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Second look

Over the past two decades, many themes have been popular with readers. Five authors reconsider their pieces in light of the passing years. 

Illustrations by Katherine Hughes/Stoltze Design


GATEWAY CITIES

Not so run of the mill

by John R. Schneider

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The Gateway City of Pittsfield, my hometown, was in the news again this year. The decades-long battle to clean the Housatonic River of pcbs left behind by General Electric has taken a new twist with an administration in Washington unconcerned about cleaning up the environment. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the turnpike, ground has been broken on GE’s new global headquarters, a major coup for Boston.

Such is the challenge facing the state’s Gateway Cities. Communities like Pittsfield and Lowell, where I live now, still need to shed their reputations as old industrial mill cities while finding their place in the global economy. It can be done, but it takes a long view, hard work, and smart investment.

Beginning in 2007, I led a team of researchers from MassINC (Institute for a New Commonwealth) and the Brookings Institution in assessing the economic prospects facing 11 Massachusetts cities like Pittsfield, which shared a struggle to rebuild and align their economies to compete for investment and jobs. But rather than leave it at that, our team wanted to put forward some ideas for how old mill cities could contribute again to the state’s economy by serving as regional hubs of economic growth. We hoped our findings would change current conditions. We did not expect that our research would launch a movement, one that’s extremely important for Massachusetts and the nation today.

Unexpected back then was the sticking power of the Gateway brand. The report became a rallying cry for the original 11 cities to work together on a shared agenda and to forge a new partnership with the state. The Massachusetts legislature responded by creating a caucus and a definition for a Gateway municipality in state law. The state’s investment agency, Mass Development, steered resources into the cities through a new targeted investment fund and created a fellows program to support local planning and economic development. Boston’s Federal Reserve Bank established a Working Cities Challenge grant program to support cross-sector collaboration. And Massinc continues to lead the way through its Innovation Institute, which publishes research, shapes policy, and convenes leaders to build capacity in this work.

If you visit me in Lowell, you will find the full expression of what it means to be a Gateway City. It’s where newcomers and urban pioneers like me come together to help revitalize a community. My neighborhood is a diverse mix of middle- and working-class families doing the things that families do to raise kids and enjoy life. Most of my neighbors immigrated to the United States, many escaping unbelievable hardships. They are proud of their heritage and also proud to be making Massachusetts home. They are great neighbors, sharing with us the celebrations of their families through good Cambodian food, smiles, and kindness (and in the winter, team snow-shoveling efforts!). It’s the kind of neighborhood that’s good for our nation — diverse, integrated, hardworking — in a city that’s leveraged its industrial heritage with a major university to take a leadership role in technology, arts, and culture.

Many of us don’t see the connections to the world being forged by Gateway Cities. Walk down main street in Lawrence and you experience the sights and sounds of a thriving Latino small-business community and a remarkable revitalization of historic old mills. Worcester’s universities, biotech, and medical centers have a global reach that brings ideas and dollars to the largest of the Gateways. New Bedford is positioning itself on the cutting edge of sustainable energy. Each Gateway City — there are now 26 officially designated — is working hard to find its niche and offer new opportunities to workers and business.

Pittsfield is a smaller city now. Its population has shrunk by almost 30 percent since the 1970s, when I was in high school. There is talk of consolidating schools and districts as the Berkshires lose young people and those who stay grow older. But Pittsfield is making its mark in the creative economy. Its affordability, quality of life, and abundant nature are attracting newcomers who bring talent and ideas that often challenge the status quo — and that’s a good thing.

Ten years is not long enough to reverse conditions that were decades in the making. But America benefits when cities like the Gateways become relevant again, helping to create new opportunities and meet new global challenges. ■

JOHN R. SCHNEIDER manages external affairs for a national education reform consulting group. He wrote about Massachusetts’ mill cities in the Summer 2009 “Gateway Cities” issue.

WATERFRONTS

A tale of five cities

by Steven G. Cecil AIA ASLA

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Two decades ago, five of Massachusetts’ port cities simultaneously launched urban design and redevelopment plans for their waterfronts, creating innovative frameworks for public and private reinvestment. The ports had long suffered from the steady decline of maritime trade and traditional fishing industries, resulting in extensive deterioration of their harbors. But significant development pressure was beginning to build along the water’s edge. In Boston, landmark projects such as the World Trade Center and Rowes Wharf had captured the public’s eye, evoking the promise of new access and the investment value of our historic ports.

In Massachusetts, coastal edges are subject to a unique set of legal and regulatory requirements, collectively called Chapter 91. Special plans were needed in 1997 to create a consistent set of requirements where municipal and state jurisdictions overlapped. The resulting municipal harbor plans proved to be pivotal, changing the course for thousands of acres of land and the harbors that serve them.

Boston’s harbor planning unlocked the new mixed-use developments and remarkable public amenities that have transformed Boston’s urban waterfront. Dense redevelopment stretches along every district that rims Boston Harbor. A constantly growing network of walks, parks, boat landings, civic institutions, and programmed places has accompanied each increment of development. The waterfront hosts the Institute for Contemporary Art in South Boston, new public spaces and activities around the Fort Point Channel, community boating programs in East Boston, and much more. Less apparent are the environmental shifts. The Deer Island treatment plant removed sewer outfalls from Boston Harbor when it went into full operation in 2000. Healthy sea life is returning. We may need a new rock anthem to replace the familiar refrain in “Dirty Water.”

Because of the environmental, physical, and regulatory challenges they face, urban waterfronts are terrifically expensive to develop. Boston’s waterfront was well positioned, with billions in public investment followed by a runaway real estate market. The other port cities have their own stories to tell; development on the whole is proceeding, albeit more slowly.

The plan for Fall River, for example, recognized that outmoded highway infrastructure effectively blocked fruitful waterfront redevelopment. Since that time, an Interstate highway interchange and other roadways have been entirely rebuilt. The final step in freeing the waterfront from the highway is under way, leading to emerging opportunities for transformative development.

Gloucester has adjusted its harbor edges to invite recreation and public access, and remains in active pursuit of ways to retain its identity as a commercial fishing port, even within a regulated industry with an uncertain future.

After two decades fostering ideas for game changing uses that did not pan out, New Bedford has chosen to build upon its strategic location as a fishing port and venue for innovative, marine-dependent uses. This port is creating new public access and amenities, while setting the stage for a path-breaking 21st-century version of a water-dependent, entrepreneurial, industrial, and employment center.

Salem’s outdated energy plant dominated land and views along its harbor 20 years ago. An entrepreneurial venture has removed that plant and is replacing it with a compact natural gas powered facility that will be a better neighbor to the historic waterfront. Also benefiting will be the cruise ship wharf and public landing, which will be among the responsibilities of its newly formed Port Authority.

The moral of this tale is clear: Wise infrastructure investment leads to renewed waterfronts. Peering into the decades ahead, infrastructure investments must adapt our ports to climate change. There is still a lot to do. ■

STEVEN G. CECIL AIA ASLA is a principal of Harriman and leads its multidisciplinary Boston studio. He participated in a roundtable discussion about Massachusetts’ port cities in the Spring 1999 “Waterfronts” issue.

HOUSING

Raise high the roof dreams

by Carol Burns FAIA

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The promise of the prefab house is that decent mass-produced homes can be delivered quickly and cost-effectively. Modular and manufactured housing — one of the fastest-growing segments of the US housing market in the 1990s — accounted for 25 percent of new house starts. Then, as now, housing needs are urgent: Studies document that every county in the United States faces a shortage of affordable housing.

The prefab-housing industry has produced complete, unsubsidized homes characterized by economy, ease of finance, and innovative techniques and materials. By these measures, manufactured housing stands out.

Evolving from “travel trailers” and “mobile homes,” manufactured housing was defined in 1976 by federal building code as a prefabricated structure on a permanent chassis. Compared to modular prefab or any other type of house, manufactured houses require the least amount of time for construction and on-site installation, and purchase costs typically exclude land, which, in mobile-home parks, is leased. Its characteristics make manufactured housing less expensive than other factory-built types of the same quality, providing housing access for many low-income earners.

What has changed since 2001? Housing, prefabrication, and me.

For the housing sector, the Great Recession began in 2007, and its aftereffects continue. While single-family construction has had a decade of weakness, multifamily and rental housing has expanded; 2015 was the fourth consecutive year that multifamily units accounted for more than 30 percent of housing starts. Within single detached housing, the market share of all factory-built homes has decreased: site-built homes constituted 97 percent of house starts in 2014, so the stock of manufactured housing has skewed older. Factory-built home technologies are well established but remain relatively uncommon, perhaps due to repetitive, bland design as well as the enduring stigma associated with “trailer parks.”

For prefabrication, the possibilities have exploded since 2001. New digital fabrication tools, from 3d printing and scanning to CNC milling and laser cutters, have spawned the “maker movement” and renewed interest in experimentation at many scales. Building Information Modeling (BIM) can lead to closer coordination between architects and contractors. New forms of “flat pack” off-site production of building systems and components might be less expensive, more sustainable, and offer tolerances and techniques not possible in on-site construction. Prefabrication now takes innovative directions unimagined in the predigital era of manufacturing houses and modular boxes for shipment on a highway.

After years of research, writing, and exhibiting on modular and manufactured housing, my firm was awarded a commission in 2007 to design modular housing in Sudbury. The project involves demolishing five single-family homes that, ironically, were prefab Alcon homes with aluminum metal structures that made them difficult to add to vertically and, sealing the demolition deal, had rusted connections. The practical innovations of my firm’s design were in the house type (duplex homes in a single-family zone) and the tenure form (an unprecedented mix of affordable and public housing).

Did this use of prefab modular housing save time or money? The answer, which depends on the choice of a comparative baseline, is yes and no. The modular installer “set” the boxes in just two days; the general contractor completed building and site work in 13 months, a time frame that a site builder with the right crew could match; the architectural commission encompassed five years, a very long time, much of it in securing affordable-housing financing; the Sudbury Housing Authority invested more than 10 years from conception to closeout, much longer than a for-profit private developer would dream of spending on a project this size.

The “hard” construction costs for 10 units of affordable housing totaled $285,000 per house, and total development costs were $357,000 per house: 14 percent lower than comparable construction in New England. But the hard-cost savings in the project, largely thanks to the modular delivery approach, offset only half the project soft costs, mostly due to the affordable/public-housing financing, legal, and other fees. (Soft costs in 18 line items, including one for architects and engineers, totaled $85.9K per house.)

Like much in life, this evaluation depends on context. As a final point of comparison, however, median housing prices in 2013 were $310,000 in Massachusetts overall but $675,000 in Sudbury. In this sense, the project was a dream come true. ■

CAROL BURNS FAIA is principal of Taylor & Burns Architects. She wrote about manufactured housing trends in the Spring 2001 “Shelter” issue.

PRESERVATION

Reuse, recycle, reenergize

by Henry Moss AIA

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Queen to Alice: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Fifty years ago, few of us expected that the hearts of American cities would start to beat again. Our downtowns had sustained a continuous decline. There was little protection for the familiar, the recognizably historic, or the texture of active streetscapes — let alone the residents of Boston’s West End. The sense of loss over the demolition of landmark structures such as Pennsylvania Station concentrated emotional reactions to broader changes in our cities and towns. A righteous opposition emerged, reinforced by the unpopularity of replacement buildings and the antiurban spatial economy of our automobile culture. Few people now realize how federal incentives to modernize the appearance of main street retail frontages dramatically affected American towns under the New Deal — or how unopposed those changes were.

The historic preservation movement focused further through the lens of the Bicentennial in 1976, as the Colonial Revival had done in 1876. Federal, state, and local laws and bylaws created a new framework to manage the rate and nature of change. Nationally, our minds had changed. Old buildings became less vulnerable to thoughtless demolition. Preservation architecture became a professional specialty. The general public is now more receptive to contemporary architecture, in part because it has improved in so many ways.

Architecture’s artistic aspirations have long drawn it into the same stylistic teleology as art history, which is about objects — not places. Looking back across the years, I would argue that the adaptive reuse of existing buildings (often with transformative new additions) is among the most powerful placemaking forces of our time. Historic architectural form can anchor radical retrofits for contemporary circulation, energy management, and spatial fluidity in ways that coincide with less-felt disruption to familiar land­scapes. Adaptive reuse can engage the designer’s imagination at the point where a received architec­ture and possibilities for entirely new design converge. Sensitivity to the original building’s character is not eclecticism. Contemporary response need not be historicist. Schools of architecture are finally recognizing this, and studio projects are help­ing to erode the reductive opposition that once existed between new design and historic preservation.

Adaptive reuse has emerged as architecture’s true Postmodernism, capable of embracing many interwoven strands of life in the built environment. The Brutalist emphasis on materiality may have informed young practioners’ approaches to building reuse alongside heightened appreciation of historic buildings. Adaptive reuse has shown that it can be transformative. It can be unconfined stylistically and offer a variety of highly textured ways to weave new developments into urban settings. Federal and state tax credits for historic preservation in real estate development almost always favor large-scale adaptive reuse projects — and deserve continuing political and public support.

Architecture 2030, the nonprofit that Edward Mazria established in response to the climate-change crisis, recognizes the vastness of our existing construction with clear goals for its adaptation to conserve energy over the coming decades. Patrick Keiller, the English filmmaker and observer of the built environment (The View from the Train: Cities & Other Landscapes) is succinct: “There seem to be two kinds of space. There is new space… and old space. Most of the old space is residential and looks more or less dilapidated. The new space is occupied by large corporations of one sort or another, and is not urban in the conventional sense.”

Adaptive reuse has the potential to create architectural richness across this divide while addressing physical and emotional deficiencies simultaneously. Multidimensional, transformative, recognized by the profession on a project-by-project basis, yes — but seldom seen for the national force it has become. ■

HENRY MOSS AIA is a principal at Bruner/Cott & Associates. He wrote about preservation in the July/August 2006 “1976” issue.

TRANSPORTATION

Getting a move on

by Stephanie Pollack Hon. BSA

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Back in 2012, when I wrote about transportation “promises to keep” 40 years after Governor Frank Sargent reordered transportation priorities in the state, I was an outside analyst and advocate; today, as Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, I am the ultimate insider.

One thing that has not changed is my agreement with Sargent, who nearly half a century ago canceled highways and invested in transit, recognizing that the MBTA is largely “responsible for the economic and cultural vitality” of Greater Boston. I agreed with the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR), commissioned by Sargent, in its admonition that the regional transit system had been “permitted to deteriorate — physically, financially, and institutionally.”

The winter of 2015 revealed to all the MBTA’s continued deterioration, and today, the T is working on all three challenges:

  • Physically: Red and Orange Line fleets are on order; new buses are on line; and work continues on improving resiliency, tracks, power, and signals, and to modernize stations. These investments will ultimately produce what transit riders want most: reliable service.
  • Financially: A projected structural operating budget deficit of $335 million for the fiscal year that began in July was whittled down to $30 million. Funds that had gone to cover operating deficits now go to fix the system.
  • Institutionally: New leadership and the steady hand of the Fiscal and Management Control Board have produced change across the Authority, providing greater transparency about T needs and challenges.

The BTPR also challenged us to reinvent transportation planning. Basically, transportation agencies do two things: run service and fix or build infrastructure. So the plans that drive change are service plans and capital plans. That’s why the transportation department (MassDOT) and the T have reinvented capital planning. The $16 billion rolling five-year capital plan integrated across both agencies prioritizes the right investments: fixing and modernizing the core systems of roads and rails.

And the MBTA is finally doing service planning. Every one of the T’s 170 bus routes is being reviewed and changes are being made to ensure that riders get the frequency, reliability, and quality of service they deserve. Service planning has identified specific investments — now funded in the capital plan — that will increase the number of peak-hour trains on the Red Line by 50 percent and on the Orange Line by 33 percent.

There is, of course, also a place for more visionary long-range planning. Massdot is completing a statewide rail plan addressing the potential of freight rail and building on recent investments in passenger rail outside the MBTA service area. New statewide pedestrian and bicycle plans are under way, and the capital plan commits tens of millions of dollars to implement the highest-priority investments those reviews identify.

The current planning exercise most inspired by the BTPR is Focus40, which is designed to position the MBTA to meet the needs of Greater Boston in 2040. Focus40 is developing a long-term investment strategy that recognizes today’s infrastructure challenges as well as the shifting demographics, changing climate, and evolving technologies that will shape the MBTA’s  future. In a spin-off from that effort, the MBTA is launching a Commuter Rail Vision process to look at very different futures for the rail network, including higher-frequency regional rail service and using “multiple units” to provide more transitlike service.

But I’ve come to realize that visionary plans don’t matter unless they can be executed. That’s why our most important work isn’t about planning, it’s about changing: changing investments, operations, performance, culture. I believe these changes will result in a system that works for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and drivers alike, with improvements in MBTA reliability, speedier bus transportation in cities and towns, a state-of-the-art fare collection system, and — most important — a capable, customer-centric, financially stable MBTA that can deliver $1 billion in capital improvements and moderniza­tion every year to rebuild the system.

Reversing the MBTA’s “physical, financial, and institutional” deterioration will take many years  —  but without tackling and completing that process, we will never be able to deliver on the kind of visionary planning that the BTPR inspires and I hope Focus40 will deliver. I became Secretary at a moment when our primary task was to rebuild the foundations for a world-class system that others will ultimately complete — and I’m OK with that. As I am reminded daily by the quote from a Talmudic sage on the wall across from my desk: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” ■

STEPHANIE POLLACK Hon. BSA is the Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. She wrote about the need for visionary transportation planning in the Winter 2012 “Turn Signal” issue.