BCDC reviews new Charlesview proposal

The Boston Civic Design Commission had its first look at the new Charlesview proposal on August 4. For reference, the minutes from the BCDC's review in March 2008 are here.

A few observations:

  1. After a question about the project's financing, Commissioner Daniel St. Clair asked a straightforward question "Will it all be built at once?" and got a 'maybe' answer from Charlesview's lawyer who said "That's the plan." It would help if Charlesview would be more clear about what and when they expect to build or not build.

  2. The current proposal includes the construction of a new building for McDonanld's, just like the existing building surrounded by parking, but a few yards closer to Petco to accomodate the extension of Telford St. The commissioners repeatedly noted the importance of all 4 corners of the new Telford/Western intersection and I agree with them that a McDonald's parking lot would be a poor choice.

    "It's a shame, a lost opportunity, to let the McDonald's still be suburban in its attitude." - Linda Eastley
    "On McDonald's, I don't know how decisions are made, but it would be great to have it sit on the corner with one of their new models. That would strengthen the street wall." - David Hacin

    Charlesview responds that "It's not for us to make changes on that side of the street. All we can show you today are our 8+ acres."

    To whom is Charlesview passing the buck on this? Why, Harvard of course, who could agree that a new McDonald's would be better integrated into the first floor of a building similar to the others that Charlesview proposes along Western Ave. Perpetuating the auto-centric and pedestrian-unfriendly mistakes in design made during the planning of Brighton Mills should not be repeated, and hopefully Harvard - whose planners so often emphasize the wonderful pedestrian-friendly design of their future campus - will bring the same sensitivity in design to this part of our neighborhood.
  3. Karios Shen notes that "Harvard has not yet responded" to the BRA's suggestions about uses for other nearby Harvard property. If Harvard hasn't responded after a year-plus of community planning, does anyone think Harvard will be more motivated to respond after this project approved and Harvard gets ownership of the current Charlesview property?

The next item was a re-presentation of the Charlesview Project. PM introduced the post-baby Kairos Shen (KS), Chief Planner for the BRA. KS, working from several boards prepared by the BRA during the Community-Wide Planning Process (and also some prepared by the Proponent), said that the BRA had received feedback from many, including the BCDC, on the original Project. The North Allston Strategic Plan, prepared about 5½ years ago by Goody Clancy Associates, identified certain strategies and set the stage for the Harvard IMP, which the Commission has seen. KS noted a board showing the area with its key arterials, and areas owned by Harvard but not properly included within the IMP due to the nature of the uses. The development framework suggests a boulevard treatment along Western Avenue and North Harvard Street; part of the idea is to move the Charlesview Apartments to the Brighton Mills area, a Harvard land swap to accomplish its IMP. Retail is envisioned along Western between Barry's Corner and the next node (Everett Street), so the new location will be more in the community, and less an island of housing. Originally, the new site was smaller (about 5 acres); now it's about 7 acres. KS: We have also identified other development potential. Along the Holton Street corridor, we have a planned park, and additional housing as infill, with commercial edges along Western and Lincoln that might also be higher.

KS: The affordability of the Charlesview is high, but it also has components outside of the replacement housing - a mix with market rate. (Shows a 'topographic' architectural plan along the Brighton Mills corridor.) The main fill is residential at the lower of the scales proposed. Overall, the total will be about 700 units in the 20-acre area, enough to support the retail. There is a lot of passion about this. It's not gentrification - but here, there will be units of more restricted income. There is a back story here: the local median income meets roughly the 50% of median general levels. We hope the Charlesview will form the anchor and basis of more residential development.

Linda Eastley (LE): One question, about the Telford site - is it the intent to go residential along here over time?

KS: Yes. The market-rate units are more there, but some now spread into the larger Project. The second phase of the Community-Wide Plan will look at these parcels, and will look at more housing. There is no planning along Storrow Drive, but there are suggestions and we've looked elsewhere (along the parkways). Residential makes sense.

Daniel St. Clair (DS): What about the green spaces (in Holton corridor)?

KS: Shaw's has a 20-30 year lease. But the other parcel has a shorter term. Harvard has not yet responded to these suggestions, but we are agreed that low scale residential housing development might be beneficial to the neighborhood.

PM: Given the complexity, what are the public realm issues beyond the ordinary we might consider?

KS: Streets. The current complex faces inward. They have tried to add new streets of a scale not different than the existing, to integrate the Project into the community. The income issue is raised, but in Charlesview the current household (avg. 2.5) income is $37.5K, and in the neighborhood it's $40K. There is a severe initial reaction to the Project. Is this the right balance between density and open space? We have thought some smaller scale spaces might help.

Lynn Wolff (LW): Say more on Barry's Corner, and the connection to the River. We had focused the last time on the pedestrian connection across to that.

KS noted the two nodes mentioned, and the eventual growth of commercial uses, but there is some natural discontinuity. This is a step toward a real transformation. The City wants to take advantage of the 213-unit renewal.

LW: I think the node should shift.

KS: I think it will shift that way; we should change the diagram.

Deneen Crosby (DC): The other corridors - are those existing City streets?

KS: Yes, it includes the Gardner School site. At first, we thought a transformative project might occur at Barry's Corner. Right now, it's a walk-through (vs. vehicular) connection.

DC: A connection to the River might be a more serious open space connection. And the school site....

PM: Obviously this is an ongoing process.

KS: The design team needs your input.

Louis Miller (LM) introduced the team, including a member of the Charlesview Board, Felicia Jacques of The Community Builders, and David Hancock of CBT Inc.

LM: We want to thank the BRA planning staff and the community; it's a better Project. There are a lot of moving parts; the private side is also hard to put together. HUD had to have national legislation to allow this shift, for example.

DS: A quick question - can you touch upon the financing?

LM: We are fortunate; we have MHFA backing, and a private investor lined up for the housing credits. Also there is significant infrastructure, eligible for federal funding. Harvard is also contributing.

DS: Will it all be built at once?

LM: That's the plan. The affordable component is significant; it will all be done the same time.

Hancock: KS has said the key things. The main thing will be to translate that into the buildings you see before you. (Notes changes from 2008.) We are building about half of the Telford Street Extension as part of the new alignment. We will also create the first part of the public realm, as well as the street grid. We are rebuilding Antwerp Street, which had been discontinued, and Gould, which was a paper street. (Notes more differences.) We took to heart your criticisms; much of that had to do with the neighborhood character, which is more individual buildings, not rowhouses. We have mostly 2- and 4-unit houses, with some rowhouses, now. We go from 2½, to 3, to 3½, to 4 stories. There are 4-6 stories on the Western Avenue buildings and their wings. There is a park on Telford, and 8 stories on Soldiers Field Road. The park can be expanded on festival days by closing that block of the street. Hancock then noted the 6-story buildings truly are, with HVAC units sunk down in wells below the roofline. (Shows the model, shows the relationships to the neighborhood fabric.)

David Hacin (DH): Has the McDonald's been redone?

Hancock: It has, on the model.

David Manfredi (DM): Can you describe the parking?

Hancock showed the extent of the parking pointing to the model, noting two entries and four pedestrian access points. He pointed out the surface elements, including small spaces next to the ownership units.

LE: I would love to see Telford and Western as a much stronger gesture. Something which connects. The desire line is on the eastern side, where the bridge is. It's a shame, a lost opportunity, to let the McDonald's still be suburban in its attitude.

Hancock: It's not for us to make changes on that side of the street.

LE: But you have a park there.

Hancock: In the interim, there's not much traffic on Telford, it's easy to cross.

LM: All we can show you today are our 8+ acres.

Andrea Leers (AL): Looking back, and with what KS said, this is light-years ahead (of where you where). There are many good, strong things. The north side of Western Avenue makes a good deal of sense. Now, it's a placeless place. You have done a lot to capture the flavor of the neighborhood with the groupings and the scale of the buildings on Western. Areas to work on include the transition between the higher and the lower. I would look at whether houses can fit into that group. You almost have a very nice situation with fronts on streets, and back yards, and shoulders. It's almost a mews. I would look at houses and strengthen that consistency.

Hancock: At the corners, there are entries on both sides.

AL: Most addresses are on the cross streets...continuous.

DC: Does your Project include the opposite side of the Telford Street Extension?

Hancock: Yes, fully developed.

DC: The connection to the River, the opens spaces off of it; I can see it being used. What is the street section? We need more information. Picking up the other side - also sections. The garage underneath gives constraints on landscaping.

Hancock: Yes, there are no mighty oaks. But we plan a continuous 2-3 feet of soil, large shrubs, and decorative trees.

LW: There is a one-two punch for the landscaping - create a real green island by eliminating parking spaces - it would give (Telford Extension) oomph. I would re-think that. This is 100% better.

DH: The plan is much better; the comments are good. On McDonald's, I don't know how decisions are made, but it would be great to have it sit on the corner with one of their new models. That would strengthen the street wall.

DM: A good comment...also Andrea's. This is greatly improved. I keep going back to the intersection at Telford, with McDonald's holding the corner. That section of Western - in the future, how do you tame it? It's not your client's job, maybe - but you really could a big yellow (node) dot. I'm not sure how the edge of that building should address that corner. You should reinforce Telford as a pedestrian path and set up a rhythm for the other three corners. It's a key moment.

Hancock noted there was an open space at the corner (introduces Andrew Wang and David Ferris of CBT), and agreed that maybe McDonald's could help set that up.

AL: The end piece will set up your property very visibly for some time. It's an important face, and the space formed by the two buildings is important - as are the two buildings.

DS: The major topics have been hit consistently. In Design Committee...the elevations don't seem as developed as the other thoughtful gestures. This has been a transitional area for 50 years, so maybe it is a place for a more industrial look.

Hancock: Usually we have more of one.

DS: You do have one, in this area.

PM: And this is an industrial edge.

Andrew: We have thought about the industrial loft buildings you reference. We're using precast, brick, and a balance of bays and larger windows (shows preliminary elevations).

LW: It looks like you are beginning to address the corner.

PM: Are there members of the community who wish to speak?

Brent Whelan (BW): We have formed a group, and have had many meetings, and we are fortunate to have had the pro bono services of Sy Mintz, resulting in a plan which is for the area. Mr. Carlson has suggested that is more appropriate in Committee. The main themes are the distributions of affordability and owner-occupancy. This Project reproduces the model of wealthy people on one side, and poor on the other. It's not as integrated as it could be. It's still demographically a 'housing project' plopped in the middle of the community, although it looks like one less than before. Harvard has not been gracious in using their landbank for development; we feel that should move forward before this does. When do we know when that will proceed? All we'll have is Section 8 units. We want the Charlesview, but segregated (sic).

PM: I encourage a focus on design and not socioeconomic issues; I don't want to disappoint with our inability to influence the latter.

BW: I understand.


  1. Why is Linda Eastley posing questions during this presentation? Is she a new member of the BCDC board? [not reflected on their webpage]

  2. The BCDC website does not list the current members. They are:

    Deneen Crosby, ASLA
    Michael Davis, AIA
    Linda Eastley, AICP
    David Hacin, AIA
    Andrea Leers, FAIA
    David Manfredi, FAIA
    Paul McDonough, Esq.
    William Rawn, FAIA
    Daniel St. Clair, AIA
    Kirk Sykes, AIA
    Lynn Wolff, FASLA

  3. Eastley was the Sasaki Associates employee who "sold" the Boston College IMP to the community in countless meetings.

    I got the distinct impression that she was repeatedly swallowing what she wanted to say by toe-ing the party line in pushing every aspect of the IMP. You know, things like "tall dorms are not conducive to good student behavior" even after BC purchased 17-story 2000 Comm Ave in order to convert it to a dorm.

    Job well done by Eastley.

    And now a position for her on the BCDC after the IMP is approved. Hmmm...