Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Not the worst kind of development in Allston

The Boston Globe ran a piece recently about a "green" development in Brighton Allston. The part of Allston it's in, near the base of Corey Hill, is generally thought of as the epicenter of cheap student housing in Boston: glorified (or not-that-glorified) tenements for $500 a room. A big developer got some nice press for their green housing development, and I began to cringe when I thought of the green-washing possibilities: the token solar panels and patch of grass on the roof paired with a guarantee of free parking with every unit! The thrown-together rain garden to drain the massive surface parking out back. The eminent-domained two family houses razed for a new building with a lower overall FAR and units per acre.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the development was, overall, not an overall detriment to the area. It's scale is fitting with the neighborhood—four stories is de rigeur for that area. It has parking, but the variance is stepped down and spaces cost $165 to $200 per month, market rate for the area and 10% or more of the building's rent (and they're not bundled). This is my biggest peeve with so-called green projects: they are frequently either built in areas without transportation choices (this one is in a walkable, bikeable and transit-able neighborhood, even if it is on the B line) or, if they are, they either choose or are forced by their lenders to overbuild parking, which they then give away. Even at one space per unit, I think parking is overbuilt in this case. But at least in the case of "The Edge" (warning: big PDF) some of it is outside, and if it doesn't sell it could be surreptitiously converted to open space.

Here's the Globe's map of the development. And a block-scale greening might just be a good investment for the developer, too.

There are other decent green features, at The Element (yes, these are stupid names, and yes there is a blog post about building names to be written), for instance. Like individual water meters: no more long hot showers for your $500 a month. (Can I complain? No, the landlord in my 1885-era house pays to water our garden.) And white roof and rooftop vegetable garden (a great amenity!). And a bunch of other garden variety green cues.

What is this housing replacing? Garages, abandoned light industry and parking. While losing the industrial buildings is sort of a shame, this neighborhood will probably never again have small-scale manufacturing. The project will build or rehab several hundred apartments for a price tag of $125 million, not a bad shot in the arm for the local economy. And since it's on a streetcar line and a stone's throw from Harvard Street, it's a perfectly good place for even higher-density residential.

The site for the Edge is about 200' by 175', or about 4/5 acres, with 79 units—about 100 units per acre. With 1.75 people per unit, this is more than 100,000 people per square mile (more than the actual density, since it doesn't account for nearby infrastructure). It's not as dense as the grove of three-deckers I lived in on Harvard Ave in Brookline (almost double the density), but it's not bad. These Allston census tracts clock in at 40,000 to 50,000 people per square mile—some of the densest in Boston (12,000 overall) and nearly as dense as Manhattan (66,000), so it's about right for the neighborhood.

One qualm I have with most of this new development is that it lacks character, and from the pictures, this seems to be the case. Apparently everyone wants a sleek, modern granite kitchen and bare, white walls. I still think there's a market for new 1920s-style apartments with accents like built-in pantries and wooden molding, but maybe I'm a crotchety old man who needs his scotch. Who know, maybe people love having everything sleek and white—I understand the ethic but think that it is overused.

And yes, it's expensive. But every new unit of housing on the market should, if economics tells us anything, bring down prices for everyone (or allow more people to access the market). Economics—supply and demand—tells us that; prices are high in walkable neighborhoods because there is more demand than supply. There's an ongoing, and well-founded, worry that new development will continue to marginalize low income populations. However, I think that it is more problematic when NIMBYs strike down denser housing because it is "out of character", constricting supply and driving prices higher. Next: we need sustainable housing for low income residents.


  1. What are you talking about, "lower Brighton"? The area has a name, it's called Allston.

    The developer came to a community meeting and I remember that he wanted to build less parking than typically required. I supported him in this and asked if he would consider even less, but apparently that wasn't an option. Anyway, he is putting them up at market rate, and said that there would be flexibility between his other sites in case of overflow.

  2. Good info. Re: Brighton, you're right. Although Allston was originally a part of Brighton, so my portrayal here would be decently descriptive. But Allston is a better way of putting it. This area is near the "border" between Allston and Brighton.

    Interesting that the developer was interested in building less. Do you know if it was the city of the bank which wanted less parking? I'm always interested in what would happen if a developer built parking as requested with the aim of, once the building was constructed, being able to turn it in to apartments or retail. It would be a ploy, but it might well work.

    1. Allston/Brighton is technically one city neighborhood, but generally people view the part east of the line formed by Everett/Gorden/Kelton Streets as Allston proper. So yes, this is a couple blocks east from Kelton Street.

      The developer wanted less parking and he came to the meeting to talk about how he was ready to work with the community and ensure that any overflow would go into one of his other parking lots. I don't know whether it was the bank or the BRA which ended up setting the minimum.

      Being able to turn unneeded parking levels into other uses is an interesting idea but I think there's some issues, since that kind of space is usually built differently from what you'd need in residential or commercial space. Still, I'm glad some people out there are working on it.