Monday, July 09, 2007

Razing Three Historical Houses on Foster Street: Lessons Learned from Harvard

As part of its master plan, Boston College has proposed to tear down three houses at 188/192/196 Foster Street in order to build 70-90 beds of graduate student / seminarian housing. These three houses, dating to the 1880s, are of architectural and historical significance, according to Bill Marchione, Boston Landmarks Commissioner and President of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.

Visual inspection of the exterior of the houses shows them to be in good shape (particularly for houses from the 1880s), despite several claims to the contrary.

Does BC have no option but to raze these houses in order to accomplish their proposed development project? Doubtful. For example, I submit two alternative approaches that Harvard has pursued in order to maintain historical houses while still progressing with their development plans. BC officials would do well to investigate options such as these.

Option 1: Keep the houses, and build around them

Harvard pursued this option with their University Place development in the 1980s. It was considered a success:
The first major project under the new rules was University Place/University Green on the Baird Atomic site. The Holiday Inn having been rejected, in the mid-1970s a developer planned to build an office complex and two twenty-one-story apartment buildings. Harvard University was persuaded to develop the property, and early in 1980 bought the site as an investment for $4 million.

University Place was the first commercial development project in Harvard Square to include historic preservation as an objective. The plans were close to approval when the Cambridge Historical Commission opposed the demolition of two houses on the site. In the end, the university's developer not only restored the houses but built a complementary Greek Revival building (a replica of 8 Ellery Street) in the landscaped forecourt of the condominium structure, University Green. In addition, Harvard purchased and restored two houses and built three compatible town houses to create a buffer zone on adjoining Gerry Street. In 1984, this area was secured against further adverse development by a neighborhood conservation district administered by the staff of the Historical Commission and the Half Crown Neighborhood Conservation District Commission.

University Place was considered a success. The overlay district accommodated a huge project in a process that took only two years to reach final agreement, compared to six years for Charles Square; both began construction in the spring of 1982. The productive involvement of the university with the community brought about a better design that created a permanent buffer against commercial expansion into a residential neighborhood.

Option 2: Move the houses to a different site

Harvard moved three houses to a site a couple of blocks away in order to make way for its Law School expansion.

(photo credit: John Tlumacki of Boston Globe)

A large collection of photos of the move was posted here.


t.s. said...

There are certainly other options. BC should have a look at how schools like Brown and RISD have taken beautiful old and historic homes (and non-residential buildings for that matter) and incorporated them into growth plans by renovating them. Another local example is the 53 Church Street building at Harvard Extension School. The notion that you have to mow everything down that's in the "way" (ie not new) to accomodate growth is shortsighted, and in the end everyone takes a step backwards.

Bill said...

BC simply has no respect for the community, and they act without any concern for how their decisions impact those outside their organization. They see Brighton as a playground to do with as they wish, and this attitude is reflected in the behavior of their students.