Supporting equity with an inclusive neighborhood—it’s urban planning for all
May 12, 2021
May 12, 2021
What’s driving the design for a new mixed-income community in Boston? How do the principles apply elsewhere?
This article first appeared as “Supporting equity in Charlestown” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 12.
In 2012, the head of the Boston Housing Authority, the late Bill McGonagle, had an innovative idea—to ask developers to look at every public housing site in Boston’s high-rent neighborhoods and propose mixing market-rate apartments with deeply affordable ones to bring badly needed improvements to those sites. Public housing had been defunded for 40 years by the city, state, and federal governments, and Bill once said that each year the dollars he received were 1/10th of his request to simply maintain the properties. The buildings were beyond their useful life and desperate measures were needed.
Stantec’s Charlestown project—Bunker Hill—is a result of that innovative idea. A public-private partnership with Legatt McCall Properties, the Joseph J. Corcoran Company, and the Boston Housing Authority will replace the existing 42 red brick buildings and surface parking lots with a vibrant, new, mixed-income neighborhood of 15 new residential buildings, 2.7 acres of open spaces, and 8 new streets including a new retail main street.
What’s more, the project reconnects and reintegrates an isolated, stigmatized area with the surrounding historic fabric of Charlestown.
The new buildings will be built efficiently and sustainably with cross-laminated timber (CLT) and prefabricated panels. It is a model for how a mixed-income project can raise up everyone, providing the same unit layouts, finishes, security, and amenities regardless of economics.
Several drivers emerged as powerful guiding principles alongside our strategies for urban planning. Our design work for Bunker Hill shows the important elements of creating successful mixed-income communities: emphasis on active participation of community residents in the design process, developing strong connections to the history and culture of the place, and achieving parity in quality of space and amenities for all residents.
Successful design solutions emerged from a process of thoughtful engagement with the community, which for Bunker Hill includes the current residents, the larger Charlestown neighborhood, and the City of Boston through the Boston Planning and Development Agency. From the start, the planning process was inclusive of the Charlestown Residents Alliance (CRA), which represented the existing residents. Their voices were critical because this is essentially their neighborhood.
Parity is paramount. The same high-quality outdoor spaces are available to both mixed-income and affordable-housing buildings.
It was interesting to hear the residents eschew brick, for example. It is ubiquitous in Charlestown but brings mostly negative connotations as it reflects the existing old housing project made up of uniformly brick buildings. The process also included numerous public meetings with the wider neighborhood, the Charlestown historic review board, and extensive discussions with the City. Over several years, this input resulted in a plan that scaled back the height and total number of units in the new development, increased the amount of open space, and eliminated structured parking garages.
Engagement with the community and City pushed the development team and us as designers to produce a more contextual scale and ultimately a better master plan that the residents, community, City Hall, and the developer can stand behind.
Typical of many public housing projects of the 1940s, the existing development at Bunker Hill is characterized by repetitive buildings that have no relationship to the surroundings, presenting an unwelcoming edge that separates people living there from the nearby neighborhood. Except for Monument Street, the existing street grid was erased as it crossed Bunker Hill Street, reinforcing a sense of isolation for residents.
Our plan does three things to connect to the neighborhood. First, it reconnects and extends the street grid through the development, organizing all the buildings along new tree-lined streets. Second, the plan creates a variety of open spaces that invite the public in and through the new development. And third, in place of the blank brick walls of the existing buildings, the plan features a series of storefronts along Bunker Hill offering retail opportunities that will be accessible to lower-income residents and the wider community of Charlestown.
There is an opportunity for the National Park Service to extend the Freedom Trail from the Bunker Hill Monument through the Boston Housing Authority development to the Charlestown Navy Yard, bringing tourists into the neighborhood to hear stories of how this area and its immigrant population played a role in the historical narrative of Boston, from the American Revolution to now.
Charlestown is one of Boston’s most cohesive historic neighborhoods, with brick and clapboard street walls that have both variety and a set of rules regarding windows, doors, bases, tops, and decorative details. While we did not want to replicate the existing fabric, we looked at the context and design principles so that we could connect to the uniqueness of the place.
We observed a rhythm of “fabric” and “object” buildings with a relationship to open spaces reminiscent of the dots and dashes in Morse Code—an inspiring coincidence as the inventor of Morse Code, Samuel Morse, was born and raised in Charlestown. We’ve applied that Morse Code to our plan to create relationships to the color and quality of historic buildings and to continue the texture and rhythm of streets as they traverse over Bunker Hill and into the new neighborhood.
Our goal was to develop a conversation between the architecture of the new buildings and the existing neighborhood. Several architecture firms will be engaged to design each of the buildings within this multi-phased development to ensure a thoughtful variation in architecture from block to block.
To achieve and support 1,100 deeply affordable housing units, the development increases the density of the neighborhood and adds housing for a total of 2,699 units. Market-rate units will partially subsidize the affordable units to create the mixed-income project. Three buildings will be entirely affordable housing, with the remaining 12 buildings being a combination of market rate and affordable. The design makes no distinction between market rate and affordable apartments in terms of finishes, quality standards of construction, and materials.
The public-private partnership will fund future maintenance, open space, and program events that will help make this a vibrant part of Charlestown. Our team designed the multifamily residential buildings with private outdoor space including courtyards with seating, dining and grilling areas, pergolas, and recreation spaces. Parity is paramount. The same high-quality outdoor spaces are available to both mixed-income and affordable-housing buildings.
Long-term maintenance will be taken care of by a management entity through a housing trust that will no longer need to rely on public-housing funding. This is a critical component of the public-private partnership that will ensure that the units, the buildings, and the open spaces do not deteriorate, making the project financially resilient over the long haul for residents of all incomes.
When we implement a performance-based set of design criteria known as Passive House on projects it results in highly energy-efficient buildings. All 15 new buildings at Bunker Hill will be designed to meet Passive House Institute US certification—they will be highly insulated and outfitted with extremely efficient mechanical systems, which will result in an 85% reduction of on-site burning of fossil fuels and a reduction in pollutant emissions.
PHIUS certification requires that these dwellings provide a constant higher-than-code level of ventilation to bedrooms and living rooms. This will greatly improve the air quality of the housing for all residents and represents a critical move toward improving public health and wellness for the most vulnerable. In terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, all floors will be constructed of CLT, a durable renewable building material and one of the only structural materials that sequesters carbon. By using CLT and limiting the use of concrete, we reduce the embodied carbon across the project.
With the knowledge that housing will continue to be a critical issue for cities across North America, but especially in Boston where the high cost of living is squeezing out the lower and middle class, we believe that projects like Charlestown’s Bunker Hill help to move the needle toward a more equitable approach to housing. By engaging with the residents, reconnecting the site to the neighborhood, picking up on architectural cues that create a sense of belonging, and championing sustainable and resilient construction techniques, the project will create an equitable, resilient, and cohesive community that will endure for generations.