Zoning Board of Appeals: architecture for Hancock Village Chapter 40B

The Zoning Appeals Board held a continued hearing on Monday, September 8, over a proposed Chapter 40B housing project at the site of Hancock Village, along Independence Drive in the Chestnut Hill section of south Brookline. It was most recently proposing nine 3-story structures tucked in behind houses along Russett and Beverly Rds. and a large building at the extension of Asheville Rd., with a total of 184 new units.

The Appeals Board has now had some experience with hostile 40B developments, notably on Centre and Marion Sts. Its favored approach of wearing out developers met with success, but that has now been foreclosed by state rules narrowing the scope of objections and setting time limits for actions. For those gifts, we can in part thank Werner Lohe, a Precinct 13 town meeting member who chairs the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee.

Regardless of rule changes, Brookline would have had tenuous prospects with such tactics now, because Chestnut Hill Realty, the owner of Hancock Village who is proposing the 40B project, has more resources than developers of previous projects and is unlikely to walk away just because the process takes a long time. Chestnut Hill was represented by Marc Levin and by landscape architect Joseph Geller of Stantec Consulting in Boston, who is a former chair of the Board of Selectmen.

Theodore Touloukian, a Boston architect, presented a review of proposed architecture. He described the nine low-rise buildings as a total of 44 units, 1-bedroom to 3 bedrooms, including 98 bedrooms and 22 lofts. The large building has 5 floors of apartments over 2 floors of parking, with 140 units and 223 bedrooms. A total of 369 new parking spaces is now proposed. Of the 184 total units, all are rental and 37 are to be subsidized for low-income and moderate-income residents.

Mr. Touloukian reported some success at improving landscaping and reducing the large building’s massing at its northern end but none at reducing the number of units or the height of buildings. Perimeter fencing is now to be 7 instead of 4 feet high to reduce headlight glare from night parking. He said he hoped to see further improvements: subdividing surface parking into smaller areas, preserving more trees, trimming the height of the large building to 4 stories at the northern end and using higher quality materials.

Mr. Levin and Mr. Geller of Stantec, speaking for Chestnut Hill, said they had gone as far with changes as practical. Any further change to the large building, they said, would substantially increase cost. Where new trees are being planted, they are willing to put in evergreens to improve year-round screening. They rejected most of Mr. Touloukian’s proposals for changes in architectural materials as too expensive.

Mr. Geller of Stantec exhibited 14 simulated walks around the project, showing Hancock Village buildings in some detail and surrounding houses in caricature. Views of the large building seemed particularly startling, revealing how the parking rises above grade at the south end, making the height seven stories there, and capturing the building’s massive presence as seen from the front or rear.

Several neighborhood residents and town meeting members commented. William M. Varrell, III, who lives at the corner of Asheville and Russett Rds., asked to scale back the large building, of which he probably has the closest view. “Make it smaller,” he said, “and see if it’s feasible.” Scott Gladstone, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and Russett Rd. resident, had a similar outlook. “Nibbling around the project doesn’t work,” he contended. “Make the project smaller.”

Judith Leichtner, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and Beverly Rd. resident, said none of the changes made since last January “substantially address the problems of the proposal. A five-story building is inappropriate for the site.” Her concerns about overcrowding Baker School were echoed by Abby Cox, a School Committee member and Precinct 8 town meeting member. Baker is already over capacity, Ms. Cox said, with about 800 students and “five sections for three grades.”

Alisa Jonas and Stephen Chiumenti, both Russett Road residents and Precinct 16 town meeting members, bore down on whether the proposed project was appropriate for the site. Before it went to the Board of Appeals, Mr. Chiumenti related, “Mass Development was prepared to reject…the original project,” similar is scope and size. He urged the board to “slash the size of this development, then consider financial feasibility.”

There was an interesting exchange between board members and their legal consultants for this review. Jesse Geller, the board’s chair and a lawyer, and Christopher Hussey, a board member and an architect, seemed to play a game of “After you, Alphonse.” Mr. Geller contended architectural elements were the main issues, while Mr. Hussey said, “I’m going to let the lawyers work [things] out.”

Edith Netter of Waltham, consulting on legal aspects of 40B development, seemed eager for board members to start weighing options, saying, “They’ve got to talk to one another.” Board member Mark Zuroff sounded more willing than the others to do so. “I think that the project is too dense,” he said. Board member Avi Liss advocated making the large building “less conspicuous” but did not say how that might happen.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 9, 2014

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