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 incentivizes. 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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Look Into Needham’s Future Through Three Proposed Zoning Initiatives

By John Rufo, Principal at Form + Place and Needham Resident

Through a number of newly proposed zoning amendments, Needham can shape its future to create the possibility of more diverse housing options, more beginning and end of life care options, commercial thoroughfares that are less strip than street, and town gateways that are more than just exit ramps to traffic arteries. How does zoning do all this? Well, zoning doesn’t do all this directly, but it does create a framework through which developers and the community can propose ideas that put forward more density or more clever ways of using real estate and the existing building stock. Democracy is wonderfully and frustratingly messy. Changing a zoning ordinance through an open public process challenges us to listen, speak and understand the possibilities that purposeful zoning can set into motion.

Currently on the town’s docket of issues to deliberate are three very different zoning amendment proposals that, from very different angles, stand to shape a newly diverse range of residential types and placemaking strategies. At an open public hearing on the evening of January 29th each of the three proposals was summarized by the planning board and commented on by members of the public. The comment and discussion period was spirited to say the least. Input ranged in equal measure from firmly against to excitedly in favor with plenty of cautious optimism and critical skepticism in between.

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The first proposal to amend the town zoning by-law would permit Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single family homes. The additional dwelling unit as currently proposed would be for occupancy by family members related to the owner or care givers of family members. The details of the proposal are geared to insure against ADU’s morphing into straight up two-family residences and as such they include definitions and time tables for re-permitting the ADU on a regular basis.

 While the details will be debated and sorted out, imagine if you will the kind of future this could represent for Needham residents. Today in Needham, two-parent households often include both parents working full time to afford to live there, save for their children’s college education, and save a little something for retirement. Nanny / au pair solutions can be critical to creating a workable situation and if the care for a young child were to involve a grandparent or other family member, intergenerational living in two households under one roof could help reinforce family bonds and long-term community connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, planning for end of life care could be enhanced by the ability to have an elderly or sick loved one living in a separate self-contained dwelling unit that is connected internally to the principal dwelling residence. This seemingly logical concept illustrates some of the challenges of broad stroke zoning ordinances. Traditional approaches to zoning differentiate the needs and priorities for residential and commercial properties, for example, which can restrict the implementation of common sense solutions that take into account the way we live. Today’s trend in zoning ordinances toward creating Mixed-use and Transit Oriented Development Districts belies an understanding that in certain cases there needs to be transitional districts between Commercial and Residential.

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The second proposal discussed was to create a Transit Oriented Development sub-District (TODD) on the current Hartney Greymont site at 433 Chestnut Street. The proposal would allow for a multi-family housing development of up to 148 residential units. Bounded by railroad tracks and an electrical sub-station, it’s an odd site to say the least. As a designer of commercial developments, I can tell you it would be a challenge to accommodate many program types on this site, including new retail, condos or expanded commercial/office uses.

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A developer is proposing a five to six-story apartment building on this site made up of one and two-bedroom units and 12.5% affordable units. While the proposal might seem out of place, given it’s height and density, it is important that we plan for other housing options in Needham. Creating TOD districts around Commuter Rail stations is a logical and smart strategy to manage the inevitable growth of the town. Creating more options for empty nesters, lower income residents, and those needing and wanting to downsize while staying in a familiar community, is a critical issue for the town to address.

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The third zoning amendment being debated by the town is a proposal to create a new Highway Commercial 1 Zoning District in the area often identified as the “Muzi Ford” site, which in fact covers a larger footprint than just the Muzi Ford business (see plan above). The purpose of this proposal is to maximize the economic value of redevelopment to the Town and subject certain uses to proper vetting through a special permit process. This proposal seeks to accomplish the goal of maximizing economic potential through increased commercial density and increased allowable building heights both by right and by special permit.

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The benefits to increased economic impact are obvious in that the creation of a larger commercial tax base will help offset the need for continued residential tax levies as our schools and other public buildings are updated, added to and maintained over time. The aspirational goals and benefits to the Town are a little harder to quantify, however. While as an architect and urban designer I could make an easy argument that this kind of dense commercial district is best sited at a gateway and transit interchange like this, I would also make the argument that a finer grained vision that goes beyond build-out analysis and traffic reports needs to be brought to the community through a well-defined visioning process that includes community and business stakeholders as well as members of the development community. I am sympathetic to the neighbors concerns about what they might ultimately be looking at if the neon Muzi sign goes away…

In the end, it is valid to ask, “Will this development be better?”, and while it seems that some of the massing diagrams presented by one community member were somewhat unrealistic, real steps can be taken in a master plan process to provide flexibility and certainty for both the community and potential developers alike. The thing to keep in mind is that what good zoning does is both act as a catalyst as well as set a framework for the possibility of thoughtful future development. Zoning changes are generally more successful when they are thought of holistically and formed by a community visioning and master planning process. If a town like Needham can articulate a community vision and put in place a process for review, comment, revision and approval, then the messy democracy that is our reality might just be able to survive and sponsor a way forward.

“Form Follows Place” – Public and Private Roles in Visioning East Milton Square

By Michael A. Wang

I recently had the opportunity to co-chair a day-long Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel [TAP] that contemplated the future of East Milton Square. This neighborhood center is one of only three business districts in a community where commercial uses contribute a mere 3.8% of the Town’s tax revenue. While East Milton Square has very passionate and engaged neighborhood stakeholders, it remains a village center that is characterized by physical barriers – most notably, it is bisected by I-93 – that present challenges to its walkability and overall cohesiveness.

 
Aerial of East Milton Square & Proposed Manning Park Redesign

Aerial of East Milton Square & Proposed Manning Park Redesign

 

The 2015 Milton Master Plan championed the introduction of mixed-use development into the Town’s commercial cores to expand the diversity of housing types and, in turn, to stimulate the integration of more commercial and civic amenities. Creating a “Vision Plan” for each of these districts through a process that effectively engages residents and local business owners would certainly be an excellent first step.

 In recent years, a great deal of focus has been directed towards renovating the Manning Community Park, which sits atop a depressed southeast expressway. While a thoughtful redesign of this significant open space, including more pedestrian-friendly connections across the busy surface roads of Granite Avenue and Bryant Avenue, will make this park more usable, it may never become the “center of gravity” for the district given its perch above the highway. In fact, one of the ULI panel’s primary conclusions was that the Town might want to consider expanding its Business District to the east of the highway along the Adams Street corridor as it reaches out towards the Quincy line.

 
Rethinking East Milton Square’s Business District

Rethinking East Milton Square’s Business District

 

One key question for any community contemplating the revitalization of a commercial core is how to be proactive in promoting the kind of development that is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. When thinking about the critical role of public-private partnerships in this equation, community leaders should not only look at what incentives would attract private investment but, also, what improvements the public sector could make to enhance placemaking potential.

 The Town of Winthrop is doing just this, as they take concrete steps to implement their 2017 Center Business District [CBD] Master Plan. This plan, authored by Form + Place in conjunction with MassDevelopment and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council [MAPC], identified a long list of action items for the Town to address, including improvements to infrastructure, the rethinking of the “connective” role of public open spaces and changes to zoning regulations that would stimulate appropriate mixed-use development.

 
Revitalizing Winthrop’s public realm

Revitalizing Winthrop’s public realm

 

Regardless of which community, ensuring that there is an understandable and reasonable approvals process in place is essential for attracting quality private development. But, as evidenced by recent resistance to proposed mixed-use development in East Milton Square, having a community vision in place that local stakeholders have already bought into is equally important. Embracing local developers who share in the vision and have a first-hand understanding of the community is often likely to yield more contextually-sensitive proposals. Larger national developers, however, are often the ones who may have the resources to withstand lengthy approvals processes and this may result in more formulaic development solutions.

 A well-conceived “Vision Plan” can create a road map for public investment in a key mixed-use commercial district. Identifying placemaking goals that promote a safe, walkable center is a logical starting point for any community. Whether integrating the tenets of Complete Streets, identifying new public open space for a range of active and passive uses or incorporating design guidelines that shape how buildings interface with the ground plane, there is so much that communities can do to shape the character of their commercial centers. Proactive community investment in the public realm and infrastructure, more often than not, will serve as a huge catalyst for the influx of private development dollars.

*Use this link http://milton.vod.castus.tv/vod/?video=80ee396d-5f0f-467e-b6ac-a246ff666808 to see the full Milton TAP presentation starting at minute 10.

Synergy and Context – Examity Completes the Placemaking Picture at Newton Nexus

By John Rufo

When one thinks of a great second floor office lease to complete the picture of a vibrant retail center, you couldn’t really ask for better than the Examity space at Newton Nexus. The existing second floor shell, recently retrofitted by Form + Place and Construction Coordinators Inc (CCI), spans the entire second level of the endcap building above Boston Ballet and Boston Ski & Tennis and now serves as a catalyst of visual interest and light to and from Newton Nexus. The space itself is long and very narrow in plan and the strip windows perched above the retail center show it off from the ground as well as provide a panoramic view of Nexus and ample natural light for Examity employees.

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The long proportions and potential for significant natural lighting of the space informed the character and design resolution of the project.  In some places, however, the existing shell posed challenges that required team decision making on the fly.  Some days we were literally designing as we stood in the space with Examity, CCI and Crosspoint Associates - the landlord and developer of Newton Nexus. It was quite a collaborative effort!

From the start Examity conveyed that they wanted a very open environment with a central focus on food offerings throughout the day for employees. Michael London, CEO of Examity asked for a “great café feel” when you enter the space; something welcoming with a hospitality focus. This presented the opportunity to create real synergy with Newton Nexus as the feel of wide open and inviting experience continues up and into the Examity space.

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A critical piece to creating an airy and dynamic environment was to design an open ceiling in as much of the space as possible. The existing hung ceiling was 8’-5” above the floor and made for a pretty oppressive environment, but demolishing the ceiling wasn’t possible until the lease was completed, and by the time it was finally executed, the schedule was tight in order to be open for Examity’s busy season. Once the ceiling was opened, the design changed radically to accommodate the existing HVAC and cable trays, gain more headroom and highlight other “latent features” such as the unique grid of concrete beams supporting the roof. Despite the tight timeline, Examity asked us to continue to explore the potential in exposing more and more of the ceiling, which in the end, makes for an edgy and fun space to be in.

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Another existing condition that turned into an opportunity was a hidden structural wall with a long window opening that was tucked into the middle of the space. When the first addition was added to the building several decades ago, this piece of exterior wall was simply framed over and left concealed in drywall partitions. Since we couldn’t just remove it without causing structural issues, the project team decided to keep the wall, open the old window, and capitalize on the condition by creating a bar area for gathering and socializing. Examity celebrated this idea further by displaying vintage liquor and wine bottles at the sides of the bar to increase the sense of placemaking and respite from the work day.

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As previously stated, the parti for the plan solution is mostly driven by the existing building context. Because of the high clerestory-like windows on the “back side” of the space overlooking the Boston Ballet roof, the logical space planning diagram was to gang offices, conference rooms and other enclosed spaces primarily along the back edge and allow the larger windows overlooking Nexus to flood the open office areas with light. The larger context of the retail center and activity of Needham Street, seen from these strip windows, further sets the mood of a vibrant and active setting for Examity. Mixed-use synergy across the continuum of placemaking is a great plus for any working environment, be it office or retail. Not too long ago these kinds of stories did not exist along Needham Street and the N-Squared Innovation District, but now, with thoughtful panning and programming, we are beginning to see a variety of placemaking efforts and a synergistic mix of uses that make this regional node a desirable place to live, work and play.

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Rewriting Newton’s Zoning: Can it be Contextual and Aspirational?

By Michael A. Wang

The City of Newton, Massachusetts is going through an extensive process to rewrite its Zoning Ordinance. This is a major undertaking for a City in which 85%-95% of the parcels have a non-conforming aspect. That may seem like a surprisingly large percentage, but many long-established communities have considerable building stock that pre-date their current bylaws. In Newton, nearly three-quarters of the City was built before the establishment of the 1953 Zoning Ordinance. Many see zoning as an impediment to forward-thinking development, while others believe that it is a helpful tool for preserving the unique qualities of a place. Perhaps it is not so black and white.

One of the challenges for any city attempting a comprehensive rewrite of its zoning is to convince its constituency that the new ordinance will ensure that future development will be contextual. Outspoken community members know what they don’t like and often default to a NIMBY platform. As such, it is a smart approach for a city to say that new regulations governing both residential and village contexts will increase the likelihood that new development will complement the scale and spirit of the existing context. However, it is also important to consider the aspirational side of the equation.

Building consensus through contextual design

Building consensus through contextual design

In a recent two-part forum for architects and designers held by the Newton Planning and Development Department and facilitated by Form + Place, a Newton-based architecture and planning firm, participants explored the ramifications of proposed site and building design dimensional criteria. In introductory remarks, the City reiterated one of its guiding principles, that what matters is a building’s relationship to its neighborhood, not to its lot. This underscores Newton’s desire to move away from Floor Area Ratio [F.A.R. dictates that the square footage of a building be directly proportional to the size of the lot on which it is being developed] as a key determining factor for what one can build on a specific parcel. One of the biggest issues that the City is trying to address with this approach is to prevent developers from purchasing oversized lots or assembling contiguous parcels in order to build “monster” houses or commercial buildings that are not appropriately-scaled for their immediate context. While it is easy for community members to say that a building is too tall or that having a drive-through in a village context ruins the feeling of a well-defined shopping street, the question of how prescriptive a zoning bylaw should be with respect to building and site design criteria remains a source of much debate.

The Newton Centre “triangle”

The Newton Centre “triangle”

During the forum, designers looked at a range of sites, including a couple of key parcels in Newton Centre. While the reuse of the City-owned triangle [parking lot] at the core of Newton Centre has often been the focus of redevelopment speculation, participants explored the surrounding blocks, asking questions such as whether one-story retail blocks are adequate to define a village center with significant open space, and how does one find the right balance between the pedestrian and the automobile in a location where there is multi-modal transit access.

 
What is the appropriate balance of development and open space?

What is the appropriate balance of development and open space?

 

The question remains, how aspirational should a zoning bylaw be? Rewriting a regulation so that a great deal more of a community’s existing buildings and sites are conforming is a good starting point but, when a developer with significant land holdings puts forward a vision that will impact a substantial part of a city, there must be additional mechanisms available to define an approvals process that is adequate to vet the design. The City of Newton currently has numerous large-scale projects in the works, including along the Washington Street corridor, at the Riverside Station and on the Newton-Needham line. While projects of this scale need to be addressed on an individual basis through specific mechanisms that are outside of an overall zoning regulation rewrite, they should be considered holistically by a community.

In Watertown, Form + Place recently helped write a new Regional Mixed-Use District for industrial lands along Arsenal Street to help facilitate the development of Arsenal Yards. This project came to fruition because the Town had a Comprehensive Plan in place that outlined aspirations for the redevelopment of this area, and a development team – Boylston Properties and The Wilder Companies – came forward and was willing to work with the Town to help execute a shared vision.

Reshaping Watertown’s Arsenal Street Corridor

Reshaping Watertown’s Arsenal Street Corridor

The Newton community should be open to a similar process and should position itself to take advantage of the visionary opportunities that public–private partnerships can bring. Whether defining new overlay districts or utilizing a master plan special permit approach, there are many mechanisms available to allow for adequate oversight through a well-defined approvals process. Most of the large-scale development currently happening is proposed along major commercial corridors but residents of village centers such as Newtonville and West Newton are certainly feeling change.

The challenge for a community such as Newton is to be proactive and aspirational. There are many successful models for Smart Growth that are currently being implemented in similar communities throughout the northeast. So, instead of being fearful of large-scale development, stakeholders should ask themselves how they can help shape proposed development so that it can be both contextual and forward-thinking.

From Detroit to Boston: Observing How Culture, Design and Process Influence Rapid Urban Development

By Meaghan Markiewicz

Community, placemaking, public spaces, the importance of culture, affordable housing, designing for the common good, inclusivity: These are all buzzwords that punctuated the Urban Land Institute’s recent Fall Meeting in Boston. There was consensus among presenters that addressing these concepts can positively impact the real estate market. What was not discussed, however is the implicit sacrifice necessary to implement these goals.  Prioritizing the history and culture of a place over potential revenue can leave an unmet financial need for an investor. Often times, the effects of more altruistic objectives do not truly show their value until the surrounding environment begins to react.

 This is seen in major urban areas throughout the United States undergoing revitalization, rebirth or an influx of economic growth. As a new implant to Boston from the Detroit area, it is intriguing to observe this phenomenon in both cities. It is clear the two cities have vast historical differences, varied economic drivers and are in different phases of urban re-development. Yet both cities have in common the challenge of creating affordable housing options, satisfying economic demands and maintaining cultural identity in the midst of various political pressures. As designers we must consider many angles such as the role of placemaking in trying to maintain local culture. Who are the catalysts for development? How does a proposed project affect the middle class? How do you gentrify in areas where larger projects are being developed while still maintaining small-scale, authentic, cultural spaces?

 
Boston’s Seaport District Rapid Development

Boston’s Seaport District Rapid Development

 

From my observations, Detroit takes an ‘act now, ask for forgiveness later’ approach to development. Faced with challenging global issues, a lack of resources, a tense political environment with looming effects from a complex history, there are few precedents for process and results in Detroit. The contextual environment requires one to look outside standard procedures to address the specifics of each design problem. Often times, the best solution lies in response to an internal need. For example, a notable figure from Detroit was the late Grace Lee Boggs, an activist promoting productive, sustainable, ecologically responsible, and just communities through agriculture within the African American population on Detroit’s east side. She created a movement that inspired residents to take action in their neighborhoods. Her slogan was, “Put the neighbor back in the hood.” In response to a need for healthy food, Boggs created a youth program to teach kids how to start urban gardens. She eventually started an organization, a community center and school to address other needs, and consequently, the catalyst for change came from within the community itself.  These types of initiatives may originate from a lack of supportive resources and standards for a regulated development process, but in turn they allow for a creative process for context-driven development that is mindful of culture and the need of its residents.

Congress of Communities Meeting, Southwest Detroit and Culturally Specific Urban Art

Congress of Communities Meeting, Southwest Detroit and Culturally Specific Urban Art

In my short time here, it seems to me that Boston, in contrast, follows an “ask permission” mentality. Boston is further along in its urban revitalization process than Detroit, and as such, standard procedures and basic design guidelines have been established for economic development. For example, the Planning Department utilizes standards for creating an active and consistent street wall, activating public spaces and investing in public transit in order to contribute to Boston’s thriving economy. Any project needs city approval before it can move forward.  Neighborhood groups take on a regulatory position in this dynamic.  They propose the integration of cultural amenities, public spaces and community needs at this level, but how well are the full gamut of a neighborhood’s needs actually implemented in this process? The catalysts for change in Boston tend to be the developers who understand this procedure, who have the capital to invest and who ultimately expect a profit.

 Understanding neighborhood character is always difficult as an outsider. In Boston, my observation is that neighborhood demographics tend to shift often. In Detroit however, this change has been less pronounced. For example, Southwest Detroit has long been known as a predominately and historically Hispanic neighborhood, through its restaurants and residents. Multiple community organizations work to promote and maintain this every day, and this is common throughout the city. As one Detroit artist and resident puts it, “Ultimately, the real estate is being bought and developed by so many residents. Instead of it all being stolen away from rich out of towners smelling popularity and stealing our opportunities. The local creatives stick together, continuing to grow and become successful enough to see eye to eye with the successful out of towners.” (Brooke Ellis, Director of Abstract and React) How does the catalyst for change affect development and ultimately design? Can one provide efficiency, affordability and meet community needs through small scale projects in an environment of rapid urban development?

 
Southwest Detroit’s Clark Park Strategic Framework Workshop - Detroit Studio of Lawrence Tech University

Southwest Detroit’s Clark Park Strategic Framework Workshop - Detroit Studio of Lawrence Tech University

 

When neighborhood demographics in both cities change rapidly due to high-end residential housing and increasing land values, I wonder whether the history and culture of these neighborhoods can be preserved and celebrated. Does this depend on who the catalyst is? My hope is that rapid development in Boston will still allow for the preservation of cultural identity through small-scale developments driven by neighborhood needs. In Detroit, my hope is that the community catalysts will remain a driving force as development becomes a more regulated process and learn from experienced cities with successful design strategies as an influx of new investment arrives. Both cities could learn from one another’s processes. What might a hybrid process of “ask for permission” and “ask for forgiveness” look like? Combining Boston’s regulated processes with Detroit’s thoughtful and context-driven development approach could result in effective, urban-scale developments, that are mindful of authentic community needs.  

How Tall is Too Tall? Context, Density and the Future of Our Towns and Cities

“I think the perception of building height is a context driven issue, and the question of its appropriateness is an aspirational one.”

– John Rufo, Principal at Form + Place

Rockville Town Square

Rockville Town Square

“It’s too tall!”

It’s a common reaction, heard increasingly these days at public hearings and other gatherings to discuss and deliberate proposed developments.

But how tall is too tall?  How many floors is the right number of floors?  Does the old Supreme Court obscenity standard "I know it when I see it" apply to deciding when a building is too tall? Or can it be more subjective than that?

Without choosing sides or weighing in directly about particular projects or regions, here are a few data points one might consider when mulling over the “how tall is too tall” issue:

 

Context Is Everything

The context of any project is critical to understanding it’s massing. Ask yourself what kind of buildings are surrounding the development. What kind of buildings, if any, stand on the proposed parcel now and will they be part of the new project or razed (partially or in full) to make way for the new development? Also ask yourself what the context provides as key infrastructure supporting the kind of density that could translate into massing that one might perceive as “tall” or even “tower-like”. For instance, is there good highway access, a nearby greenway and perhaps most importantly is there access to public transportation?

As urban designers we ask ourselves these questions because in order for our cities and towns to continue to thrive, they must also continue to grow, and manage that growth with an eye to future sustainability. Population growth and location statistics make it pretty clear that soon more of us will live in “urban” areas than will live in “non-urban” areas. The road to sustainability is not through single-family style sub-urbanism, but through smart growth that clusters and densifies development around existing and expandable infrastructure.

So, if context is everything, but allowing for certain density and height is a critical part of sustainable development, then is the existing scale (height and general bulk) of a neighborhood still a relevant metric for judging the appropriateness of the scale of a new development? Truly a million-dollar question.  We would argue that yes, it is still relevant, but it needs to be understood as being most important at the point of transition (i.e. the public realm between the buildings) and that understanding the public realm as a “continuum of placemaking aspirations” is critical. Taller more dense projects tend to act as nodes of regional interest and gateways between communities. As such they owe a bit more to the community in terms of placemaking and civic vitality.

Reston Town Center

Reston Town Center

These larger projects offer terrific opportunities for placemaking.  For instance, between the buildings in a development, or between a new development and an adjacent neighborhood, there are many potential types of spaces and amenities such as streets, with their attendant sidewalks, parking spaces, crosswalks, street trees, benches, etc.  There are also small parks with public art, fountains, landscaping, and lighting considerations, as well as outdoor cafes and other dining areas. The continuum of spaces that we encounter in a good walkable neighborhood, sets up our perceptions about whether the buildings are out of scale with their surroundings or somehow in dialogue with the places they are a part of. In other words, if the placemaking is generous enough, it really diminishes the importance of height as the key metric.

The architecture itself is another critical piece of the equation. Ask yourself if the tall building your standing next to takes some appropriate measures to acknowledge the scale of the human body. Is the ground floor publicly accessible (after all not every building can have thriving retail on the ground floor)?  Does the design of the building somehow mark the first story, or maybe the first two stories, in a way that acknowledges the scale of the pedestrian and the activities of the street? Does it have smaller massing elements that act as a transition between the public space and the larger bulk of the building? Does it feel like there is an implied zone adjacent to the building where people are in fact supposed to be and can take some measure of ownership of the public realm?

 

 What do we want our cities and towns to say about us?

We’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. As architects and designers of places as well as buildings, we think there is an imperative to think democratically. That could obviously manifest itself in many ways but to us this means that as part of our general contribution to solving the region’s housing crisis (and there is a regional housing crisis) we need to look away from the old suburban model of “one lot - one house”, and be strategic about clustering housing in locations that make sense and allow greater numbers of people access to critical necessities like public transportation, urban green spaces, recreational areas, walkable neighborhoods, and civic vitality in general.

Assembly Row - Photo credit Copley Wolff Design Group

Assembly Row - Photo credit Copley Wolff Design Group

While building height is an easy lightning rod for quick judgement of the “size” of a proposed development, we would argue that the quality of placemaking inside and around the project is a more important measure of its appropriateness. Instead of asking if it’s too tall, ask if it seems like you could “feel at home” walking down that street. Could you take temporary ownership of a portion of that space as you engage in the act of citizenry? Has it been made with you in mind? Does the space know it and does the building know it?  If yes, we would contend that the building height is appropriate, if no, then we would say it is out of scale with and perhaps inappropriate for the site in question.