If you live in the greater Boston area, you’re aware of Boston’s current housing crunch and just how expensive it is to live here; according to a report from real estate data firm Reis, Inc., the average rent in Greater Boston topped $2,000 in 2015. Development and construction in desirable, urban areas is expensive, and as a result, it is often unprofitable for developers to produce large numbers of low and middle income units. The City of Boston is aware of the issue, as recent as last month, Mayor Walsh committed funds to support affordable housing in Boston which affirms his 2014 “Boston 2030″ initiative, a plan to produce 53,000 new units of housing. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit a building on Huntington Avenue that may prove to be a model solution to Boston’s low and middle income housing crisis.
The Charlesbank Apartment Cooperative was originally built as affordable housing in 1963 and sits between Longwood Medical Center and Mission Hill. It was transformed to a cooperative ownership model in 1991 with some substantial financial help from the federal government. The twenty-six story concrete frame and precast apartment block is similar to many in the downtowns of American cities and might have been overlooked by a developer interested in exploring middle income housing. However, it stands out as an example of how the existing buildings that create the fabric of our cities might be transformed to address the housing needs of middle class urban dwellers. The building is owned and governed by the residents of the Cooperative, who own reasonably priced shares in the building, but do not own individual units.
A closer look into the architecture shows a well thought out, economical design of only two unit types, a studio and a one bedroom, executed with durable materials. The simplicity and repetition of the kitchen cabinets make them beautiful, and cork floor tiles are quiet and comfortable underfoot in the site-cast concrete structure. Other simple space planning strategies are used to make modest sized apartments feel well-proportioned and larger than their small square footage might imply, offering flexible and daylight-washed living spaces.
The tower’s exterior and public circulation spaces are treated with a similar elegant efficiency. The stories above grade are treated uniformly with washed precast and simple balconies. The ground floor is given a screen of visual texture and privacy with a translucent wall of glazed blocks that are inset from the floors above and sit just a foot in front of continuous storefront windows. This provides privacy, and more importantly, a woven fabric texture with detail that one can enjoy at a pedestrian scale.
I’d like to think that it is the simplicity, durability, and elegance of the architecture that lead the residents to continue caring for and about this building over the long term. It is an interesting model to examine when considering how to conserve existing buildings while changing the housing market. And as an added benefit, by reusing existing structures we also contribute to our cities by using one of the most environmentally sustainable strategies in our arsenal: don’t build a new building.