A call to arms against big
Published in the Brookline
September 9, 1999
As a hardened anti-development, pro-community control type of guy, I'm
quick to sign any neighborhood petition trying to keep out the forces
of evil. As I see it, requests for zoning variances and proposals for
new mega-projects generally make rich people even richer while leaving
the rest of us with trash and traffic and way too much ugliness and sameness.
Developers who want us to put up with a little inconvenience for the sake
of the greater good rarely live up to their promises of community improvement.
I say rarely rather than never because every once in a while one project
or another actually provides something useful, something like affordable
housing that a community really needs, without adding to the destruction
of what the community already has. But since this is so rare, the burden
should always be on the developer to provide the proof. Until that proof
arrives, along with an ironclad guarantee, I'll just keep signing those
And I don't mean proof of an increased tax base. More money pouring into
Brookline might be a reasonable argument for some sort of development
somewhere, but as others have pointed out in these pages it's never a
good argument for any one particular project. It's not "progress" if it
doesn't meet a real need beyond just making money. Each project must stand
or fall on its own merits.
I have to admit, though, that my anti-builder position doesn't lead to
the same emotional reaction every time. Some bad ideas are even worse
During my year in Brookline I've paid most attention to the proposals
for the Webster Street hotel in Coolidge Corner and the extension of 10
Brookline Place over the Brookline Village MBTA station. I frequently
walk past both locations. Both proposals are bad ideas and should be opposed.
But the truth is that if both were enacted, only one would cause me real
pangs of regret.
A central issue for me concerning the hotel was highlighted last month
by Arthur Conquest: the town's providing the appearance, but not the reality,
of public review of the proposal. Manipulating the process should mandate
starting over again at an initial needs assessment, with full community
participation and all the cards on the table.
On the other hand, I suspect that the battle for Coolidge Corner has
already been lost. One of my grown sons pointed out on a visit last May
that walking up Harvard Street was like walking through an outdoor shopping
mall. He was not impressed, and unfortunately neither am I. Despite the
neighborhood's many attractions, a chain of chain stores has replaced
more interesting local businesses whose owners can't pay the escalating
rents. Some residents complain the neighborhood is becoming too much like
Harvard Square, where Carpenter & Co.'s Charles Hotel added to the
general boring busyness two decades ago. So building a Charles Hotel clone
on Webster Street and adding overpriced hotel rooms to the Coolidge Corner
mix should be prevented. The disruption for neighbors will be significant.
If it's built, I'll mutter as I walk by it three or four times a week.
But if a hotel does get built, it won't fundamentally change the neighborhood's
slide into high-cost homogeneity. It's too late.
By contrast, it's not too late to fight the final battle for Brookline
Village. Brookline Village may not be perfect, but it's still a great
place to walk and to sit and to live. Although Starbuck's arrival is worrisome,
fortunately I don't have to walk my daughter past a McDonalds everyday.
And although I hesitate to use words like "charming," the word actually
fits the neighborhood in general and the T station in particular. It's
a charming location. Walking across the tracks enhances the Village's
villageness. The artist studios along Station Street help make Brookline
The last thing Station Street needs is a strolling-inhibiting brick wall.
Today the MBTA tracks and T station are an appealing, leafy, permeable
barrier to Brookline Place and Brook House, hiding developments that opponents
failed to stop decades ago while allowing access to the stores on the
But tomorrow? Extending Brookline Place over the tracks doesn't just
enclose the station and block the artists' light, both of which are serious
concerns. More fundamentally, it changes the feel of the neighborhood
for the worse, not just in degree but in kind. That's cause not just for
opposition, but for regret.
Hotel update August 2003
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