Scaling [Back] the Heights

During the recent prolonged public debate over the Austin Street project and the much briefer introduction of Mr. Korff’s plans for the Orr Block, both developers justified the height of their proposed buildings by comparing them to the height of existing structures, such as the Swedenborgian Church and the Masonic Building. It seems likely that with all the projects rumored to be in the pipeline, building height will continue to be a contentious issue, with developers wanting to go higher than most residents would prefer.

I think it’s important to point out that in addition to their functional purposes, churches and such structures as City Hall and the Masonic Building have a symbolic meaning or a historical significance that exempts them from setting a precedent for the height of residential or commercial buildings. Imagine yourself in any of the hundreds of New England towns whose village greens are graced by a church with a steeple rising a hundred feet or more into the sky. Does anyone seriously believe that these towns would welcome other buildings of a comparable height?

Despite its proximity to the city of Boston, Newton has largely retained its village character and I believe that a majority of residents would like it to continue to do so. That means, among other things, limiting the height of new construction so that it does not loom over the streetscape and sidewalk. Most churches, of course, are built with substantial setbacks from the street. Although Mary Immaculata in Upper Falls and the Masonic Building in Newtonville are much closer to the street, we’ll give them a pass on the basis of their historic status. In general, though, I’d prefer to see our village centers left as they are now, with building heights for the most part of no more than three stories.

What do you think? Would buildings of 5 or 6 stories be appropriate in our village centers? Should Newton follow Brookline’s lead in allowing the construction of 10-story apartment towers in residential neighborhoods?

Rising septuagenarian; 40-year resident of Newton, though a Northern Californian by birth. Married, with two Millennial daughters who are products of the Newton school system (Countryside, Brown, NSHS).

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Julia Malakiecolleen minakerLynne LeBlanc Recent comment authors
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Lynne LeBlanc

I think the informative 40B discussion yesterday (http://www.newtonvillagesalliance.org/chapter-40b-in-the-nva-speakers-series.html) reminds us that much of what happens is driven by the developers eager to make the most of their efforts. Not that there is anything wrong with wanting to make a profit but it is easy to see that lack of oversight and accountability on the part of state housing agencies helps fuel developer desires for maximum profit at the expense of everything else.

Regarding the Orr building: there is a push on the part of some City Councilors to densify our villages. I’m not convinced we have a “moral obligation” to build higher and denser as they claim but it is a motivating factor for some of the zoning changes that are coming down the pike -pun intended – including “soft transitions that will make way for densification beyond the villages and into neighborhoods.

And if 5-6 stories are allowed, why not 10, as John asks? How can anyone trust limitations will be followed if every round of new building expansion is bigger and taller because Newton gives out special permits like chocolate on Valentine’s Day?

Colleen Minaker

I agree with Mr. Koot. Five stories is too tall for this site. I would like to see a design that historically compliments the older village buildings.

Julia Malakie

My understanding was church steeples were intended to be the tallest thing around. and I see from looking at the history of church steeples that that was due to a combination of objectives — inspiring people to look upwards to the heavens, making churches visible from a distance, reflecting the importance of churches in the community, and even to make church bells audible further away. Using uninhabited steeples as a rationale for building nearby structures just as tall seems completely inconsistent with those architectural objectives.