^ the triumph of ugly : “units” and more “units” and a grim massive body; but no design, nothing one wants to call “home”
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That almost an entire young generation of ambitious, bright people want to live in Boston, in center City and the neighborhoods near to it, is a very good thing indeed. We applaud the Mayor for welcoming this enormous influx.
That said, the influx means two worrisome changes: a cataclysmic rise in rent and house prices, and a forest of residential developments as demeaning to look at as they are soulless to walk through.
There isn’t much that the City can do about rents and house prices: a market is a market. But the design factor is another matter : the City controls. The Boston Planning and Development Agency, as the Former BRA is now called, requires “design review” for every project brought to it. At minimum this means that a project’s architecture must look like that of the surrounding structures. But is the minimum all that the City should ask ? we say “NO.”
The East Boston waterfront, for example, now claims hundreds of condominium units and apartments whose outward appearance depresses one’s eyes. Of design, there is none : just flat-faced, veneer exteriors, blank windows, tarmac-like roofs, doors as featureless as plywood. This is true even of buildings with rents beginning at $ 3,200 and unit prices in the $ 800,000 range. You can;’t tell one development from another. All look the same, like prisoners at a morning roll call. Inside, you find narrow hallways as mouth-less as the passageway in a Motel 6, although, granted, the walls of said passageway seem better constructed.
Is this what $ 3,200 rents and $ 800,000 condo unit buyers are willing to accept ? So it seems, but I wonder. What will these design-less buildings, as functional as a container on a container ship, look like in 20 years ? In 50 ? assuming they’ll even last that long.
One thing you can say about the woodwork tenements that were plastered all over East Boston 100 to 140 years ago : they’re still here despite decades of disrepair because the neighborhood’s immigrant families often didn’t have the money to renovate. Swedish woodworkers built many of them; they brought immense craft and pride to these shores, and the accomplishments of their skills still stand prominent even in buildings that need renovation.
Those homes are still here, and though fairly featureless themselves, they boast solid proud doors and sheltering vestibules. Today’s developments offer no such welcome, no such pride.
The entire skyline of our City suffers from the same bare bones. At least the skyscrapers that have call but inundated our iconic, 1919 Custom House, have that stovepipe look : straight up and down, windows all alike, no variety, no quirks of curve or indent, no humorous campaniles, no color blink — nothing at all to proclaim the imperfections of human life rather than a shape as strictly disciplined as a prison.
Compare the skyscrapers of Barcelona, colorful, shaped to surprise, entertaining to look at, full of narrative on the inside.
The message sent by Boston’s downtown buildings is that there are rules and more rules, that life is work and more work, that you report at 7 AM and leave at 7 PM and meanwhile the supervisor monitors every file you create, every Excel Spreadsheet you send, the way a proctor supervises a high school exam. It’s a world of bean counting, cost cutting, no frills insecurity. Is this what work life is like, for those who eagerly spend $ 3,200 on rent ? Is this the message they want sent to themselves, the parameters of what they allow their lives to be ?
To my eyes, brought up in an earlier age, the message feels sad. Fortunately, the same Boston skyline also flaunts several buildings in which imagination tickles the straight line, buildings shaped like a smile, even like a guffaw. The same cannot be said, however, of our residential or mixed use developments. Here, what rules is to spend the lowest possible amount of money and charge the highest possible rents and prices. The consequences have of late turned sour. The Treadmark fire tore the excuses off building a large box with wood construction. Apologists for the developers point out that wood construction met all current codes: but is a bare minimum compliance all that we want ? I hope not. Nor do I see much difference between the Treadmark’s design and that of brick tenements built 110-odd years ago. Scrape the shiny newness off, and you have the same measure of worn out, unpolished boxes within a box set up.
So why was wood construction used ? At Treadmark and at 100 boxes like it ? Cost. Cut costs. Cut, cut, cut. I think our City deserves better.
Do not conclude that we opose development. We welcome it. We like a dynamic City. What we do not like is to cut corners. Dynamism should not mean “el cheapo.”
Presumably we are building 53,000 “units” — mark that word “units” — of housing not just for a moment in year 2030 but for generations to live in, to plant roots and create a family tradition. I recognize that “family tradition” is a rather old fashioned concept : yet I suspect that many, even of the young $ 3,200 renters, believe in it, though they may not admit to it. I think that if given the choice, our City’s newcomers would prefer something more than a mere “unit.” How about buildings with windows of different sizes and shapes ? How about actual bow windows, not just a shallow exhale ? How about roof revelry, vestibules comfortably cool, tall doorways filled with well sculpted, varnished wood doors and brass doorknobs that the owner can polish ? A home, whether owned or rented, should be special.
The development frenzy continues. I used to call it “developmentia praecox.” This was perhaps an unfair epithet, but I find nothing fair about under-designed, default “units.” Unfortunately, many, many more such “developmentia” projects are on the way to BPDA review, projects with nothing to offer except a “unit” and many of them constructed on industrial l;and where traffic already overflows and the site resembles an airport’s tarmac.
I remind you that the BPDA’s Design Review has full power to require more than bare minima. Why will it not exercise its authority here ?
Sometimes, where a strong “community review” constituency exercises itself, attends a “community review” meeting, and stands its ground, enhancements can come to pass. Example : 3200 Washington Street near Egleston Square, a large residential building with plenty of shape variety, extension, and breathing room. So far, these successes are exceptions.
Our building trades people deserve better jobs on offer than cost-cut construction, and we the residents of — and visitors to — this City deserve much better homes than any “unit” can ever be.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere