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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

GREG GALER
Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Boston’s housing needs are clear. But faceless architecture isn’t the answer.

August 19th, 2015  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

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Take a quick look at the renderings for residential building projects currently under construction or review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and you might notice that a significant number share strikingly similar features. Prime examples include 180 Telford Street (Allston), 135 East Bremen Street (East Boston), 1505 Commonwealth Avenue (Brighton) and 3383-3389 Washington Street (Jamaica Plain). While functional, these designs have become trite, and certainly inconsistent with the historic and architectural fabric of the neighborhoods in which they have been proposed.

This trend is concerning for the architectural future of Boston’s outer neighborhoods such as Allston, Brighton, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and East Boston. The character of these areas is presently defined by one- and two-story brick commercial and light industrial buildings, Victorian homes, and the quintessential New England triple-decker. With greater speed, these are being replaced with large, uninspired condo and apartment buildings that in effect, could be found in “Anywhere, USA.” Boston is rapidly losing its personality.

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Additional housing is a must…

As we’ve noted before, Boston has reached a critical point in its history when it comes to development and growth, and there’s no question that the city needs more workforce housing. We know that Boston’s rental units can’t keep pace with its population growth, as BostInno’s Nick DeLuca pointed out in May. He also notes that according to the latest census estimates for 2014, Boston’s overall population rose from nearly 618,000 in 2010 to over 655,000 in 2014. The need to increase the availability of reasonably priced housing hasn’t gone unnoticed by City Hall, either. A prominent piece of Mayor Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan includes the goal of improving the city’s housing situation.

…but Boston’s neighborhoods deserve better.

Potential issues arise, however, when the desire to address this need as quickly and inexpensively as possible leads to faceless, generic solutions. Such buildings – which move through the city’s approval processes with relative ease and are often constructed on an accelerated timetable – may help to meet Boston’s need for additional housing in the short term. But in too many cases, these projects demolish buildings with character and history only to replace them with overplayed designs.

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The former Concord Baptist Church will soon provide additional housing in Boston’s South End.

This building boom presents a great opportunity for developers. Rather than demolish buildings and truck Boston’s history to landfills, why not reuse what’s already there in creative ways? There have been some stand-out examples of such projects. Currently under construction in the South End is the adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of the former Concord Baptist Church at 199 West Brookline Street. Though still in the early stages, plans are underway to convert Jamaica Plain’s historic Goddard House into more than 100 residential units.

Is this the architecture of our time?

Generally, all time periods have a distinct architectural style representative of that era: Colonial Revivals from the early twentieth century, Midcentury Moderns from the thirties through the sixties, etc. We can’t help but wonder how the buildings going up today will stand the test of time – will preservationists, urban planners and residents be advocating for the maintenance and preservation of these buildings years down the road? If so, it won’t be because these buildings are aesthetically unique or contributing to their particular neighborhood’s distinctive character – these types of buildings are already ubiquitous. Should this trend continue, how long before Boston doesn’t look or feel like Boston?

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2 Responses

  1. Louis Postel says:

    Excellent post. Question: Rachel Slade in the May issue of Boston Magazine decried faceless architecture on Fan Pier – blue “cut and paste” boxy towers. Do you feel the same way?

  2. Jordan says:

    Very interesting points here. There definitely has to be a way to meet this in the middle – give these buildings the space Bostonians need, while still giving the outside a unique Boston look.

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