Imagining the new Fields Corner library is stirring emotions

Community members gathered in the Fields Corner Library to discuss design options for future renovations. Katie Trojano photo

‘Getting it right’ approach seems to be the consensus

After a series of community meetings that informed design proposals, officials from the Boston Public Library (BPL), Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), and members of other city departments joined community members for a fourth public meeting last Tuesday evening at the Fields Corner branch library on Dorchester Avenue to continue work on defining “a programming study for the future” of the library, said BPL President David Leonard. 

“We’re excited to review a number of different options of how we ccould go forward based on the data that Oudens Ello Architecture has collected. This is a really crucial meeting to hear feedback about what you like or what you think goes too far in one direction or not far enough in another direction,” he added. 

Matthew Oudens, principal of Oudens Ello, presented design proposals with pros and cons for each viable option. “We plan to wrap up this study by the end of this year,” Oudens said before running through a series opf renovation options. “I want to remind people that this is the end of the study phase and there is a long period of design that follows this.”

The first option would support a one-story library building that would either be a full renovation of the existing building, or complete replacement. A gut-renovation of the existing building would cost $12.3 million,” Oudens said, adding that it would “focus on opening up the front entrance” and redesigning the interior without changing the footprint of the building. 

A replacement, at $15.8 million, would allow build-out over the city-owned portion of the parking lot, which would yield an additional 1,800 square feet of space and accommodate more library programming. 

The two-story scheme “holds the street edge” and “picks up the alignment of neighboring buildings,” said Oudens. It also has the potential for outdoor programming space. The cost would total roughly $19.7 million and require staffing on both library floors.

A five-story mixed-use building would contain three floors of housing on top of a two-story library and a basement to accommodate mechanical equipment. A preliminary calculation found that the three floors of housing would contain 33 units (11 per floor) with a mix of studios, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Oudens said in passing that the unit sizes could be further reduced to achieve a total of 36 units (12 units per floor.) 

This option would split construction costs three ways to make a $33.1 million dollar price tag feasible: $17.5 million from the developer in housing and shared building materials, $7.4 million from the BPL $7.4 for shared costs, and $8.3 million from the city for the library’s interior.

 “One thing to note is that the zoning height along Dorchester Avenue is 40 feet. The the other two schemes are within that height. This scheme, at roughly 68 feet, exceeds that height by about two floors,” said Oudens. “That’s not an impossible hurdle but just to point it out.” 

Many community members expressed concern over too much housing packed into one space, asked what affordable housing actually means, and stressed the overall lack of family-orientated affordable housing.

“This used to be a neighborhood,” said Fields Corner resident Latifah Hasah. “I grew up in this neighborhood all my life. I understand how Boston is changing and the makeup of who’s here is changing. But you keep putting single-units in, where do the families go? You keep pushing them out. There’s hardly anywhere in the city where a family can afford.” 

Others said the housing is necessary. 

“This is a constant argument about how big something should or shouldn’t be,” said Jacquie Bishop, consultant at Richards & Associates and a Fields Corner resident. “We need space, we need the housing. We can’t physically expand out. The only way that the city can expand and not have brain drain, not have race-based brain drain, is if we build up and create housing, and be creative in those ideas.”

“I understand peoples’ angst about the ‘old school neighborhood’ but it’s a new Boston,” she added. “We’ve gained 100,000 residents in the 17 years I’ve been here. If we’re going to keep them, we’ve got to find another way. That includes changing some of the footprints of neighborhoods.”

Candice Gartley, executive director of the Community Advisory Committee, relayed the panels concerns over location, lack of parking, and a request to investigate alternative locations while the library is under construction. She also said that in earlier meetings, there was no support for mixed-use housing. 

“At the last meeting, and I think the group felt the same way,” she said, “it seemed that members of the advisory committee and people were completely against mixed-use housing.”

During the meeting, Dr. Taylor Cain of the City’s Housing Innovation Lab, explained that Boston is looking for new ways to incorporate public assets into housing. The Lab, she said, “is the city’s test space for innovative ideas to increase housing affordability. “Housing combined with public assets— which has been incorporated into the planning process for the Fields Corner library— is our effort to explore what the thoughtful co-location of housing and our city’s public assets could look like.” 

Cain said that incorporating housing on top of public assets such as libraries, fire stations, and municipal parking lots requires creativity, deep collaboration across city departments and with stakeholders and residents, and prioritizing affordability.

Combining private and public entities to create mixed-use housing would set a new precedent for the city— and likely the state. Although it would be new in Massachusetts, there are other US cities that already do this, Cain said. 

City Councillor Frank Baker seemed to support the idea of looking into housing above the library.

“We’re all experiencing this affordable housing crisis state-wide,” Baker said. “If we, as the city of Boston and main economic driver, went to the state and said: ‘We want to try something different here to use our assets that we own to try to alleviate some of the pressure on our neighborhoods for affordable housing.’ If we say we want to build this model, I think – and I could be wrong –the state would say yes.”

Many attendees urged the team to think about incorporating non-profits, or other sorts of community space, into the mixed-use model, instead of “shoe-horning” a bunch of housing into the space. 

“The pressure is about affordable housing, not about providing more space for offices,” Baker countered. “This neighborhood that potentially is going to change in the next 5-10 years so the need for housing is more pressing here. That’s the thought behind this.”

Rachel Kemper, president of the Friends of Field Corner Library, asked everyone in the room to take however long is needed to create something worthy of the space.

“This neighborhood is remarkable in terms of its contribution to education, language, culture, food to all kinds of things. We can do something spectacular here, we can partner with agencies, nonprofits, educational organizations,” she said.

“This branch is 50 years old. Whatever gets built here isn’t going to be replaced for another 50 years,” she added. “Let’s get it right. Let’s not make a decision without really thinking through what’s going on. Let’s make this wonderful.”

The BPL’s Leonard said that the team would explore alternate mixed-use options, like partnerships with nonprofits, that could also include a smaller portion for housing. Jacquie Bishop also committed to work with the Main Streets organization and other local nonprofits and businesses to create an informal commitment to rent space by 2020. 

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