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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.

The Shops at Riverwood: Goodwill Industries’ Groundbreaking Ceremony

The Shops at Riverwood Groundbreaking

The Shops at Riverwood Groundbreaking


By Michael P. Manship

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 master plan 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