By Seth Daniel
When Sy Mintz moved into the neighborhood, the long-time planner and architect – who had a major role in designing numerous buildings for Corcoran Jennison’s Harbor Point project – thought he was going to take it easy.
That was until he casually met a few members of the community who sit on the One Charlestown Impact Advisory Group (IAG) last fall, barely a month after unloading the moving van at his Putnam Street residence.
A few short conversations transpired, some concerns were shared about Corcoran’s large, mixed-income One Charlestown, and soon after that Mintz was drafted into drafting an “alternative” plan for some in the community to counter what is being proposed at One Charlestown.
Now, he is doing exactly the opposite of what he expected, but said he’s loving the challenge of helping the community and becoming part of yet another development process in Boston – this time right in the new community where he recently chose to live.
No one is paying Mintz to do it, and in fact a proposed community-based funding drive to hire someone to make an alternative plan fizzled out quickly last fall. That’s when Mintz said he resolved to lend his decades and decades of Boston planning experience – with the aid of a few architectural students – to draw up his plan.
“I have always liked to work in places where I can go out and walk everyday before I even think of putting a pencil to the paper,” he said. “That’s the process for me…It’s what I’ve done here…I call this the alternative plan for the development. I committed to do something and everyone decided not to engage an architect. I ended up going to Boston Architectural Center (BAC) and selected two graduate students to work with me. They provided me a lot of technical help and we became a team. They have worked since October with me to produce what we have now. It was a team effort from my many years of experience and their take on what they believe we can do. It’s good for the community I think. To do this plan is going to require a reduction in units and a dramatic change int he layout of buildings.”
He is expected to officially roll out his plan at informal meetings with some members of the IAG starting this week. Mintz was the architect for buildings that were existing on the site at Harbor Point and was the point person for the competing development team against Corcoran. Most of Corcoran’s design of Harbor Point came from Goody Clancy. While an IAG likely doesn’t have the authority to solicit an alternative plan, community members are free to do whatever they would like when it comes to providing input – including alternative plans. Many members of the IAG are reportedly curious to find out more about Mintz’s plan and are meeting informally with him to look them over.
At his home, drawings and sketches cover the dining room table. Overhead pictures of the Bunker Hill Development taken by a friend with a drone cover the living room floor. Even the foyer of his historic home is littered with tubes containing existing plans and his own new plans.
It is a coincidence of all coincidences that Mintz played a major role with a previous Corcoran mixed-income project, the Harbor Point development about 20 years ago. In that role, while he did design some new buildings, he was mostly responsible for designing 14 buildings that were saved and re-used from the former housing project on “The Point.”
And Mintz’s plan relies just on that – saving many of the old three-story buildings in Bunker Hill Development, adding one story to them and creating courtyards in the middle where parking now exists. That would be the case all the way from Polk Street to Tufts. Using some of the techniques from Harbor Point, Mintz would include larger townhouses with front doors on the “saved” buildings – with the bottom floors having larger units ideal for families and the top units being smaller and ideal for empty-nesters or young professionals. The units have a shared green courtyard, with units having backyards that abut the courtyard.
“A key part of their plan is demolishing everything that exists now,” he said. “I don’t believe the buildings there are worthless. I was the architect charged with saving a number of buildings at what is now the Harbor Point development. I was one of two architects for Harbor Point, which is referenced often with One Charlestown by Corcoran. Because I had to deal with similar Boston Housing buildings at Harbor Point, I discovered these are really good buildings. I like to say they have really good bones.”
Mintz’s alternative plan also gets rid of the main street in the One Charlestown plan that cuts through the development from east to west. Instead, he proposes a shared-use bicycle and walking path from one end to the other – a path that directly connects to all of the new courtyards inside the developments.
He said one thing that One Charlestown got right was making the streets running north and south go through the development, as they don’t now.
“They certainly go that right,” he said. “That’s a good idea and I have kept that. It is isolated now and you can’t drive through it.”
Most of the parking in his plan is under new buildings that would be constructed along Bunker Hill Street, as well as parking under elderly housing near the Mystic/Tobin Bridge. He said he has a one-to-one parking to housing ratio in his plan.
Another hallmark of the plan is to include commercial space under the Mystic/Tobin Bridge. Mintz said there is a great deal of interest in bringing more commercial space to that area, and putting it under the Bridge would activate an empty space and serve to unite the Navy Yard with the new One Charlestown development.
“I think retail is underserved in Charlestown; we only have one pharmacy in the whole Town,” he said. “The good thing about it is it’s right between this development and the Navy Yard. It’s another way of trying to design connections across. You make connections with a draw and this is a draw because people will come to shop there. Instead of isolating people and creating a barrier, it offers an opportunity for people to come and meet…That’s all you can do is provide the opportunity.”
However, perhaps the most intriguing idea within the plan is to reduce density by putting more housing in a different location – thinking beyond the current boundaries of the site. While others have focused such ideas on Sullivan Square land or Bunker Hill Community College parking lots – Mintz looked behind One Charlestown to the Mystic Channel, known in the Town as “Montego Bay.” As a newcomer with fresh eyes, Mintz said there was ample state land on the other side (owned by MassPort) and the entire feature was horribly underutilized.
“By putting housing on the other side of the Mystic Channel, I can reduce the density on the site and create a bicycle and walking path around the Channel so people can use all of this great resource,” he said. “The path already exists now, but no one uses it. Can you imagine people using it and having kayaks and sailboats out in that water? I don’t know the history of the Mystic Channel, but it wasn’t cheap to build. If we create housing on the other side, it is less isolated and gets populated.”
Other highlights include a new park area abutting the Mystic/Tobin Bridge that pays homage to Breed’s Hill and the historic nature of the site, something the National Park Service is intent on helping with. Also, there would be larger-scale elderly housing closer to the Bridge.