At Boston Latin School, urban planning from the pros
In a grand third-floor chamber on a recent afternoon, officials grilled developers about a revitalization plan for a blighted neighborhood that included a tavern placed near luxury condominiums.
“So if I’m living in those condos, I’m going to deal with kids coming out of the bar and puking on my stoop at 2 a.m.?” an official asked. The team’s marketing director insisted the bar would attract not over-imbibers but professionals from nearby offices gathering for after-work drinks but who “don’t want to get too messed up.”
If some descriptions were less than polished, if some male developers’ chins were smooth of stubble or their female counterparts seemed wobbly in high heels, it was because these were not seasoned professionals but Boston Latin School seniors presenting fictional solutions to quandaries cities face as they grow and change.
Professional developers sat across the table in this classroom inside the Fenway exam school, judging six student proposals that emerged during a four-week simulation called Urban Plan, an initiative of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization for real estate professionals.
As Boston undergoes a surge in construction, the program offers a taste of the development process to the teenagers, many of whom spent their formative years watching the Seaport District transform the city’s waterfront and new downtown dwellers spring up in its core.
Wendy Holm, the Boston Latin teacher who has incorporated Urban Plan into her economics courses, said it combines basic concepts she has taught her students with something very close to a real-world context.
“One of the goals that the Urban Land Institute has is that kids come out of this experience and through it have this broader view, then, of this kind of experience and take it into their adult life,” said Holm.
Developed a decade ago in San Francisco, Urban Plan is also used locally in high schools in Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, and Bedford, as well as at Boston University. It requires students to work collaboratively to plan the mixed-use redevelopment of six city blocks, addressing community needs while ensuring that investors profit and that the city benefits through tax revenue.
Sandi Wolchansky Silk, vice president of development for the Newton-based Jefferson Apartment Group and an advisory board member for Urban Land Institute Boston, said Urban Plan introduces students to the complexity of addressing competing needs and priorities.
“It forces the students to consider whether they would have a homeless shelter in their community, would they have high-end luxury housing, would they have too much of a certain kind of use,” Silk said. “There’s lots of possibilities, but there’s no one right answer.”
In Holm’s fourth-period class, certain themes emerged early. Four of the six teams clustered residential properties near the northern end of the fictional development area and placed office and retail spaces nearest a subway station at its southern edge. Most put a park next to an existing YMCA in the northeast corner.
One of the most contentious issues was whether to include a big-box retailer that would bring jobs and shopping convenience to the neighborhood, but also extra traffic and noise.
“The neighborhood alliance was against it . . . but the elderly wanted it, and the Jobs for Justice were for it,” student Sarah Malone explained to an architect visiting Holm’s class.
That same day, Anne Meyers, former deputy director of development for the Massachusetts Port Authority, questioned another team about the store’s loading dock, where delivery trucks could sit idling for 30 to 45 minutes.
“What are you going to say to the people who are living in these multifamily units across the street?” she asked.
Before those consultations, five out of six teams included a big-box store. When the projects went before judges two weeks later, only one remained.
On judgment day, most students were poised and studied as they presented their proposals.
The professionals treated students just as city officials might treat developers, quizzing them about how quickly office and retail spaces would fill and how much tax revenue they would generate, as well as on livability issues such as traffic, parking, and noise.
The winning team was Up and Up Enterprises, which had no big-box store but included a supermarket, along with public spaces such as a community garden, a basketball court, and a skateboard park. In explaining its selection, the judges cited qualities such as its solid return on investment and inclusion of ample green space.
After seeing five other polished presentations, members of the winning team almost seemed surprised.
“I really didn’t think that we did better than the other groups,” team member Jane Huang, 17, said. “Everyone had their own style. I learned a lot of other ideas from the other groups’ presentations.”