May 12, 2015

Field Notes: 6 Emerging TOD Themes in Boston’s Fairmount Corridor

65 E. Cottage St, a pedestrian path linking housing below to the platform above

By Michael Chavez, Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow

The current Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellows share their ideas, inspirations and photos from the field on our blog. Learn more about the Fellowship.

I'm halfway through my Rose Fellowship and I'm at a point where I reflect on what I've learned so far about Transit Oriented Development (TOD) along Boston's Fairmount Line and what I'll be spending the second half of my fellowship doing: continuing to provide design support for the three Community Development Corporation (CDC) partners that make up the Fairmount Collaborative. Through my participation in a number of projects, workshops, installations, and meetings, six key themes have been repeating themselves as successful ways to do TOD along the Fairmount Line which runs through several extremely different neighborhoods and which can be applied to TOD projects elsewhere.

1. Work at a Neighborhood Scale With the Neigborhood.

Seems obvious, right? It should be, but you'd be surprised how little community engagement happens once a developer is selected outside of the typical required community meetings. A positive aspect of most CDC's is that they have community organizers built into their organizations and when they are working closely with real estate staff, they can be the individuals who help make or break a project. A strong team of real estate staff and community organizers can help bring information to project site abutters and other residents in real time, allowing them to stay informed of project updates and upcoming meetings. Community organizers with Southwest Boston CDC helped organize last year's Goatscaping at the West Street Urban Wild and through that project, the organization was able to significantly expand its contact list and met lots of new neighbors that can now be informed of other upcoming projects. Organizers help coordinate meetings with neighborhood associations, business associations, government agencies, and others. Working at the neighborhood scale with the residents can make a strong project even better.

65 E. Cottage St_pedestrian path_housing below to platform above_Davis Square Architects
65 E. Cottage St, a pedestrian path linking housing below to the platform above (Davis Square Architects)

2. Connect Your Project Directly to the Platform

This might seem more obvious than the first theme, but it doesn't happen as often as you would think. Even just a simple pedestrian walkway that connects a development site to a rail station platform, like the one we included for our 65 East Cottage St proposal, was more complicated than it looks. To propose something like this, we had to meet with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and get a preliminary letter of approval to use their right-of-way space along the tracks for the walkway as well as describe how we might work together to pay for the extra infrastructure needed to get it done(structural, lighting and safety, maintenance, etc). This doesn't include other important TOD features like safe walkable pathways, places to park your bike, direct entrances to the buildings from different sides, etc. TOD requires a lot of thinking outside of just placing buildings next to a train station (also known as Transit Adjacent Development or TAD, TOD's "evil twin").

Architecture Team presents proposal for EcoInnovation District project in Dorchester
Architecture Team presents proposal for EcoInnovation District project in Dorchester

3. Re-Consider How You Hire Architects

Codman Square NDC has been testing new ways to hire architects based on a loose interpretation of Enterprise's Green Design Charrette Toolkit process and I have to say, it has been a learning experience for both CSNDC as a developer and the participating architects. In most typical projects, developers send out Request for Proposals to several architecture teams with a list of things they want to see including examples of past projects, design fees, the consulting team, and preliminary design ideas for a site. The developer then interviews the architects, selects the team, and then starts to engage the community with their design ideas for a project. However, for two projects in Codman Square's Eco Innovation District, we've done the same process but instead of the developers picking the architects internally we ask the architects to present their proposals to the community. After the architect's presentations, community members are able to ask questions about the architect's design styles, their approach to community meetings, and what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are. Residents fill out questionnaires we give to them and we use those to help us select the right architect for the right project. If we want to be partners with residents in the neighborhood on a development project (especially TOD), we may as well start with selecting the right architect together.

YouthBuild Boston staff & trainees with Trevor Smith -right- after installing green roof on bus shelter in Upham's Corner in Dorchester
YouthBuild Boston staff & trainees with Trevor Smith right after installing
green roof on bus shelter in Upham's Corner in Dorchester

4. Work Closely with Government Agencies (Outside What You're Required to do)

The first thing we think about when it comes to working with the government on development projects is red tape and restrictions. However, through the course of my fellowship, I've been able to find more progressive thinkers in these agencies than I knew existed. Transportation agencies, water and sewer departments, city agencies, state agencies, etc all have people who are willing to lend an ear to new ideas and help you champion them if you know how to sell it. With "simple" projects like the Living Roof Bus Shelter Initiative, I had to work with a number of different agencies and their lawyers to get the project off the ground. However, after all the relationship-building I did for that project, I now find myself working with those same individuals on much larger projects and they are more willing to lend an ear to creative design decisions on projects, especially TOD. Find those people and make them your friends because they will come in handy when you need them the most.

Residences at Fairmount
Rendering of the Residences at Fairmount, a 27-unit mixed-income development (The Narrow Gate)

5. Integrate Mixed Incomes

The theory and practice of mixed-income developments are often on opposite ends of the spectrum, mostly because it comes down to financing costs. The reason there is such a proliferation of housing for either market-rate renters/buyers and low-income renters is because there is very little financing for housing people in the middle. Public subsidies are available for low-income individuals and private developers want the most bang for their buck, leaving people who don't qualify for either floating somewhere in the middle. While some neighborhoods have a very high number of affordable housing units like Roxbury, others like Hyde Park has very little (there has not been one unit of affordable family housing built in Hyde Park in over 20 years and the 27-unit TOD project we're proposing there is very controversial). In places like Boston, city funding agencies are frantically working to find ways to help subsidize projects that provide "workforce housing" for middle-income folks. If you're a developer looking at sites near public transit, keep an eye on funding and politics around mixed-income projects and do your best to make it work. It's what will help stabilize rapidly-changing neighborhoods and provide opportunities for a wider range of incomes. That's exactly what the partners in the Fairmount Collaborative are doing and should be practiced regularly in as many places as possible.

Fairmount Greenway clean up day
Spring cleaning along the Fairmount Greenway (Mia Scharphie)

6. Tie Your Projects Into Public Greenways and Art

No matter how beautiful a building is, it can lose its appeal if it doesn't thoughtfully meet the street. Good buildings have thoughtful ways to engage with people nearby who are walking, biking, driving, or simply standing and talking to their neighbors. In TOD projects, successful developments provide public spaces that offer the opportunity for events to happen at a number of different scales. Tying your building(s) into public greenways, local art collaboratives, healthy food initiatives, etc creates a true sense of "place" for that building and neighborhood residents come to know that building as a place of sharing and gathering. The Fairmount Greenway is an initiative to bring a safe "neighborway" to communities along the Fairmount Line. The Fairmount Collaborative partners have been working with the greenway to find the best ways to develop green space, bike paths and signage to enhance safety and mobility for pedestrians and bicyclists along the Fairmount Line. Developers or architects don't necessarily need to program space like this themselves when working on buildings nearby, but understanding what organizations are in the area and who can use this space (similar to how a developer would do a tenant feasibility study to see what would be the best fit for a mixed-use building) can be extremely useful in making a building truly successful. All our projects along the Fairmount Line aim to include outdoor and/or indoor space for community use, play areas for kids, wider sidewalks, bike "sharrows" or lanes, places to showcase local artists, and much more. TOD is more than just transit; it's about enhancing the sense of community. 

About the Author: As an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow, Michael works with the Fairmount/Indigo Line CDC Collaborative to spearhead a sustainable, smart growth agenda along the 9-mile Fairmount commuter rail line in Boston. Michael works to increase the Collaborative's capacity to engage its constituent neighborhoods in the design process for the transit-oriented development and helps to demonstrate the positive impacts of holistic design on low-income neighborhoods to funders and policy-makers.