Brookline Place project: convening a design advisory team

Under Brookline’s “design review” zoning begun in 1971–amended several times since–reviews by a design advisory team are required for “major impact” projects, involving 16 or more new residential units or 25,000 square feet or more of new non-residential space. A team consists of one or more Planning Board members, one or more design professionals and one or more neighborhood representatives.

From committee to team: The Planning Board has yet to appoint a design advisory team for Brookline Place, and there has been no public notice about appointing a team, as required in the zoning bylaw. However, a 12-member Brookline Place Advisory Committee was appointed by the Board of Selectmen in October, 2013. The committee submitted Article 15 to the 2014 annual town meeting, proposing zoning changes to support the now ongoing Brookline Place project. Those changes passed by 170 to 9, in an electronically recorded vote on June 2.

Polly Selkoe, assistant director for regulatory planning, attended the August 26 meeting along with seven members of the selectmen’s committee: Mark Zarrillo and Linda Hamlin, chair and member of the Planning Board, Cynthia Gunadi and Steve Lacker, architects, John Bassett and Edith Brickman, nearby town meeting members, and Arlene Mattison, an environmental advocate who lives about three blocks from the site.

They were joined by Antonia Bellalta of Bellalta3, landscape designers currently on contract with the town for redesign of Hickey Triangle in the heart of Brookline Village. Ms. Bellalta had been named in an August 26 memorandum from Ms. Selkoe to the Planning Board as a candidate for the Brookline Place team.

Mr. Lacker asked, “What is [the design review team] charged with? Ms. Selkoe said it should “report to the Planning Board” on issues found–not including traffic–and “give the board updates as it goes along.” She said there will also be meetings of department heads, unannounced and closed to the public. If a quarter of the design advisory team consists of Planning Board members, the board should get plenty of ongoing information from the team.

Concept plans: Children’s Hospital, the owner and developer, was represented by Charles Weinstein, their architect Elkus Manfredi by Sam Norod and Tim Talun, and their landscape designer Mikyoung Kim by Bill Madden. The Children’s design team also includes civil engineers at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, traffic engineers at Howard/Stein-Hudson and environmental consultants at Sanborn Head. George Cole, a Children’s consultant, coordinated presentations.

An agenda for the August 26 meeting had not been announced to the public, despite Massachusetts open meeting requirements that a meeting notice describe topics. The business consisted of presentations by the Children’s Hospital design team and of committee discussions about concepts: designing building outlines, relating buildings to contexts, organizing open spaces and considering potentials for public, outdoor uses.

The selectmen’s committee had presented a detailed report to town meeting, tailoring zoning around fairly concrete plans for new offices and a new parking garage, so there were not likely to be surprises. The Children’s Hospital design team presented concept plans similar to what the selectmen’s committee reported. However, a sketch exhibited last spring showed new offices in an 8-story rectangular tower.

Elements of the design: At the August 26 meeting, representatives of Children’s distributed copies of concept plans for two new office buildings and a new garage, adding 325 more parking spaces. One of the new buildings was shown sited near the corner of Washington and Pearl Sts., eight stories as expected. The other was shown expanding existing 6-story offices toward the southwest. Both have curved outer walls, together forming a trumpet bell onto Washington St.

View of Brookline Place development looking northwest

A small, landscaped interior plaza, linked by wide walkways to Washington St. on one side and to Pearl St. on the other, opposite the Green Line stop, looks smaller in a perspective rendering than one might have expected. The addition to the existing office buildings seems to crowd the plaza and to create a canyon into the project from Washington St., almost entirely hiding views across the site that might include Station St.

Previous drawings the selectmen’s committee used to illustrate their proposals had suggested there could be a larger interior plaza and less constricted views across the site. A local comparison of sorts–Winchester St. approaching Beacon St.–shows a similar canyon effect, running to the 13-story tower at 1371 Beacon. That was unanticipated by nearby neighborhoods when the tower was allowed, replacing a church under former, much higher density zoning for the Coolidge Corner area.

Design issues: As he had promised, Mr. Cole kept presentations brief, but closer to twenty than to five minutes. Everything mentioned appeared to be contained in a 73-page document he circulated, which becomes a part of the public record. Right away, Mr. Zarrillo, the Planning Board chair, called for “a list of amenities that were to going be provided,” as negotiated with the selectmen’s committee.

About the amenities, Mr. Cole said, “We have not done that yet.” Mr. Zarrillo responded, “I would say that you should do that.” There was a bit of discussion about how the project might integrate with the long planned, so-called “Gateway East” project along Route 9, between the Riverway and the old Brookline Bank. No one knew when any action could be expected from the state’s transportation department, the key agency.

Ms. Brickman complained, “I don’t see any grass. Where’s the grass?” Mr. Cole and Mr. Madden, the landscape designer, ruffled through their cache of computerized slides and came up with a couple showing patches of green. However, those looked hardly sufficient to meet what the zoning changes passed by town meeting in June require, “Hard-surfaced walks and plazas may not exceed 55 percent of the total…open space.”

Landscaped versus paved space took up a good fraction of time at the meeting. Ms. Mattison said “it was really important to protect the triangle of green. The thing that saved Brook House was green around it.” Committee members proved resistant to mere decorations suggesting the project was somehow related to nearby Brookline Village. Ms. Bellalta said, “The development should have its own character.”

A suburban design: Some committee members seemed absorbed in discussions about amounts and locations of landscaped space, but not Mr. Zarrillo. He said that the project “needs a better design. It’s pretty pedestrian…one of those California outdoor malls.” Mr. Lacker seemed to agree, saying, “There’s something that feels corporate suburban right now.”

Mr. Lacker said he “would like to see something where there wasn’t a glass…curvy appearance…What’s urban in this context is really important.” Mr. Bassett sounded skeptical, “You’re suggesting pavement instead of grass in the plaza?” Apparently, not quite. Mr. Lacker said he “never liked Gateway East,” mainly a highway project with a touch of landscaping.

Mr. Bassett wanted to “take advantage of the old buildings on Station St.” At one point, Mr. Cole asked, rhetorically, “How do you make this feel like part of Brookline Village?” It sounded “all hat and no cattle.” None of the views in Mr. Cole’s document showed Station St. in the background, looking outward. Instead, they looked into the project from Washington St. or looked west along Route 9 or looked toward and away from the Brook House.

The group plans to meet about every two weeks, apparently on Tuesdays–the most crowded day of the week for meetings, including the Board of Selectmen and School Committee. The next meeting was tentatively set for 7:30 pm Tuesday, September 16, at Town Hall.

–Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, August 27, 2014

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