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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

The Shops at Riverwood: Goodwill Industries’ Groundbreaking Ceremony

 
 The Shops at Riverwood Groundbreaking

The Shops at Riverwood Groundbreaking

 

The Shops at Riverwood is a project owned and developed by Finard Properties.  The site is located in Hyde Park, Boston, MA on the grounds of the former Bay State Paper Mill along the Neponset River.  The adjacent water way and surrounding neighborhood make this an intriguing development site; one especially well-suited to thoughtful tenanting and consideration of the needs of the surrounding community.  Currently, the site contains two completed buildings, but it will eventually support a handful more, collectively creating a well-rounded retail center.

Finard Properties has worked tirelessly with local civic and political leaders and the Boston Planning & Development Agency to carefully select a development opportunity that serves the community’s needs, as the next component of The Shops at Riverwood.  Adding a 11,000 sf Goodwill Industries store as a key anchor tenant truly strengthens the sense of community that this center aims to foster.  Goodwill’s goal of providing job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs for people who have barriers preventing them from otherwise obtaining a job, along with a project masterplan that will ultimately include a mix of grocery, dining and small shop retail, as well as the new Boston Preparatory Charter Public School directly across the street, insure The Shops at Riverwood will become a centerpiece of this diverse neighborhood.  The current building site includes a Price Chopper and a Dollar Tree.  Additional tenants will include a Burger King and, of course, the new Goodwill Industries store.

 

Form + Place is proud to be part of the Finard Properties team. We are pleased to have created a design that is in keeping with the existing site context while meeting the needs of the developer and tenants.  We look forward to continuing to work with Finard and the construction manager, The Stukel Group, during the construction phase of this project.  We have every expectation that The Shops at Riverwood will be a great success for everyone involved, but most importantly, for the neighborhood that it serves.

 New Goodwill Industries Building - Supporting Community Needs

New Goodwill Industries Building - Supporting Community Needs

If Not Retail, What Will Enliven the Ground Floor of the City?

“When you walk the streets, you see vacancies on every block in all five boroughs, rich or poor areas – even on Madison Avenue, where you used to have to fight to get space”

Faith Hope Consolo quoted in NY Times Article by Corey Kilgannon

For those of us who regularly follow the conversation about retail, over the last few years it has been described as “an apocalypse”, a “revolution”, or as an industry in flux that will not settle into its “new normal” for some time to come. As part of our daily design lives we are often reading several things at once that are relevant to our practice as architects, our love of cities and our interest in placemaking. Over Labor Day weekend, three such publications about retail converged, and made us question anew, what is the future of retail and what will the ground level urban landscape look like?

While reading Jan Gehl’s Cities for People and Doug Stephens’ Re-engineering Retail, an article in the Sunday Times chronicled the dearth of retail store closures around New York City (“A Vibrant City’s Vacant Look” by Corey Kilgannon, Sunday September 2nd, 2018). While one could delve into the “whys” behind this, as architects of urban places, we are more attuned to visioning the “what if”. How is the public realm impacted when a significant percentage of ground floor retail disappears? What new programming will we need in our cities? What will invite people to engage on the pedestrian level, other than passing through on the walking portion of their commute?

In Doug Stephens’ book he suggests that the physical retail realm is not obsolete, but that it is in a process of being reconfigured.  He believes (and we agree with him!) that people inherently crave shopping and will continue to seek it out, despite having most of our needs met by online transactions.  He cites the reasons for shopping as 1) the thrill of the hunt or discovery, 2) the fact that we are social beings and we are naturally drawn to crowds (how many times do we judge a good restaurant based on the level of activity within?) and 3) physiological (anticipation of a good find triggers the release of dopamine, and who can resist that?!).  He surmises that retail will need to shift its focus from products to experience.  In New York City, for example, Sonos has transformed a retail space into a destination where individual listening modules allow customers to hear music in a contained space, with artwork chosen to compliment the music.  People will ultimately be drawn to brick and mortar retail because of our intrinsic need for visceral stimulation.

“We will travel to a shopping space to learn, play, experiment and experience in a way that is simply not possible from home – with or without technology”.

Doug Stephens, Reengineering Retail (p. 145)

A compelling programming model for vacant storefronts is the current trend toward co-working spaces.  Co-Working Creatives like Rough Draft in NYC offer flexible work space with many amenities such as natural light, shared printing and copying, outdoor seating, personal lockers and bike parking, and even basic kitchen niceties.  As Stephens suggests, a popular venue will naturally draw individuals to it, which will in turn enliven the streetscape. Communities can legislate ground floor uses through zoning ordinances and overlay master planning guidelines.  We believe that makes for an empowering experience for residents and city officials to revision their public realm.  Specifically, how might the ground floor level be re-purposed beyond traditional commercial use, to allow for more creatively engaging spaces?  We look forward to considering this topic further, as we partner with the City of Newton to analyze revisions to their zoning ordinance. 

In Jan Gehl’s book, Cities for People, the author pays close attention to what or who is being invited into a space.  As cities expanded their streets and highways, thereby “inviting” additional cars, traffic increased, and the public realm suffered.  Conversely, in cities such as Melbourne, Australia that have focused on inviting human activity by adding bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and pedestrian streets, public spaces have flourished.  But, as Gehl points out, it is not just the density of people that makes for a good city, but the sorts of activities that are offered that allow passersby to linger and enjoy occupying the space, and the quality of the edges that define the space.  At Form + Place we are ever aware of the role that “lively edges” can play in animating a space.

As Kilgannon points out in the NY Times article, New York City is beginning to reflect the shift in retail brought about by our increasing dependence on online retail (and the same can be said for many other cities as well).  So again, we wonder, what becomes of these empty spaces?  Shuttered storefronts are the extreme opposite of “lively edges”.  How might we re-imagine these “edges” to support active and engaging spaces? 

When a building owner experiences a vacancy that persists in being hard to fill with a long-term lease, one option is to make that space available for pop-up stores. This requires a little active management on the part of the owner but the pay off in the form of location awareness and brand enhancement can be substantial. A use that fosters community engagement and event opportunities can be an ideal programming move, by bringing people out to the street and into the space. Given the prevalence of companies like Storefront that specialize in connecting building owners to creative entrepreneurs and established brands for short term and seasonal pop-ups, it’s clear that the pop-up market has potential to be an active catalyst in rebranding blocks blighted by vacancies and lacking energy.

Just as the retailer LL Bean has reverse engineered the co-working craze to be part of their brand and broaden their footprint of market presence, couldn’t a building owner, previously looking for typical retail or dining tenants reverse engineer the prototypical storefront space to be suited for office or residential users? What’s stopping them? Is it the perceived price that a “retail” space must fetch per square foot? Wouldn’t it be interesting to house a co-working space for a local university? Or a co-studio space for the students of a local art school or group of artists? Is there synergy in the making of art and “storefronting” of art in the same location? In the end, the market will continue to be driven by our human nature and need for social interactions. As social beings, we inherently crave a public forum to come together to exchange ideas and experiences.

 
 Photo credit L.L. Bean

Photo credit L.L. Bean

 

The Placemaking Experience in Private Residential Environments

In recent years, placemaking tenets have been referenced to help define the full spectrum of development contexts and building typologies. Accepted as a critical component of experiential architecture and planning used to shape urban environments and larger-scale mixed-use commercial developments, placemaking is now being associated with office interiors, hotel lobbies, multi-family common areas and even private residential contexts. In these smaller environments, there is often an emphasis on connectivity between interior and exterior spaces and a conscious effort to provide a focal point that shapes the social interactions of the end users, facilitating opportunities for community-building.

 Trac 75 multi-family residential in Allston

Trac 75 multi-family residential in Allston

In single-family residential settings, there is obviously a much more intimate and personal quality to these gathering places. It is well known that the way we use the public spaces in our homes has evolved to address a continuing cultural shift towards the less formal. An early phase of this shift was the recapturing of back of house spaces formerly relegated to the cook and the butler. Today, the kitchen is at the center of social interaction, whether entertaining guests or enjoying a family night at home. These trends have driven the repositioning of traditional rooms as owners reevaluate how they want to use spaces such as the formal dining room. With the advent of family rooms and “great” rooms, even living rooms have been relegated to holiday gathering places that often sit idle throughout the calendar year.

 Rethinking opportunities for socialization inside the kitchen

Rethinking opportunities for socialization inside the kitchen

In his residential architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was masterful at creating spaces that maintained a degree of individual definition while flowing seamlessly from one part of the house to another - overlapping and interconnecting visually. Le Corbusier as well, though utilizing a very different aesthetic, contributed a great deal to the concept of flow by placing emphasis on “architectural promenade” -controlling the experience of people purposefully and sequentially moving through a house.

 Open and flowing spaces in Wright's designs

Open and flowing spaces in Wright's designs

 Le Corbusier - visually connecting inside and outside space

Le Corbusier - visually connecting inside and outside space

Though crafted for very different eras, the experiential qualities of homes designed by the masters can still be applied in creating great spaces that support the way we interact socially today. While contemporary residential environments often focus on connectivity, a simple “open plan” approach alone does not necessarily result in spaces that feel defined, intentional and appropriately-scaled. Instead, architectural features such as soffits, columns, knee walls, etc. can go a long way toward establishing a variety of “places” within a largely open space.  Visual connections between public rooms and exterior spaces not only allow for abundant natural light, but also can enhance the experience of both indoor and outdoor activities. The alignment of interior openings [“enfilade”] from room to room can create long views, promote a better understanding of the whole and continually reference the relationship of the home to the surrounding landscape.

 Terraces, bays and porches used as exterior "rooms"

Terraces, bays and porches used as exterior "rooms"

The design of transition spaces and exterior rooms – whether porches, terraces or defined lawn areas – serve to integrate the house into its context, further expanding placemaking opportunities for activities such as reading in the garden or al fresco dining. In fact, one’s surrounding context is often the primary driver for the orientation of key rooms, whether extending out horizontally into the landscape to capture views of the mountains or the water or emerging vertically in the evening onto a rooftop deck to survey lively urban surroundings. Placemaking principles that shape thoughtful environments, create a context for unique programming opportunities and connect us to the larger world, and can indeed be applied at many different scales.

 Connecting to the larger context

Connecting to the larger context

Completing the Picture with Art and Great Events: Placemaking in the Hospitality World

“Well conceived and harmonious spaces allow people to relax, to be present in the moment and to enjoy themselves. Meeting people where they are is really important.”

- Andrea Finard, Harbor Hotel Co-Owner

Last weekend we journeyed to Provincetown for a reception of the art exhibit “Ocean Allure” at the Harbor Hotel. The hotel is owned by friend and client, Todd Finard, who conceived of the exhibit, along with his wife, Andrea. The hotel regularly hosts art events, and in this show they wanted to change the vibe of the main public spaces and create some buzz around the theme of the hotel’s oceanside setting and the significant role of art in the Provincetown community. Andrea Finard explained, “we ask ourselves what might make this experience better, more fun, or memorable - vacation time is finite. This season, we worked with 4 talented artists (John and Caroline Rufo, Edgar Stewart and Thanassi Kuliopulos) whose artwork had a really strong synergy with the environment that the hotel strives to provide.  Guest feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.” The reception served to catalyze interest in both the season-long art show and the hotel, but what I hadn’t quite imagined was the degree to which the art and the location could work together to heighten the experience of place.

The hotel (really a motel originally) was built in the 50’s when the allure of the road and a new national highway system was the thing that mobilized America to get out and see the country. When they bought the hotel in 2011, the Finards and their partners renovated it, “peeling back the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s architecture that covered over and all but made invisible the original mid century modern vibe”. Branded now as a “retro glam hip hideaway”, the main public spaces – reception / library / bar / restaurant - convert easily into a welcoming art gallery that is both intimately scaled and expansive as it opens dramatically to an outdoor fire pit and sweeping views of Cape Cod Bay and Provincetown Harbor.

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The owners of the Harbor Hotel understand the potential for art and space to meld, in order to connect with the local community. At Form + Place we approach placemaking as both an extension of the building realm and a wholly public undertaking that embraces the power of art and thoughtful programming to provide purpose and meaningful focal points in public spaces. Art in the placemaking continuum works at many scales. Whether it’s fine art, performance art, sculpture, wall murals, etc., it pushes the conversation beyond the site and building to engage cultural and social aspects of the community.

As a painter, I love to marry art with the local community in a way that rings true, and within our firm, we feel the same way about architecture. Designing buildings is a rewarding and creative process, but experiencing them and engaging with the community in a space that facilitates connectedness, is one of architecture’s higher purposes, and a driving force at Form + Place. The Finards embrace the importance of creating unique experiences that ground the “getaway weekend” in good placemaking, good food and great events. “When it comes down to it”, says Todd, “carefully curated art creates a new level of placemaking that accentuates the space and reinforces our brand, all while heightening community connections”. The day before the "Ocean Allure" reception happened to be Gallery Night in P-town. Commercial Street was electric with conversation and noise that spilled out of the galleries and beckoned people into the restaurants, pubs and cafes.

Of course, this experience is common in P-town, which is sought out for its art, and therefore all visitors are sure to take in a healthy dose of fine art.  The location of the Harbor Hotel at the east end of Commercial Street is ideally suited to extend that gallery experience.  The bar and fire pit create a kind of wide open venue that is quite a contrast to the tighter spaces of Commercial Street deeper in the East End gallery district. The setting of the Harbor Hotel has a way of luring you in to pause and reflect on the visual stimulation that is Provincetown. Maybe that’s the most important role of features like fire pits and public art; whether it’s in an urban context or at the edge of the bay, stopping to breath and consider the things you did and saw that day is one of the important experiences of getting away.

 Bay View Rooms along hotel's front facade

Bay View Rooms along hotel's front facade

It will be interesting to see what the next stage of evolution is for the Harbor Hotel’s placemaking aspirations. One could imagine a different kind of front door / street edge to the property. Maybe one that prioritizes place over parking while softening the experience of the customer moving from the hotel to the water’s edge. The extension of the lobby /gallery / bar spaces into the fire pit with the vista of the waster beyond is so successful and alluring… the potential, like the view, is almost endless!

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Placemaking in a District Master Plan: Designing Edges to be Defined and Active

"No single topic has greater impact on the life and attractiveness of city space than active, open, and lively edges. Wherever people stay for a while, they seek out places along the edges of the space.”

Jan Gehl – Cities for People

In the world of big mixed-use development, there will always be new master plan proposals that seek to transform moribund urban districts of cities into dynamic and flourishing destinations for visitors, residents, and small and large businesses. From 10,000 feet, it’s easy to spot the new master planned development that dwarfs the scale of the surrounding pattern development of a city that was founded over three centuries earlier. As these districts, necessarily bounded by parcel ownership and neighborhood edges, rub elbows with adjacent properties, the potential exists to learn from their smaller, more people-scaled neighbors and spread the regenerative potential of the district master plan in the process.

 Aerial view of MGM Springfield and Main Street corridor

Aerial view of MGM Springfield and Main Street corridor

 Bird's eye view of Main Street, Springfield

Bird's eye view of Main Street, Springfield

One of the curious constants about our cities is that while the scale of developments increases, responding to land value escalation and the imperative of good ROI, the importance of an appropriately scaled public realm does not change. When it comes to strolling, shopping and dining in an urban environment, we still exhibit the same tendencies that Jan Gehl observed, with possibly one exception – we consciously crave experiential connectedness. Yes, we tend to gather at the edges, and those edges want to be “active, open and lively”, but today’s user of urban space is also searching for activities that are both authentic in feel and immersive in experience.

 "Pocket park" and redeveloped block engaging the pedestrian

"Pocket park" and redeveloped block engaging the pedestrian

In a city like Springfield, which was founded in 1636, this isn’t necessarily as difficult as it sounds. Our older cities are characterized by certain “missing teeth” in the urban fabric; sites that once had a building but are now open lots, alleys or maybe reclaimed park space. Utilizing these existing conditions as assets - like in the case of MGM Springfield - might involve exploiting the view corridor offered by a pocket park, opening the building edge to the park, and employing the original masonry party wall as a mural advertising a critical tenant and reinforcing the district brand.

 Retail strorefronts creating "open and lively" edges

Retail strorefronts creating "open and lively" edges

The current trend of making storefronts in restaurants and cafes as open as possible has the dual effect of generating activity and interest for the restaurant owner, as well as adding to the overall vibe and dynamic feel of the district street. Sidewalks don’t need to be as wide as you might think to accommodate the activity, and parallel parking is actually a good thing as it buffers people dining at outdoor cafes and window shoppers from the traffic and noise of the street.

The variety of scales exhibited by the buildings of our older cities is one of the great characteristics that make the fabric of these historic neighborhoods so attractive. Some buildings are literally one shop wide while others comprise several shops and run the length of the block. In the case of the latter, the quality of architectural details, signage and lighting in combination with the leasing approach can mean the difference between and oppressive sidewalk experience and one of engaging variety and immersive urban experience. Placemaking at the sidewalk scale is first established by uses that allow for a variety of experiences; maybe a barber shop or a post office trip alongside a café outing or the discovery of a boutique to duck into along the way.

In the end, creating a dynamic environment along a busy Main Street starts with good programming, but relies on the careful consideration of edges to complete the picture. By utilizing the existing fabric of storefronts, sidewalks and urban spaces, and inserting new features to highlight tenants and reinforce the district feel, a well scaled public realm can foster connectedness and complete the placemaking experience.

Leveraging a Mix of Uses, the N-Squared Innovation District Attracts a Burgeoning Ed / Tech Secto

"We knew we needed to rethink work and leisure to promote more meaningful conversations. Lines are blurred in the way we live today; therefore our space should reflect that.” 

Jodie McLean – CEO, EDENS

The value of blurring the lines between work and leisure, summed up succinctly in a press release by retail developer EDENS regarding the recent merging of their office space with a local bookstore and café, reflect the general sentiment of many of today’s companies when it comes to location, design of work environments and the culture they embrace. They want to be in a neighborhood that has options for shopping, living, dining and playing, and they want their own space to reflect the variety of daily experiences their employees seek. The overlap of work and leisure is bemoaned by many, especially at home, but in the work environment, office tenants and developers alike are seeing value in softening the divide between work and play. And let’s face it, who doesn’t like it when a little leisure time makes its way into the work day?

In the N-Squared Innovation District, encompassing 500 acres in Newton and Needham, the trend of colocating education / tech companies like Empow Studios and Examity in retail based mixed-use developments, is beginning to change the face of the district and the face of these companies. Leonid Tunik of EMPOW Studios sees the value of their new location at 180 Needham Street. “The Newton-Needham community has always been very interested in our technology programs. It’s time we established a year-round presence in the Newton area that features our project-based technology curriculum. It’s fair to say that the momentum of development on the Needham Street corridor and the N-Squared Innovation District put it at the top of our list.”

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From their perch on the second floor of 180 Needham Street, redeveloped by Crosspoint Associates, Empow Studios new space looks out over Needham Street and the newly opened Newton Nexus retail development. Empow sees the redeveloped Needham Street corridor as a great point of synergy with their popular Weekend Clubs and the STEM Club, a fully licensed after-school care program with a technology twist. Mixing education, technology and after school care is complimented by the ability of parents and Empow employees to run errands and get things done as they go to and from the studio. The retail center also sees the benefit of foot traffic in traditionally off-peak retailing hours.

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Below the studio is the new Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza. Replacing the dangerous eyesore of head-in parking at the relocated Boston Ski and Tennis, with outdoor dining and a graceful, entrance sequence to the studio above has completely transformed the experience of 180 Needham Street at this critical mid-corridor link.

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Across Needham Street, Examity, an ed-tech online proctoring solution, has just begun construction on converting 10,000 sf of prime second-floor space into their new headquarters. While the development of Nexus was key to Examity’s decision to choose Needham Street as their new home, CEO Michael London also has a clear vision for creating a work environment where people can interact in a variety of settings that integrate leisure activities, such as a stolen moment at a cafe or an after-work cocktail with colleagues, into the daily experience of his employees.

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The well-executed redevelopment of the Needham Street corridor, emphasizing a mix of complimentary uses that overlap work and leisure, is proving to be a desirable home for ed / tech companies and great retail destinations alike. As more and larger projects come on-line, featuring higher residential density and integrated open space systems, these companies will find themselves situated in a dynamic, walkable, 24/7 district that thrives on innovation and quality of experience.

Applying Placemaking Principles to the Design of a Collaborative Workplace

While placemaking principles are commonly referenced when developing complex mixed-use projects or revisioning the public realm, they are also surprisingly relevant for designing today’s office work environments. Underlying tenets that promote social interaction and collaboration can truly define the culture of the workplace and have a dramatic impact on productivity. But beyond productivity, a work environment should be an engaging place to be – both stimulating and educational. This is shaped, not only by the physical surroundings, but by programming, and ultimately, the diversity of its users.

Purposeful Planning – For certain businesses - like architectural firms - the open office environment remains a primary catalyst for meaningful collaboration. An open landscape facilitates communication on many levels and, whether direct or indirect, helps underline a company’s values and desired processes. The purposeful juxtaposition of younger staff and senior leadership establishes a culture of trust and is one of the most important components of mentoring. Whether overhearing in-house discussions regarding design process or listening to a phone conversation between a partner and a client, this exposure to navigating a range of diverse interactions is invaluable for employees of all ages and experience levels.

 
 The new open office landscape at Form + Place, an architectural firm in Newton Highlands

The new open office landscape at Form + Place, an architectural firm in Newton Highlands

 

Clearly Defined Gathering Spaces – Beyond open studio space, a well-rounded workplace should offer a variety of gathering spaces that can be programmed for a range of activities, whether work-related or purely for social interaction. A cohesive office environment is one that promotes community-building, and flexible gathering space that can accommodate active and passive uses is ideal. In larger work environments, some of these spaces can migrate to the ground floor lobby of an office building. Today’s office lobbies can offer opportunities for interaction with other tenants or a collection of local vendors and, thus, connectivity to the larger community. Subtle design decisions that shape a company’s immediate work environment can include integrating public “pin-up” space for collaborative project discussions or providing rotating gallery space for employee or client artwork. Again, if these forums are integrated into the open office environment, they speak to a company’s process and culture.

 
 Integrating gallery space into an office landscape

Integrating gallery space into an office landscape

 

Quality of Space – A thoughtfully designed work environment not only makes a lasting impression on your clients, it fosters a positive outlook, camaraderie and loyalty among employees. While ergonomics often point to the quality of the workstation as a key to efficiency, one could easily argue that very simple desk space has merits if it is placed in an environment filled with light, warm finishes and the buzz of conversation.

Connectivity to Larger Community – Similar to the relationship between buildings and the public spaces on which they front, desirable work environments are even more engaging when they are connected to a vibrant community context. A quality office location in a walkable neighborhood complete with restaurants, public amenities and connectivity to public transportation will attract a more diverse staff, especially a younger demographic that has a less auto-centric lifestyle.

 
 Newton Highlands - a walkable neighborhood

Newton Highlands - a walkable neighborhood

 

Requires a vision – In order to accurately reflect the culture of a company, placemaking in the work environment must represent the values of the entire “community,” not just one person.

Placemaking is an ongoing process – Perhaps most importantly, the work environment should be an evolving landscape. Like a master plan for a community, it must be reevaluated constantly and there must be a willingness to reconceive it periodically to reflect a company’s desired culture, process and goals.

 
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“When we started looking for new office space, we knew we needed to find three things: a location that simplified how employees got to work every day, a neighborhood that engages us on a daily basis, and an office space that supports the way we work every day.”

John Rufo – Principal, Form + Place

The Placemaking Continuum: Designing Connectivity in Mixed-use Development

The term placemaking has been most commonly used by urban designers, architects and developers to represent the purposeful planning and design of public spaces that have desirable qualities. Great places, particularly in well-defined urban settings, tend to evolve organically over time. When developers and municipalities manage to get on the same page, the accepted principles of good placemaking can find their way into a broad range of contexts. A well-conceived public space can define a development, be the focal point of a neighborhood or become the identity of an entire city.

 Copley Square, Boston

Copley Square, Boston

Many developers seek to reposition underutilized industrial campuses or failing mall properties by incorporating the fundamentals of quality placemaking. The shift a number of years ago to create open-air environments – branded as lifestyle centers – often rang hollow, however, when the principles of placemaking were applied in a limited way that lacked cohesion. Legacy Place in Dedham has been considered a desirable shopping environment by many for some time now. Anchored by a mix of entertainment venues, restaurants, retail shops and a supermarket, Legacy strove to develop active storefront-lined streetscapes. Critics note that the development lacks an identifiable and usable public open space and, with large surface parking fields at its center, it is still a destination that is largely automobile-centric.

 Legacy Place, Dedham

Legacy Place, Dedham

Placemaking seems to be most successful when it is authentic, organic, integrated and representative of a larger community context. In the most successful of these environments, placemaking principles manifest themselves at many different scales. It is easy to identify what makes a village center like Newton Highlands, for example, have a certain vibrancy – highly articulated, pedestrian-scaled streetscapes lined with a mix of shops, restaurants and community-based uses, together with upper level office space and residences. One could argue, however, that it is the fact that Newton Highlands has an MBTA green line stop at it’s core, connecting it to the larger Boston context, that is hugely critical to making it a thriving place.

 Newton Highlands Village Center

Newton Highlands Village Center

Though at a completely different scale, the Riverwalk mill property in Lawrence, being redeveloped by Lupoli Companies with input from the planning and design firm Form + Place, has a unique opportunity to reinvent itself by focusing on integrating the key tenets of good placemaking. With over 2 million square feet of programmable mill space and a master plan vision to add new signature buildings, Riverwalk has the potential to be a truly catalyzing project on the downtown Lawrence waterfront. Located directly across the street from a new multi-modal commuter rail station and situated in the urban core, the project’s connectivity to its larger context is already established. Early master plan studies have emphasized the infusion of streetscapes and a variety of usable public open space into the heart of the complex, converting vast fields of parking into a walkable, highly-articulated pedestrian environment, where first floor uses serve to activate the ground plane. The creation of pedestrian-scaled environments is quite a challenge given the scale of the mill buildings which, in some instance, are longer than the Prudential Tower is tall.

 Riverwalk Properties, Lawrence

Riverwalk Properties, Lawrence

Lupoli Companies has been very forward-thinking in the repositioning of the existing buildings, realizing that placemaking opportunities do not stop with the exterior public realm. While the opportunity for a new river walk, complete with outdoor dining and other amenities, is certainly an important focus, the lobbies of the mill buildings also present extraordinary opportunities for placemaking. With a goal to create a diverse mixed-use experience, including a range of office environments [traditional to open landscape], these transition spaces between a newly-defined public realm and mixed-use interior environments will be critically important.

Centuries ago, the Nolli plan of Rome documented the significance of connections between the interiors of notable buildings and the public realm they front on. This remains a very important aspect of cohesive placemaking today.

 Nolli Map of Rome

Nolli Map of Rome