Charlestown Architects Win BRA Contest for Sea Level Rise

By Seth Daniel

Looking out the window of their offices at 50 Terminal St. recently, local architects Stephanie Goldberg and Mark Reed readily agreed that their offices will one day be under water – if current estimates hold about the pace of rising sea levels.

“Oh yea, this building would certainly be under water,” said Goldberg, noting the shoreline of the Mystic River only several yards away from the parking lot.

It’s a potential problem that quite a bit of Charlestown might have to worry about in the distant future, and something that the two local architects successfully addressed recently in a competition based 100 years in the future.

The two architects are both Charlestown residents and also work in Charlestown at their own firm, Lab/Life Science Architects, in the Terminal Street building. However, they mostly ply their creative minds towards designing laboratory space in the booming bio-sciences sector, and rarely contemplate the fate of waterfront buildings in Boston 100 years from now.

But contemplate they did during the past year, and their plans for combatting rising sea levels at The Prince Condo Building in the North End were enough to win a major competition held by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) called ‘Boston: Living with Water.’

Looking out their own building, Goldberg and Reed could not only ponder their fate, but also that of many others in Boston – including the Atlantic Avenue/Commercial Street Prince Building, which was targeted as one of three example areas used in the competition.

“Our specialty is laboratory work,” said Reed. “We design labs for biotech and universities in the area,” he said. “Even though it may not be directly applicable to the blueprint of what we do, it does apply to our principles. We do care about the City and what it looks like. It was a really important competition.”

Added Goldberg, “We wanted to be involved in the conversation and it’s a very important conversation. It isn’t exactly what we normally do, but this affects everybody. It affects us as architects.”

The competition was based on projections for rising sea levels 100 years into the future, and asked architects from all over the world to think about what could be done to repurpose areas like the Prince Building (small site), like 100 acres in the Fort Point Channel (large site), and like the entire Morrissey Boulevard corridor in Dorchester. All of those sites are predicted to be underwater in 100 years.

The competition began one year ago and featured 50 teams made up of more than 340 people from eight different countries. This past spring, nine semi-finalists were picked – including Reed and Goldberg – and then this past summer, the Charlestown duo was crowned with the winning idea for the Prince Building site.

“The idea for these sites was to look at it as incremental and phaseable change,” said Reed. “It had to  also be feasible. They were looking for replicability so that the solutions could be implemented all over the city. The sites are representative of parts of the city as a whole.”

Both architects realized that Atlantic/Commercial Street would be underwater and they decided to close the street to vehicles and make it more of a boardwalk. A filled in berm – which would act as a park and an above water underground utility corridor – would stretch out to the building where the current condo building would be expanded with microunits. The new addition would be adorned with greenery and would act as shade for what is believed to be more intense sunlight in the future. There would also be space between the original and new buildings that would act as ventilation. The boardwalk would run out to the building on the area that is now an old set of piers.

Basically, they were creating a whole new neighborhood on the water.

“Rather than trying to prevent seawater from entering the city, this proposal welcomes the water and repurposes the outer streetscapes to a new urban seashore that is a focus of recreation, ecological reclamation, and new cultural experiences,” read the submitted plan.

However, making it possible financially was problematic.

That’s when Reed and Goldberg turned to Charlestown friends Katie Alitz, Ruth Raphael and Tracy Shea.

“They helped us develop a pro-forma for a ground lease program by the City and how much money could be generated from something like that,” said Goldberg. “We were struggling with how it would be financed.”

Said Reed, “The challenge to us was to figure out how a condo association would deal with this. We realized no condo association could afford to do this. We wanted it to be a neighborhood issue. Our friends from Charlestown have a lot of experience in the Navy Yard and that area has a lot of ground lease issues. We were able to apply their experience to make our idea feasible.”

In the end, both local architects said they were glad to be able to share their ideas and to think about something that was outside of their wheelhouse – that being laboratory work.

“It was a very interesting competition and I think everyone enjoyed the open and collaborative approach,” said Reed.

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