Harvard Profs Weigh in on Charlesview Design

Urban planning professors say that density is not a problem but that concerns about segregation may be valid

In the 1960s, the Charlesview Apartments were born amid fervent community protests, built upon the rubble of homes razed in the name of urban renewal.

Now, nearly four decades later, the aging and dilapidated buildings are about to be given a second life: the affordable housing complex will relocate to land further down Western Avenue in the coming years, giving residents more modern facilities on Harvard’s dime and handing control of the site’s prime real estate to the University.

But while both Harvard officials and the owners of Charlesview say they are pleased with the deal, the community protests are back. The soon-to-be neighbors of the relocated buildings have expressed strong concerns about the design of the new complex, saying that the plan will lead to too much density and could segregate residents based on income.

The Crimson contacted five urban planning experts at the Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for an independent assessment of the Charlesview plan, which was drafted by Community Builders Inc., a non-profit urban housing developer.

Four of the five academics said they agreed that the proposal was mostly in line with principles of good design, and that while the density issue may be overblown, there is some merit to the residents’ criticisms of whether the plan sufficiently integrates affordable and market-rate units.

The professors also said that Allston residents should withhold their judgment until more concrete plans are presented because numbers and two-dimensional grids cannot give a true sense of how effective a design will be.

“Neighborhood residents without exception will speak against buildings that are denser and new developments in general,” said Brent Ryan, a professor of urban planning at the Design School. “From what I can see so far, people anywhere else would say that they are getting a pretty good deal from an urban design perspective.”

BEYOND THE NUMBERS

According to Allston/Brighton North Neighbors Forum member Tim McHale, the neighborhood’s opposition to the Charlesview plan is anything but your typical Not-In-My-Backyard obstructionism. The objections, McHale says, are over what the residents see as specific flaws in the design.

“We really want Charlesview in the neighborhood, but it has got to be done right,” he said.

McHale says that residents are most concerned about the height and density of the proposed project because it would change the feel of the residential neighborhood, which has an average density of 25 units per acre and few buildings over four stories high.

The proposed Charlesview plan has an average density of 55 units per acre, and includes one 10-story tower on the north side of Western Avenue and a series of four- and six-story buildings on the Brighton Mills site on a total of 6.9 acres of land. The 10-story building consists of 118 condominiums, and lower-elevation buildings contain 282 affordable housing units. The current Charlesview apartments consists of 213 units on 4.5 acres of land.

But several urban planning experts said they disagreed with Hale’s view that the new Charlesview would be too dense, noting that adding density and height are not necessarily detrimental to a neighborhood.

“Taller buildings can be better because they hold the scale of the street together,” Ryan said. “Along a wide road like Western Avenue, adding some height is in line with good urban design principles.”

James Stockard, the curator of the Design School’s Loeb Fellowship, pointed out that some of Boston’s most desirable neighborhoods—Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and South Bay—are also the neighborhoods with the highest densities.

“Density does not have to do with desirability,” he said. “That is a practical question determined by what it’s really like for people on the street.”

Martin Zogran, a professor of urban design, said that the debate over density could obscure discussion about the more important issues that could make or break Charlesview’s relocation.

“Rather than arguing over the number of units or the number of acres, they should really be looking at the design and what will provide the best environment going forward,” he said.

SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?

Even more contentious than the issue of density is the matter of socioeconomic segregation, which Allston residents say is a key factor in determining whether the new Charlesview will be an asset to Allston residents or a blight that hastens the deterioration of the neighborhood.

The urban planning experts voiced mixed opinions on whether the separation of the market rate condos and the affordable rentals would lead to the social inequities foreseen by concerned neighbors, who have compared the proposal to failed public housing projects that concentrated impoverished residents in enormous buildings.

Nicolas P. Retsinas, the director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing, a project of the Design School and the Harvard Kennedy School, called the comparisons of the Charlesview proposal and decades-old public housing “historically inaccurate,” noting that the proposed apartments are much smaller in scale and more integrated with the neighborhood.

“It’s not a fair comparison because we have not built warehouses for poor people,” he said. “While I think that we have learned over time the importance and the potential value of a mixed income community, that is not to say that every single street or building has to have mixed income.”

But some urban planning professors did express some sympathy to the residents’ concerns.

Susan B. Fainstein ’60 said that while mixed-income housing is generally accepted as a tenet of good design, there could also be benefits to keeping the Charlesview residents together instead of splitting them into two buildings.

“People don’t necessarily want to be moved to a mixed income community because to do so would be to break up the existing community,” she said.

Fainstein also added that many housing studies have shown that within mixed-income developments, there is usually little relationship between people of different classes.

Zogran said that he supports a more even mix of affordable and market-rate units between the condo tower and the lower-rise in order to promote social equity.

“From appearances, it seems that the best units are really going to the market-rate units, which enjoy a view of the river and proximity to the park,” he said. “A more even mix wouldn’t stigmatize the affordable units visually and separate them spatially.”

Guy D. Stuart, a public policy lecturer at the Kennedy School, was even more severe in his evaluation of the proposal, criticizing not only the segregation of rich from poor, but also of town from gown.

“I think segregation is bad planning, because it perpetuates social conflict and injustice,” he said in an e-mail. “Furthermore, it is unnecessary for a university to segregate itself from the community in which it exists.”

Stuart suggested that Harvard’s developers should study Oxford and Cambridge for examples of universities that have successfully woven themselves into their cities.

“The debate about the Charlesview development is a debate about alternative visions for Allston,” he said. “One vision is an integrated community where town and gown live, shop and work side-by-side. Another is one in which the community is segregated, town from gown, with the hope that ‘connections’ and intersections’ will somehow mitigate the planned segregation.”

A PROPER ROLE

Stuart is not the only one calling on Harvard to reconsider its role in the Allston community.

This summer, the Allston/Brighton North Neighbors Forum—with the help of Sy Mintz, the now-retired architect who designed the original Charlesview—drew up a counter proposal framework that solves both the density and segregation problem.

The ABNNF framework calls for approximately 640 mixed-income units interspersed with new retail, spread out over the 28 additional acres of the Harvard-owned Holton Street Corridor, which is adjacent to the proposed Charlesview relocation site.

The additional land is not currently included in Harvard’s 50-year master plan for development in Allston.

“Our plan requires Harvard to transact some land that they have no plans for,” McHale said. “The best use of this land is for housing, parks, retail, and open space that will knit the neighborhoods back together.”

Harvard’s Director of Community Relations Kevin A. McCluskey ’76 said that the University will continue to refine the plan for Charlesview on its current plot, allowing Boston’s review process to address resident concerns.

“We’re working within the framework we’ve been operating in for a few years now, a framework that was established after many constructive conversations,” McCluskey said. “We think that this proposal is the appropriate place for our attention to be in.”

In April, the Boston Redevelopment Authority issued its scoping determination for the Charlesview relocation, a 200-page document that gives comments and suggestions on how Community Builders—which is responsible for the redesign—can improve the proposal key issues such as neighborhood connectivity, density, and public realms.

“The truth is, I think that whatever is to be built, we expect to be built to very high standards,” said the BRA’s deputy director for institutional development, Michael F. Glavin.

A spokeswoman for Community Builders said that the firm expects to submit its altered plan for consideration in early 2009.

While the urban planning experts said they agreed that Harvard should be vigilant of relocation negotiations, several said that the University’s decision to take a hands-off approach is understandable.

“Harvard is not a developer for building affordable housing,” Stockard said. “By choosing a firm that has a reputation for addressing community concerns, they have taken the first step in being responsible.”

Ryan cautioned against focusing on any one element of the ongoing discussions to shape Charlesview, adding that the planners involved had many angles to consider simultaneously.

“Factors such as urban design, land usage, and social equity all occur in tandem and it is difficult to disentangle them,” he said. “Could I predict, right now, whether Harvard’s current plan will be social failure or an absolute success? Absolutely not.”

—Staff writer Nan Ni can be reached at nni@fas.harvard.edu.