Preservation and affordability advocates call truce in JP

It’s an odd alliance at first glance. The Boston Preservation Alliance and Occupy JP have united to oppose demolishing the “Knight’s Children’s Center” on Huntington Ave. The Home for Little Wanderers is relocating to Walpole, and the latest plan for its site is to tear the buildings down and put up a high-end apartment building.

Here are the basics of the dispute from the Jamaica Plain Gazette:

Occupy JP calls for the space to be filled by owner-occupied triple-deckers, a homegrown remedy to poverty with a proven record,” the statement continued. “Spread the wealth or find the homeless, orphans, widows and others sleeping on your doorstep.”

Curtis Kemeny, whose Boston Residential Group is planning the high-end apartment building, previously told the Gazette that the existing buildings cannot be reused due to their age and the difficulty of reconfiguring them.

That includes a 1914 brick building at the core of the complex. Neiswander, a Jamaica Plain resident who said she was writing with the permission of the BPA’s board and executive director, noted that several other S. Huntington Avenue institutions have reused historic buildings. She noted that the 1914 building is “a sturdy brick building of human scale that should be eminently adapatable for residential use.”

It’s worth pointing out that the proponents of historic preservation and the proponents of affordable housing are not always natural allies. Often as not, for example, in the case of St. Aidan’s in Brookline, finally converted to affordable housing in 2010, housing advocates come up against preservationists and others who don’t want to see changes made.

Today, Tim Fernholz argues at GOOD that, “Local policies about land use and transit make America’s most productive places—our largest, wealthiest cities—prohibitively expensive for many people.”

The people already residing in those cities have enacted policies that have, in essence, built a wall around them. Limits on the size of buildings mean that fewer apartment units are built; demands that the needs of cars take precedence over the needs of people create vast parking lots that take up valuable land; zoning restrictions make it harder to create thriving neighborhoods with many types of housing and businesses. In his polemic, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” Matt Yglesias notes while residents fight to preserve the character of iconic neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown, those neighborhoods would be illegal to construct today.

Fernholz argues that high costs of living, combined with rising college debt, keep people from making the move to one of the country’s historically magnetic cities, like New York. Forget Georgetown. More dramatically, there’s the height restriction on all buildings in Washington DC, which gets a lot of blame for that city’s rising rents.

In the JP case (which, just to clarify, doesn’t involve affordable housing) the figurative keys to the bulldozers currently rest in the hands of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) after the Boston Landmarks Coalition (BLC) imposed a 90-day moratorium.

So, JP-ers, keep an eye on the alphabet soup and ponder this one awhile.

Photo shamelessly stolen from the Home for Little Wanderers’ incredible Flickr stream. If you like that one, check out the kids occupying this tree house on Halloween. The Thanksgiving turkey drive. Man, I could go on and on.
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Tent City

As part of a massive program of urban renewal in Boston in the 1960s, one plot of houses in the South End was demolished and replaced with a parking lot. 100 families were displaced. The parking lot became a prime location for a protest against the large-scale displacement of primarily minority tenants by commercial developments. Weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, between 100 and 400 hundred occupied the lot. They lived there in temporary shelters for three days, playing music and grilling burgers, until they were finally disbanded by renewed police pressures.

However, their initiative bore belated fruit, won with a lot more effort. The organization, CAUSE which had led the effort, received renewed attention and funding to pursue equitable housing policy. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) showed signs of new interest in affordable housing and lead-organizer Mel King was elected to the Massachusetts House in 1972. The Task Force eventually became the Tent City Corporation, which finally completed this memorable, mixed-income housing development on the site on top of a parking lot. Notably, the project continues as a mixed-income development today.

More reading: The Corporation’s records reside at U-Mass Boston, ripe for dissertations. The Internet Archive also holds a collection of primary sources from the redevelopment. Helpful context here.

Roadtown Solves Problem of Living

We’ve covered other un-built schemes to reach from New York to Boston. This one, from the brain of inventor, Edgar Chambless  reached new visionary heights.

Chambless, who lost his job and savings in a financial panic–this one in 1898–had come to sit on top of a hill in Los Angeles to think.

Chambless seems to have had a knack for coming up with uses for unwanted and unused items. Considering the ground beneath him, he concluded it was only worthless because it was so hard to get to. Moving back east to New York, where little land in the city lacks activity or exhorbitant property values, Chambless took a ride on the subway and another seed was planted.

Working in the patent office going through hundreds of abandoned ideas, he writes, true to form:

I began to dream of new conditions in which some of these shelved inventions might be utilized to ease the burden of life for mankind. One plan after another was abandoned until the idea occurred to me to lay the modern skyscraper on its side and run the elevators and pipes horizontally instead of vertically.

Chambless called this structure Roadtown. He imagined that, not having to deal with the physics at work on tall buildings, Roadtowns could extend for thousands of miles. He proposed a monorail running below to transport residents and a bikepath along the roof (also available to roller-skaters). Like any good utopian plan of the era, Chambless planned for shared housework, with fresh meals delivered from a central kitche by train, and a central laundry. Other featured would let residents engage in gardening or light manufacturing in their spare time.

Hi 1910 book on Roadtown got a buzz of press. The New York World noted in its oddly-named article ‘Solving Problem of Living’:

A Roadtown man may work at a machine till his eyes and fingers are tired, and then go out and feed the chickens. This is the idea industrial life for which the philosophers of all ages have have striven but which is becoming more and more impossible under our present scheme of civilization.

Chambless announced he was ready to work with the first bidders proposing a practical site. He thought a logical starting place for a Roadtown could run the Bronx to the city of Boston.

More reading: The entire Roadtown, by Edgar Chambless, 1910 is on Google Books. A quick run through some other linear city proposals also found here.