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?