Neighborhood Building in the Northeast

Being an architect can be a vocation, not just a career.  Week five of the Change the World Novena looks at an architect whose career spans many cities, yet has learned how to make an impact in all of them.

Arturo Vasquez is passionate about the built environment.  The architect and social media master scans various articles daily and poses meaningful questions to tweets and posts.  We first encountered each other on twitter and later, as fellow healthcare architects, collaborated on an entry for Kaiser Permanente’s Prototype hospital.  His kind of vigilance pays off.  As someone who has integrated his volunteer efforts seamlessly with private practice, Arturo is an example of how to be involved in your profession as well as your community- a model for how to change the world one place at a time. 

Save Fenway Park meetings and model
The ability to grasp the character of places and the issues that confront them, has allowed Arturo to play a meaningful role in many major projects in two northeast cities.   He practiced for many years in Boston, MA before moving to Upstate New York and forming SAS/Design Inc. fourteen years ago.  In learning about his perspective of both big city and small city concerns, it is interesting to note that destinations and landmarks play a major role in both locations, “Boston’s unique character and charm is the seamless blend of its historic buildings, great streets, public places, neighborhoods and waterfront with its integrated public transportation system. You can get anywhere without a car. Add to that, the Charles River, which traverses through the city creating a continuous accessible green promenade. Albany’s greatest asset is the quality of its arts and cultural venues providing access to world-class classical music, theatre, opera and entertainment.”  

Cities are constantly faced with a “change or die” dynamic and need to balance maintaining their character and landmark destinations with staying relevant to the needs of citizens.  “In Boston, the City has recognized the value of the neighborhoods and their intrinsic importance in the image and definition of the city. Added to that, has been the resurgence of public realm – the 12 key streets and corridors, or “crossroads” are being transformed into Complete Streets providing a seamless pedestrian armature that links civic spaces with the historic downtown and harbor.”  Arturo notes that  Boston’s cost of living is its biggest detractor, necessitating neighborhoods to get directly involved in their own revitalization efforts, “The most successful project was the creation of a community-based education center and Community Campus of the former Our Lady of the Presentation School in the historic Oak Square, Brighton, MA.  Approximately seven years ago, the Boston Archdiocese closed this important neighborhood school and put the property up for sale. This decision destabilized the entire community and created a stir in Boston. Several community leaders, local businesses, elected officials and organization came together to form the Presentation School Foundation, which through hard work, determination, and fundraising convinced the Archdiocese to sell the property to the Foundation. I worked with the community pro-bono to create the vision for this building as a Community Campus and also used my architectural expertise to establish the economic and infrastructure feasibility for the project’s implementation. This success of this experience brought together community leaders, elected officials, the Mayor, several educational organizations, and business leaders to realize the value and power of community engagement.”

 Although not faced with cost of living challenges, Albany’s stability is threatened by its lack of street life activity in the downtown core.  “Equally considerable [to the Boston effort], in Albany, the current Capital South Campus Center is a catalyst project that is bringing together citizens, public officials, neighborhood groups, and educational organizations to create an educational hub that will revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. I worked with the various groups to establish the vision and master plan for the facility.”

I think it is interesting to note that both urban areas relied on revitalization projects that involve intense engagement with the community.  I asked Arturo if he felt these efforts have paid off in a larger scale for either city.  “The biggest physical change in Boston, from the perspective of a neighborhood resident, has been the impact of institutional development (universities and hospitals) in the neighborhood fabric. Boston’s neighborhoods exist in concert with many institutions, some within the neighborhoods, some at the edges, but all intrinsically connected, physically, socially and economically.

Managed institutional growth has been paramount to the stabilization of the neighborhoods, and the sustained relationship of the various universities and hospitals with these neighborhoods and their citizenry, has led to a better quality of life, public realm improvements, and environmental mitigation. Often, this town & gown dilemma has had a positive, or negative impact in the neighborhoods, largely depending on the level of engagement by the community, the city and the institution – and by the institution’s level of commitment towards the neighborhood with which they co-exist.

A corollary physical change has been the increase of the student population in the neighborhoods which in some cases has destabilized home ownership, spurred by speculative developments from absentee landlords who have capitalized on the opportunity, and created multi-unit housing from existing, formerly single-family homes. While this is not the fault of the institutions, the lack of student housing within institutional lands has contributed to the imbalance. The lack of available space within an institutional campus is often cited as the key factor. Institutions continue to look for opportunities to create more student housing, but often this is done by purchasing properties away from the campus core, well within the neighborhoods, thus continuing the friction created by institutional expansion – a catch 22.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s planning agency, has to their credit, solidified measures to address these issues by establishing rigorous planning processes that require community and elected official’s input and participation, and zoning mechanism that prevent the deterioration of the existing neighborhood fabric. The positive outcomes have depended entirely on the transparency of the planning process and the continued involvement by the community, the institutions, and the City to monitor the agreed upon commitments and objectives. This, in itself, is difficult, given the magnitude of development throughout the City, and multiple community engagements by those involved. Often, there are overlapping meetings and commitments to consider, and in some cases, the length of the planning process makes it difficult to sustain the level of engagement.

Comparatively, the biggest physical change in Albany has been the lack of cohesive, sustained growth particularly in the downtown core. While there is positive economic and physical growth in the region, spurred by the global high tech research and manufacturing industry developing north of the city, very little of this growth has had corollary physical and economic positive impact in the downtown. The population increase and demographic of higher wage earners lack opportunities for appropriate housing, quality schools, and access to goods and services within the city. Instead, these quality of life requirements are found in the suburban environment outside the city or in the adjacent less towns. A further physical challenge has been the lack of good regional integrated transportation infrastructure. Instead the over-reliance on the car has created a poor web of interstate roadways that are disconnected from the pattern of existing local roads and the streets and avenues in the city.”

As Arturo states time and again, the biggest factor in the success of these projects was the level of engagement of the community.  If you are interested in being part of the change you wish to see in your city, you need to understand several issues related to engaging with the community that Arturo has learned:

Give guidance to the grass roots “Based on my direct experience both working professionally and as a community activist I have seen how grass roots interventions are most successful, where there is a coordinated process of engagement between citizens, business leaders, elected officials and city agency representatives to make positive change in the urban environment – whether it be for the creation of a community park, a streetscape improvement, a community building, or an institutional development. Conversely, when the initiative is government led, this has most often been seen as conflicted or lacking the voice and support of the community’s best interest. In Boston, the Presentation School Foundation is a powerful example of this process. In Albany, with the Capital South Campus Center, the same can be said.

As a concerned resident, while living in Brighton for 22 years and after seeing the difficulty and lack of parity in the discussion between residents, developers, elected officials, city agency representatives and institutions, I decided to join a large neighborhood organization, which I later led for a number of years. I established a clear method of engagement with protocols for communication and set up well-understood criteria for evaluating projects, and this empowered the neighborhood to provide a more “professional” review and discussion on issues and development projects in the neighborhood. This led to a more positive, civilized and less fractious engagement with more desirable results.”

Provide a conduit for meaningful involvement “After many years of working through the community processes, task forces and successes with grass roots efforts, I have seen more citizens with diverse professional expertise become involved bringing their experience and knowledge into the process. Getting involved in your community, while maintaining a professional life, is no longer cautionary issue as it was years ago. The City of Boston requires community participation as part of the planning and development process that gives the citizens a voice and platform to get involved.”

Seek out the quiet community “The average citizen is not typically engaged in the community, partly due to a general lack of understanding of how one can participate most productively – often there are too many groups to join, with overlapping agendas and territoriality to be effective. In upstate New York, there are no less than eight Chambers of Commerce and a dozen associations, spread out through eight counties, four towns, and 20 plus municipalities all within a 5-10 mile radius. This is a key aspect to the problem of community participation. There are simply too many groups to join to be effective. Instead I advocate for the creation of regional councils to channel and coordinate the various overlapping efforts.”

Don’t hold out for the silver bullet “In Albany, the question of a single project that is transformational has been discussed for years with the proposed development of a convention center downtown. In Boston, for many years discussion centered on a similar single project that could transform City Hall Plaza. But, we have learned that effective change does not come from a silver bullet approach – instead, incremental projects, with thoughtful, accretive agendas have a better chance to succeed. For Boston, this is now being implemented with the reconfiguration of the plaza as a series of discrete public spaces and pedestrian promenades with civic amenities. For Albany, the emphasis is shifting towards improving the public realm along the key streets and avenues with increased transit access and related transit-oriented development incentives, bringing street life and activity to the downtown core.”
As someone who has been actively involved in urban redevelopment, Arturo has so many great stories to tell.  He understands how vitally important it is to be engaged in your community as an architect and as a citizen.  His favorite story of urban revitalization, Save Fenway Park, is the perfect example of how we can work with rather than impose our ideas on a community. “A group of concerned citizens gathered 30 design professionals, (I led the urban design group) to establish a credible alternative to demolishing Fenway Park, which was the desire of the former owners, several years ago. Instead, we created a vision to literally save Fenway Park by extracting administrative programs into ancillary structures, inserting a concourse level with modern amenities into the guts of the existing structure, conceiving the now famous “monster seats” that added brand value and capacity, and integrating the ballpark into its surrounding neighborhood context with streetscape amenities and public transportation improvements that led to the preservation and resurgence of the historic park by its new owners to what we have now.”  Anyone can be concerned.  There are lots of ways you can volunteer your time.  But when your life’s mission in the built environment, your efforts can be transformational. 

Arturo Vasquez, AIA is an accomplished architect, urban designer and educator with extensive knowledge in architecture + urban planning history and design theory. His built projects have received numerous awards and he has lectured, taught and spoken at prominent colleges and universities locally and abroad. He is a Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Chicago Integrated School of Building (InSB), and an Advanced Architectural Design Faculty, Thesis Representative/Thesis Studio Instructor at the Boston Architectural College (BAC). Arturo has over twenty eight years of experience integrating design, master planning, and urban design for healthcare, educational, and cultural mixed-use projects. His experience includes working with private and public sector clients, civic institutions, community-based organizations, non-profits and city agencies. He is the Principal/Founder of SAS/ Design, Inc. and is a Registered Architect in New York State and Massachusetts.