed. The interior has the same kinds of issue to wrestle with as structural systems, HVAC systems, life safety features and the quality of the architectural environment are coordinated to support the design vision and create a “code worthy” building. In the end, team synthesis is critical in the coordination of building systems that ultimately create the final built form.

The Visioning Process: Collaboration is Crucial to Success

By John Rufo

As a core tenet of our design practice we step back on a regular basis to assess the processes we employ to plan and design projects for our clients. From the outset, on any project, it is critical to create a vision that guides the project through its various design stages. What the public typically sees coming from the architects is an illustrated vision in the form of a master plan and renderings, but each project gets to that point through an integrated process that we’ve come to call Collaborative Visioning. In this process one can identify 4 key steps that take our clients and us through an open exploration - from goals to vision.

1.      Establishing a Foundation

Establishing the foundational underpinnings of any project is a twofold process that allows us to both understand our client’s goals and to gain an understanding of the project context. By the time our clients contact us about a potential new project, they’ve usually studied it exhaustively, so our first job is empathetic listening and careful documentation of goals and aspirations for the project. Sometimes ideas are very concrete and other times they can be quite amorphous in nature. On a parallel track to this task is the gathering of site data and impressions of the project context that will drive aspects of site development, as well as ideas about the experiential goals of the project.

2.      Translation of Program

Most clients come to us with a proposed set of uses for the project. It’s our job to work with the client to inventory these program pieces and sponsor an inquiry aimed at heightening the potential relationships between these uses. For instance, why is one kind of tenant a logical co-tenant with another? Sometimes the most critical synergies are not contained wholly within the building program. Sometimes they are the activities that are catalyzed on site by the interaction of various parts of the project and the context that it is set in. In fact this is the hallmark of the most successful development projects and something we relish at Form + Place. So, one of the most important questions we reach for is how the interaction between uses and site propel the simple statement of program to become a framework for developing an authentic experience of place.

3.      Diagramming

Diagramming is the first step in intuiting a reasoned response to the goal of creating an authentic experience of place. While the diagram itself, often a few squiggly lines and notes with a “fat marker” on trace, may seem to be very removed from an actual experience of place, it articulates the bones of potential form- and place-making strategies that inform the very real development of plan and massing. We tend to go back to the diagram again and again in the course of the visioning process to see if the evolution of the idea is living up to the energy and richness latent in the original sketch. We look for things like porosity, transparency, hierarchy and connectivity in the diagram that hint at how specific areas of the plan might develop into great public space or where to site the more iconic architectural elements of the design.

4.      Visioning

Ultimately the goal is always to define a project that can be understood spatially as well as aspirationally. The initial massing gestures need to transform into true architectural form-making, and the void spaces in the diagram need to take on real aspects of authentic place-making. The challenge is that creating a vision is an early step in the entire development process and often little is known about the building systems or the engineering behind the open spaces and landscape features. Therefore, the vision as illustrated is making certain leaps between what can be and what should be.

Six-Unit Renovation Provides Appropriately Priced Housing Options in Cambridge

By Meaghan Markiewicz

pic 1.jpg

In Cambridge, MA the median 1-bedroom rent price was $2,470 in 2017 – placing it as the most expensive city in Massachusetts,* double the nation’s average according to apartments list.com.** In a city such as Cambridge, with local amenities, public transportation, walkable streets and many other things desired by urban dwellers, it comes as no surprise the housing market is climbing through the roof. Renters often will need to search exhaustively and are still forced to sacrifice some standard of living unless they are willing and able to pay top dollar for new, renovated top of the line housing. As designers, we are often caught in the middle between high end projects and those subject to significant value engineering efforts. At Form + Place, we have found that proactive problem solving techniques and the collaboration of the design team can drastically change the outcome of a development. One of our recently completed projects on Clary Street in Cambridge represents how a relatively small project in the tight Cambridge housing market can do its part to provide high quality housing options at manageable rents.

pic 2 - 3 combined.jpg

Clary Street is a 6-unit full interior residential renovation project located just outside Inman Square. Each of the 3-bedroom unit layouts was reconfigured, increasing the overall efficiency of the interior spaces. In addition, all new appliances and fixtures were provided in the kitchens and baths as well as laundry in every unit. New technology such as Navien tankless water heaters, Nest thermostats and Latch door hardware provide tenants with innovative systems which increase energy efficiency and allow for convenient access through smart devices. To complete the units, finishes throughout were upgraded, providing a clean and open atmosphere for the tenants. These market rate units are significantly lower than the average rents in this market – setting this development apart from other projects.

pic 4 recomposed.jpg

In order to deliver units that have the look, feel and amenities of a higher-end project but on a limited construction budget, it took a collaborative team approach to design and execute. The developer, Capstone Communities LLC, has experience with and is focused on providing high quality projects throughout all their developments which include market rate, mixed-income and affordable housing. Reflecting on the project, Jason from Capstone Communities stated, “I am proud that we have put together a team that can provide high quality housing at a price point that is appropriate and desirable for those in the Cambridge area.” One Way Development, the minority-owned and operated construction contractor on the job managed a tight budget and aggressive schedule while maintaining high standards for craftsmanship and detailing.  With open communication between the design team which included the structural engineer, Siegel Associates – issues were addressed and problems were solved efficiently to produce quality living spaces. Form + Place, Capstone Communities LLC and One Way Development will continue to look to replicate the Clary street model for delivering market rate housing at reasonable prices, especially as the shortage of housing options multiplies every year.    

pic 5 - 6 combined.jpg

*     Boston Metro Report: March 2019, Crystal Chen, 2019-03-06, https://www.zumper.com/blog/2019/03/boston-metro-report-march-2019/

**      Apartment List National Rent Report, Chris Salviati, 2019-07-01, https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/national-rent-data/

Mindful City Building through Creative Placemaking

By Michael A. Wang

I recently participated in an Urban Land Institute [ULI] forum in Chicago on Implementing Creative Placemaking [CPM]. CPM is an innovative approach to placemaking that strives to integrate art and culture, along with great design, into real estate development projects early in the process. This two-day forum, which brought together developers, architects, planners and others from across the United States, took place on the South Side of Chicago and included an enlightening tour of the Grand Crossing neighborhood where Theaster Gates, an artist and professor at the University of Chicago, has been leading a unique community rebuilding effort.

 
Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, Grand Crossing Neighborhood, Chicago, IL

Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, Grand Crossing Neighborhood, Chicago, IL

 

Gates’ revitalization projects are the essence of Creative Placemaking, as his approach focuses on a process and values that are best described as mindful city building. This process actively engages members of the community to make conscientious interventions that find beauty through the repurposing of existing physical, cultural and social assets that are latent.

Forum participants were asked to contemplate how Creative Placemaking as a tool could become more accessible to the traditional development community, which is often more driven by return on investment. Among the barriers discussed were those that could be categorized as related to “time”, “language” and “trust”. With respect to time, Gates’ approach argues that one might “slow down to go fast”, thereby engaging in a more collaborative process that results in empowerment and mentoring. Traditional development tends to assume that “time is money” and, therefore, has an aversion to unknowns, including unpredictable approvals processes and zoning challenges, that can impact tangible returns.

 
Theaster Gates sharing his Dorchester Avenue projects in the Grand Crossing neighborhood

Theaster Gates sharing his Dorchester Avenue projects in the Grand Crossing neighborhood

 

“Language” can be a barrier as well, with the development community likely hesitant to incorporate Creative Placemaking tenets that they do not fully understand. Similarly, it can be challenging for artists and aspirational members of the community to fully comprehend the language of development and what is involved in navigating typically complex approvals processes.

“Trust” is perhaps the largest hurdle. Developers are often demonized and not given credit for the risks they are taking. Achieving community buy-in can often be challenged by NIMBYism and the fear that one’s neighborhood will be gentrified – physically and culturally – leading to displacement. Figuring out a mechanism to not only empower members of the community but to provide them with a means to realize some of the gain from revitalization efforts should be a continued focus.

 
Repurposing found resources and creating cultural gathering places

Repurposing found resources and creating cultural gathering places

 

Creative Placemaking holds tremendous potential to “lift all boats” when done thoughtfully. Digging deep to uncover a community’s essence and finding a way to incorporate cultural, social, historical aspects – through providing venues for performing arts, visual arts, gathering, etc. – can also have notably positive impacts on the traditional development bottom line. How can this be achieved? This is not solely a matter of educating the development community regarding the processes and benefits of integrating Creative Placemaking, it requires communities to be proactive in establishing reasonable approvals processes that offer incentives. This can take the form of expedited permitting or tax incentives or zoning relief such as density bonuses, to name a few.

When done well, Creative Placemaking holds tremendous potential to truly revitalize the full spectrum of communities – even those that are significantly disenfranchised – because it is founded on utilizing the existing resources of a place, including its human capital. Just as cities continue to evolve over time, mindful development can be a platform for ensuring the longevity and authenticity of place.

 

 Reference:          Theaster Gates, Ethical Redevelopment: Arts + Culture Build Cities

Four Tenets of Engagement: Collaborating with Developers and Communities to Make Great Places

By John Rufo

At Form + Place we recently went through a brainstorming exercise as part of our brand evolution to confirm for ourselves why we work, how we work and how this should serve our clients and the communities we design in.  As a result, we identified four tenets of engagement that we believe each design effort should embrace as part of the process.  We refer to them as 1) Collaborative Visioning 2) Community Building 3) Integrated Form-making and 4) Experiential Place-making.

In a daily way we approach the complexities of design by staying true to the belief that great places are made through a collaborative process that builds community connections, integrates multiple points of view and results in authentic experiences of place. The “complexities of design” can include almost anything from challenging site constraints to detailing sophisticated façade systems to negotiating a public vetting process to fitting a design within a tight budget without losing the impactful details of the project.

Our work is primarily driven by the development world as we design mixed-use commercial projects in contexts that range from urban to rural and everything in between.  Regardless of the physical context and project program, we believe the four main tenets of engagement are critical to the project’s ability to situate itself in the community and take part in the ongoing conversation of civic development. More than that, we believe the developers and communities that are our clients will always benefit from embracing these tenets and integrating them into the development and entitlement process in any community.

Collaborative Visioning

Whether form-making or place-making, good design stems from listening to our client’s goals and collaborating with them to articulate a vision. People expect architects to design, developers to develop and builders to build, but community stakeholders don’t always expect the development team to listen deeply to their goals and concerns. As we enter the community review process the same deep listening and creative visioning applies. Whether executing a complex mixed-use building on a key urban infill site or re-imagining the future of an 80-acre rural campus, working directly with all stakeholders to catalyze an engaging design is important for successful project fruition. 

1-1.jpg

Community Building 

At Form + Place we thrive on what we call “the seam” between the private development world and communities that are continually seeking to reshape their vision for the future. Whether contemplating a new master plan for a Center Business District or helping to frame design guidelines for a large-scale mixed-use development, an approach to community building should emphasize creatively engaging all voices in an effort to find the optimal balance between certainty and flexibility. Stitching “the seam” together to achieve a shared vision can be a long process but it will ultimately build community trust and engagement as the project is realized.

170406_Maverick_1_Small.jpg

On both sides of the seam, certainty that the entitlement process will yield the desired results, and flexibility for the project to evolve with changing economic trends are critical to a process that builds community trust. The more the development team and community stakeholders are engaged in open dialogue about the realities of development and its impact, the more likely it is for a project to fit into its context. Once the project is executed it furthers the community building process through its programming and design, providing venues for retailing, working, living and hosting daily civic life.

Integrated Form-Making 

Whether in the adaptive reuse of an existing structure or ground-up development, designing and constructing a building is a complex undertaking that requires an integrated approach from initial vision to final execution. Once the design direction is established, owner, architect and builder all have roles to play in continuing to shape the project. In any context a new or renovated project should look to its immediate surroundings for initial programming and design cues. All aspects of building design, from conceptual site design to architectural detailing to the integration of complex building systems should synthesize to reinforce a building’s form and help it become an integral part of its neighborhood.

2203FOP%2BSpringfield%2BRetail%2C%2BExterior_email.jpg

Experiential Place-making

When done well, place-making can define the essence of a community, integrating its historical context and cultural identity to reinforce its current identity and future aspirations. Great places often facilitate a wide range of social activities including gathering, contemplation and recreation. Thoughtfully designed places are integrally defined by the buildings that frame them and draw on influences from the natural environment, but it is the experiential piece of the equation, including purposeful programming, that brings them to life.

Dascomb_Road_Lawn_Rendering Small.jpg

Engagement in public civic life means something different to everyone. For one person it might be regularly attending community planning or zoning meetings, for another it might mean making sure to get out for a walk, check in on a neighbor or attend a public concert. The places that we occupy as participants in public life have equal variety; some are intimate and quiet, some expansive, some are centered in the community while some might be out at the edges. Understanding the many levels that people engage in public life is the first step in creating the potential for experiences that fulfill the role of our public spaces as places that meet the needs of people in the communities where they work, live and play.

KidsBuild! 2019: Reflections on Our Passion for Shaping Cities

By Gillan H. Wang

Form + Place was pleased to participate in KidsBuild! - a family program that is organized and run by the Boston Society of Architects (BSA).  The two-day event is designed to bring awareness to children and their families about the steps involved in realizing new buildings. It also aspires to promote active community discourse in the planning and development of our cities.  This event highlighted numerous aspects of our work that we particularly relish – engaging with the community, a collaborative process, creative problem solving, bringing ideas to fruition, and ultimately enhancing our built environment and public spaces. 

 
KidsBuild! City Grid in the BSA Lobby

KidsBuild! City Grid in the BSA Lobby

 

KidsBuild! Structure

An imaginary city grid is laid out in the lobby of the BSA, with empty parcels mapped out. Families select a building type and site and then must obtain a building permit for their structure.  They are required to consider zoning rules (primarily building height) and then design and select materials for their building.  They then proceed to the Construction Zone where volunteers assist as needed in the assembly of their structure. When their building is complete it is placed on their site in the city grid where it is reviewed for inspection, rewarded for the integration of sustainable design features, and granted a Certificate of Occupancy. It was impressive to see how many families made “green” choices, for which they were awarded a green seal, in addition to a C of O.

KidsBuild! Site Selection, Construction Zone and Finished Product

KidsBuild! Site Selection, Construction Zone and Finished Product

Engaging with the Community (Site Selection)

The earnestness with which the children considered not only their options for sites and building types, but also the context in which their structures would sit was endearing.  Our office group volunteered on a Sunday, so a number of sites had already been claimed and built. It was striking to see how keenly aware the children were of the buildings adjacent to their sites.  Their ability to imagine this city as a real entity with endless possibilities was refreshing.

 
Empty Sites Adjacent to Built Structures

Empty Sites Adjacent to Built Structures

 

At Form + Place we enjoy the process of working with developers and communities to determine the appropriateness of development proposals for specific contexts.  Listening and sharing ideas and experiences to optimize the maximum potential of each site never gets old. In working as the Peer Reviewer for the City of Newton on the Northland development, we continue to track changes to the initial proposal, many shaped by community input.  While the original mixed-use concept included more dwelling units and retail space, it was decided that a reduction in overall square footage would be preferable.  The scaling back, particularly of retail, will result in less traffic, especially when combined with alternative transportation modes that are being promoted.

 

A Collaborative Process (Zoning)

Rules give structure and prevent chaos.  The need for this was readily apparent at KidsBuild! where children might have been tempted by the endless assortment of donated materials and an inclination to build the biggest and most impressive building.  Zoning gives a measure of calculated control, which factors in the needs of the larger community. Children consulted building height measuring charts to determine the maximum height for their structure, according to the building type and zone (Industrial, Public, Residential, Commercial), and seemed to readily accept adhering to a prescribed limitation for the greater good.

Materials Yard

Materials Yard

Norms and standards are extremely helpful, and occasionally rules need to be adjusted and updated to reflect change. In our recent work with the City of Newton, we have helped refine the Zoning Redesign initiative by facilitating input from other design professionals and the general public. Much of Newton’s built environment predates its zoning and therefore a high percentage of parcels in both village and residential districts are non-conforming. Modifying zoning can help strengthen communities by facilitating appropriate economic development, creating a more holistic and vibrant public realm by promoting contextual design.

Newton Zoning Redesign Process Boards

Newton Zoning Redesign Process Boards

Creative Problem Solving (Design)

“Let’s go draw.  We need an idea.” This statement was heard throughout the day at KidsBuild! and it caught our attention because it speaks directly to what we enjoy doing as architects.  It describes how we think, problem solve, and how we collaboratively engage in conversation with our clients.  

Form + Place’s master planning work in Winthrop over the past four years has helped to create a “vision” for what the future of this community could look like.  Diagrams that have analyzed urban connections and placemaking opportunities, combined with renderings and feasibility studies exploring the redevelopment of key sites in the core, have helped uncover the potential for an exciting new public realm that Winthrop is beginning to implement.

 
Winthrop Vision Studies

Winthrop Vision Studies

 

Realizing Ideas (Construction)

“We need grass!” This was the mantra that echoed through the Materials Yard.  Anything that could represent grass (fabric, felt, green rubber material, bits of AstroTurf) was quickly snatched up.  While many of the children were focused on details that they thought were of paramount importance (making sure they had something to represent the books in their library, the right string for the swing in their backyard, and baked goods for the bakery), ultimately they were faced with the challenge of constructing a building that would stand erect and hold together using glue sticks and packing tape. The enthusiasm of the children was a delightful reminder of the excitement of the creative impulse.  Sometimes architectural detailing can seem tedious, but to craft thoughtful solutions to technical problems requires a commitment to creative problem solving.

Details of Goodwill Industries at The Shops at Riverwood in Hyde Park

Details of Goodwill Industries at The Shops at Riverwood in Hyde Park

Enhancing our Built Environment and Public Spaces (Completion)

The moment of realization is what we all look forward to, and ultimately it is the reason we undertake design problems. At KidsBuild! it was thrilling to see family teams carry their finished project to their sites and seek approval from an Inspector. This generally involved the children describing their buildings and the decisions that they made in creating their structures. The finished KidsBuild! city was a spectacular manifestation of collaborative effort, chock-full of well thought out structures and spaces.

Seeing the MGM Springfield project open in 2018 was similarly thrilling.  Beyond the celebratory opening, however, it is especially exciting that the project realized a vision to reinvigorate the downtown of a historic city that has “great bones”.  The combination of historic preservation, a revitalized public realm and a catalyzing combination of uses make this mixed-use entertainment facility a key economic engine for the future of Springfield. 

MGM Springfield and the Revitalization of Main Street

MGM Springfield and the Revitalization of Main Street

Our passion for shaping cities drives our commitment to the collaborative process, and it was fun to be surrounded by collaboration at the KidsBuild! event.  We believe that it takes a village to produce well thought out buildings and places that work for all. The BSA’s emphasis on community building at their wonderful family program resonated with our team as it underscores an important part of our firm’s mission.

Building Community + The Role of The Designer

By Meaghan Markiewicz and Aidan Coleman

We attended a recent presentation and discussion on ‘Designing Boston: Building Community’ conducted by the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) about what it means to practice public interest design. In this conversation, public interest design is used to describe a participatory design practice focused on social, ecological and economic sustainability for communities through addressing societal issues. A range of perspectives were voiced during the talk, from large architectural firms providing pro-bono work to design-build studio classes.

 Public interest design can take many forms but often it will address large scale societal problems such as homelessness, affordable housing and sustainability. This type of work requires more than the typical design team and how they are engaged can have a dramatic influence on the outcome of a project. For example, Gail M. Sullivan spoke about Studio G’s Y2Y Harvard Square project for homeless youth. Following a participatory process, the firm sat down and listened to the needs of these individuals. The design challenge was to create spaces that are gender neutral and yet are also safe for those who identify as female. The resulting design includes individualized sleeping and bathroom areas designed for all end user’s needs. While this architectural design alone cannot solve homelessness, it is an example of using architecture as a platform to facilitate the support efforts of organizations that address societal issues. How much should this mindset be incorporated into the daily practice of architects and designers? Can it be used to implement a more democratic design process in typical projects? What are the implications of this process?

 
Photo from Studio G Website

Photo from Studio G Website

 

When architectural designs are vetted through a public process, a large number of voices influencing the design parameters can increase the difficulty of consensus building. In these instances the architect often takes on the role of mediator, weighing and balancing the concerns of the public and the local government with the needs of the project proponent. On one side, the public may be viewing the developer as an outsider that does not understand all the intricacies of a certain community. This perspective can lead to pushback, but as Sam Batchelor from DesignLab noted in the discussion, it is a necessary and healthy type of tension and challenge. It requires the architect to design a compromise that promotes a developer’s vision but in return respects the public’s concerns about their changing neighborhood. Between these competing visions lie the creative efforts and explorations that lead to solutions that can benefit all parties. But how might we implement a process of design and compromise that leads to positive outcomes?

 
Form + Place and City of Newton Zoning Ordinance Redesign

Form + Place and City of Newton Zoning Ordinance Redesign

 

In approaching a design process within an engaged community, there are some key factors to bear in mind. To create trust and address community needs, the design team must be present with the public, listening and employing creative problem solving at important stages of the process. Engaging in this manner allows the public to feel heard and to know that their concerns will be addressed. Architecture alone cannot address all the larger social issues surrounding a project but integrating a democratic process through public interest design gives designers insight they would not otherwise have as community outsiders.  

 In our experience at Form + Place we know that finding a delicate balance between community engagement and a development’s vision requires many voices at the table, but of course, this adds to the challenge of addressing multiple concerns. The BSA discussion seemed to conclude that it takes a great amount of listening, respect and creativity to garner the trust from the public that we, as architects and developers, will design a context-driven project that will benefit the community. At Form + Place we concur with this approach, as evidenced by our work on the Wayland Town Center Master Plan. The process included many public meetings to create a new Mixed-Use Overlay District complete with design guidelines and development regulations. As a result, a 375,000 SF mixed-use project was permitted to be realized in a historic New England community. For the community, however, the size, style and the overall scale of the development were a concern. It is typical in these processes to need a certain amount of education on all sides. In this case, the developer and architect needed to understand that the town wanted to maintain a traditional New England village style in terms of buildings, forms and placemaking. Similarly, the community needed to be assured that the impacts on the town – such as the traffic, infrastructure, services and schools – would not be too onerous. Despite these challenges and years of negotiating zoning regulations, the result was a Mixed-use Overlay District [MUOD] Master Plan and Design Guidelines which was sensitive to the surrounding context and incorporated numerous public amenities, including a new town green and a site dedicated to a civic building. Ultimately, the design resulted in a successful compromise between the community, city and developer.

Wayland Town Center Master Plan

Wayland Town Center Master Plan

In the end, an architectural project belongs not only to the owner and building occupants, but also the community. While community design may require more effort, time and resources, it has the potential to impact not only those involved in a single project but also larger social structures as well. It can create new transit infrastructure, produce a gathering space or create a public service for entire neighborhoods. These larger systems influence community members’ feelings of belonging and safety in their own neighborhoods. The reality of the design practice is that there are "invisible lines that architecture can't solve for" as Patricia Nobre, Senior Design Strategist at Gensler stated during the panel discussion. It seems evident from our experience here at Form + Place and considering the ideas discussed in this conversation, that public interest design can highlight those lines and fill the gap where the built environment cannot. As we continue the conversation forward, we ask ourselves how to ensure that developers and design professionals make this an integral part of their process. Taking on the responsibility of implementing democratic design processes will provide additional challenges but will allow the design team to reveal and address often disregarded societal issues that affect the overall success of a development.