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Boston's New Brutalism

Redevelopment for Whom?

By Michael Barber

Preston Pollock recognizes the paradox inherent in "New Boston." "The Christian Science Center is a combination of pompousass architecture and corporate necessity," snaps Pollack, an architect at Professional Designs Incorporated. The Christian Science Church and its world headquarters, Boston's answer to the Vatican, focus the contradiction between collective needs and private purpose: a corporate monument rising symbolically above the decaying tenements of the poor and turning its back on the human needs of urban working people unable to buy a decent human environment. Pollock is an architect who must deal with contradictions like that--his firm is employed by E.F. Hutton and Company, the second largest stock brokerage in the world, to plan its offices across the United States.

The requirements of corporate architecture include, he says, both establishing a single monolithic image that will attract both prestige and clients and providing viable working space for the employees. He claims a third and often ignored purpose is to relate the building to street activity and other buildings at its base. In his work with E.F. Hutton, Pollock struggles, often fruitlessly, to design an environment beneficial for workers and feels that his responsibility as an architect is to urge corporations to break from the practice of caring only for the "big fellow" at the top. The struggle is ultimately with those who make the final decisions, for, as Pollock intimated, the president of E.F. Hutton wants to make money and impress clients, and seldom takes the employee's interests to heart. "The people who pay the bills march to a different drumbeat; they are not interested in the human scale," he says.

The situation polarizes at two extremes: private industry either lavishes millions on its monuments or builds stark architecture of an economic functionality lacking social or aesthetic merit. The practice of monument construction is best expressed in the new Federal Reserve Building, by Hugh Stubbins and Associates, which follows the Hancock and Prudential buildings in its indulgence in the grander, sleeker, more-conspicuous-and-powerful syndrome. "You don't seem to understand," one corporate executive notes. "We make money." For such companies cost is no object.

Boston's new central business district makes sense only in light of the fact that every city must play the role of an entrepreneur, exploiting its comparative economic advantages to insure its economic survival. Replacing slums (usually with skyscrapers) and attracting badly needed tax revenues to the city are the two social and economic imperatives which make corporate capitalism so attractive to the Mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. But how is it possible, within these priorities, to make the cityscape suitable for human existence? One kind of answer has emerged from the BRA's work on the waterfront.

The policy of the Mayor's Office toward the waterfront has been to attract middle and upper class suburbanites back to the city, both as consumers and residents, in order to firm up Boston's sagging tax base. Bluntly, then, the new Quincy Market is a suburban entrepreneur's answer to the Haymarket that serves the working-class Italian community of the neighboring North End. At Quincy Market, the perfume of flowers, the bursting ripeness of abundance, and cafe-riche cuisine wafts in the air as bankers converse over lunch and the "beautiful people" stock their wicker baskets. The remainder of the clientele are tourists from the suburbs making a journey into the city to sample the fruits of the "market." At the same time that it hastens the deterioration of the North End as young professionals move in, renovate, and change the Italian working-class character of the community, Quincy Market infects itself with its own success. Its enchanting facade hides a precarious vitality for the real dynamism of a community. Quincy Market becomes the newest synthetic expression of a society lacking a real cultural fabric--the ultimate Disneyland of opulence and boutiquite.

The city's only gesture to the poor of the waterfront is the 35 per cent of Mercantile Wharf which is rent-subsidized for low and moderate income elderly housing. The apartments and condominiums of restored buildings (Lewis Wharf, Commercial Wharf Warehouse, and the Prince Spaghetti Factory) and the two new 42-story Harbor Towers have become the bedrooms of the rich while the posh restaurants and shops are their playgrounds. "But even if all of the one thousand or so housing units were low income housing," says John Dobie, coordinator of the waterfront project for the BRA, "it would not make a significant dent in the city's housing problems."

Through projects like the waterfront, Boston has successfully avoided the fate of cities like Cleveland and Detroit, whose center cores become armed camps and lifeless ghost towns after dark, but it still has not begun to meet the basic need of every person for decent shelter. Urban renewal and restoration have become codewords describing upper class conquest of lower class territory. The leveling of the West End, once a solid working-class community of ethnic neighborhoods, and its replacement with the luxury apartments of Charles River Park--drab highrises with acres of parking covering former working-class homes--is an example of urban renewal in its most barbaric form.

In the South End, on the other hand, attempts are being made to renovate the existing housing stock rather than clear it away. The Department of Housing and Urban Development in coordination with the BRA sponsors programs to provide federally guaranteed low-interest mortgages for housing stock renovation. Unfortunately, these efforts have proven largely unsuccessful because such a large amount of capital is needed for adequate renovation that only upper middle class "pioneers" can afford to move in. As they do so, land values rise and remnants of the old community are driven out like squatters.

And there is no place for the displaced to go, the homeless urban working people--often unemployed--cannot run to the suburbs. Most float on the rough seas of an already turbulent housing crisis, landing in worse conditions or waiting to enter the hell of projects like Columbia Point, Bromley Heath, and D Street. Politicians and city planners have found no suitable solutions, often not even recognizing the existence of the "secondary effects" of urban "improvements"--the homelessness of the poor, who are forced to find alternative forms of housing when the class composition of a neighborhood is upwardly transformed.

The seriousness of the situation often goes unseen. Students, who regard the city as their playground and live on land taken from the community by universities or in three-deckers that used to house working families, are unwitting contributors to the crisis. Living four or five to an apartment in buildings which landlords can allow to deteriorate because of the tenants'transience, students drive up rents and drive out working-class families, who are hit the hardest by a regressive land tax based on the assessed value of realty and passed on to the tenant by the landlord to preserve his profit.

Because higher education is one of Greater Boston's most important industries, the devastation caused by university expansion has been extensive. Mather House is built on the rubble of three-deckers that Harvard began to purchase and rent out to its professors and students during the ten year period before the wrecking ball destroyed the hollowed out shell of the McCarty and Banks Street Neighborhood.

The expansion of MIT, which was funded by tremendous amounts of government research money after World War II, eventually destroyed Kendall Square's working community; the residential and business character of the Kenmore Square area near Boston University has radically changed, becoming a Disco, college-oriented center to attract the student market over the last ten to fifteen years. The student situation is but one illustration of the way an unjust revenue structure, private capital investment and the profit motive in housing, deny decent homes to hardworking people in favor of institutions, playgrounds and luxury apartments for the middle and upper classes.

And the crisis is growing. The percentage of American families able to afford a new home has dropped from 50 to 25 per cent in the last five years. Among those who have grappled with the problem, all feel strongly that action can only come by federally-directed policy priorities and resource allocation. Low-income housing cannot be funded by cities overburdened by their share of the so-called "launch-pad" function--injecting the poor into the social and economic mainstream of society. Even federally-funded non-market housing is fiscally undesirable to cities because the residents do not contribute to the tax base needed by cities under the present tax structure. Although the federal government is the only instrument potentially strong enough to overcome this problem at the local level(this raises an entire jurisdictional problem in itself), it remains to be seen whether it is possible to allocate resources for housing needs with our present economic priorities.

Low and moderate income residents often form tenant and community groups to fight "urban renewal," high rents, abandoned or deteriorating housing stock, and the loss of neighborhood stability in areas like the South End, Roxbury and parts of Cambridge. Although the purpose of these "community housing development corporations," as they are called, is to secure bigger apartments, lower rents, economic returns to the community, and some control over function, design, and tenant selection, they are no more capable of bringing these goals to fruition than are private developers, for both are bound by the same economic constraints.

These constraints are land, construction, and financing. Their costs, in the case of community development corporations, are paid for by a combination of tenants'rents and government subsidies and loans. Land, about 20 per cent of the total development cost, is often subsidized by a local housing authority like the BRA, which acquires parcels and sells the land to the developer of its choice. For non-profit housing, the principle of the mortgage, which is 100 per cent guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration and covers land acquisition, construction or rehabilitation, is paid off entirely out of tenant's rents. Rent subsidies are usually allocated for a maximum of 20 to 40 per cent of the project by the FHA. Interest on the mortgage principle is subsidized by U.S. Housing Acts, which pay the difference between the market interest rate and the low government-subsidized level.

The cost squeeze presents formidable obstacles to the realization of improved housing. Since operating costs are supported entirely from the limited tenants' rents, the mortgage must be trimmed to the minimum to keep its financing economically viable. The other option, underestimating the operating expenses during the planning stage in order to obtain the largest possible mortgage, results in increased rents when increased operating costs are passed on to the tenants. FHA regulations covering all phases of the building process force non-profit developers to pay for all unplanned extra expenditures during construction out of their own pockets, forcing developers to cut corners, raise rents, or make concessions they don't want to make.

As developers and managers of community development projects, community housing development corporations must assume all the responsibilities of landlords--the payment demands of government agencies, banks, and investors come before the community's housing. The result is housing of generally poor quality with rents higher than the prevailing rents in the area, a lack of amenities for residents and a lack of significant economic returns for the community.

And that, despite all the Quincy Markets and Waterfronts, suggests the absence of a "New Boston."

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