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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Brookline Place Proposal Not as Bad as Most

Dennis Fox

February 12, 2004

Brookline Planning Board members last week supported a proposed zoning change to allow a 125-foot building at 2 Brookline Place, between the Brookline Village MBTA station and Route 9. Despite lingering opposition, a special Town Meeting on March 4th will likely approve. I can live with that, if loose ends are resolved.

My initial reaction to every large development scheme is suspicion. A few years ago I objected to a proposed extension of 10 Brookline Place over the T station, which would have transformed a friendly, walkable transit point into an imposing barrier infringing on Station Street residents and artists. I opposed Coolidge Corner's Webster Street Hotel, which converted town-owned space to private use. These days I'm against replacing the Beacon Street Gulf station with a to-be-named-later big-box chain that would hasten Coolidge Corner's slide into corporate mediocrity.

But if we're going to build anywhere -- here's where I flirt with the Dark Side -- it might as well be Brookline Place.

Every commercial development proposal seems to generate the same debate. Proponents who assert the increased tax base will fund schools and basic services -- including town officials who seemingly push every obnoxious proposal -- routinely insist any negative impact will be minimal. Opponents who say they too want more tax money insist that this particular project is too high or too dense or too close, will attract too much traffic or cast too long a shadow, or cause too much construction disruption.

The developer then reduces the size a bit, presents a study showing minimal traffic impact, and gushes about the new building's artistry and its contribution to urban street life. Residents say the traffic study is inaccurate, the project will destroy the neighborhood's small-town character, and the building is ugly besides.

And on it goes.

On height: Current Brookline Place zoning allows a 100-foot building. The troubling increase won't be from 100 to 125, but from the existing 26-foot building to 100 -- that's what will block the sky and create most of the shadow. For "economic viability," the developers say, they need 125 because they want open green space on a quarter of the site -- more than exists now. A shorter building means no open space.

I'm still not sure what economic viability means. How much profit will the developers make? Many residents might consider profits from a 100-foot building perfectly adequate. The development game, though, assumes everyone involved makes big bucks -- including the town, apparently, since 1 percent of construction costs will pay for off-site street improvements and transportation mitigation.

A second issue is the building's intended use as a medical laboratory. Labs can be dangerous, but even the Brookline Village Coalition that objects to the building's height is divided about the lab's acceptability. Fortunately, the developers aren't proposing a terrorist-magnet Level 4 biohazards lab like the one being forced on downtown Boston.

The zoning change allows a Level 1 or Level 2 lab, apparently for routine medical tests and research. It must meet standard US safety rules and gain Brookline Fire and Public Health approval. Neighbors and workers, though, should also have a continuing oversight role. Another thing: under certain circumstances, federal rules let Level 2 labs perform riskier Level 3 activities "with indigenous or exotic agents which may cause serious or potentially lethal disease." Those activities should be banned in crowded Brookline Place, even if the feds allow them.

As big projects go, this one's bearable. The building will incorporate advanced environmental standards. It will add public green space. It won't seriously disrupt nearby residents, whose reactions to the project vary. And its size is reasonably compatible with other Brookline Place office buildings and the Brook House complex across Route 9, the size and sterility of which define the area more than does Brookline Village's heart a couple of blocks away.

Significantly, the new building's employees and customers will often walk those couple of blocks and help small, struggling stores and restaurants survive. Piling on more development where it already exists to help preserve what remains nearby of a more human-scale existence seems reasonable enough under the circumstances.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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