Boston looks the way it does today because, decades ago, a pair of mayors unloaded real estate the city didn’t need. Kevin White and Ray Flynn sold off surplus public parking garages downtown and in the Back Bay, and the developers built Boston’s modern commercial core. The city is returning to that playbook once again, but this time, it’s not to add another office tower to the skyline. Instead, Boston officials are unloading excess land so developers can build Boston’s future: homes that don’t use any energy, but instead feed electricity into the grid.
Zero energy homes take some effort, but they’re far from impossible to create. Builders across the country are turning thick walls, high-performance windows, efficient appliances, sun exposure, and rooftop solar panel arrays into homes that draw little to no electricity from the grid.
But when John Dalzell, a senior architect at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, looked at these low- to zero-energy homes, he saw a glaring contradiction: Home builders have taken to erecting super-green buildings in sprawling, car-dependent suburban subdivisions. “The buildings themselves are exceptional,” Dalzell says, “but the practice, the location wasn’t as great as it could be.” So Dalzell spearheaded an effort to push green homes as far as they’ve been pushed — to create homes that are not just energy neutral, but designed to create more electricity than they use, and to do so in compact urban settings.
The city effort to plug aggressively environmental homes into common urban streets is reminiscent of the one that saw Boston’s old Fort Hill Square, Kilby Street, St. James Avenue, and Kingston-Bedford Street garages auctioned off, demolished, and redeveloped into landmark downtown and Back Bay office towers. Then, as now, City Hall handed public assets off to private developers, challenging them to do great things. The payoff now isn’t a new downtown, but a publicly enabled research and development lab for innovative, environmentally friendly housing.
The city has already awarded three vacant city-owned sites in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain to teams of developers and architects who are erecting radically green homes (the city calls the homes energy positive, or E+) on streets lined with old-line two- and three-family homes. The three small parcels attracted 13 bids, so City Hall decided to push the E+ experiment further. It’s now soliciting bids for the redevelopment of a large vacant parcel on Terrace Street. The property, the site of a former brewery along the Orange Line tracks, sits in a no-man’s land between Mission Hill, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain; the city wants a development team to turn it into a test case for making highly advanced green construction work on the scale of a traditional apartment building. Boston officials envision a large solar array on the building’s roof, with rooftop rainwater feeding an adjacent community garden. The green homes will be accessible to working families who live in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Mission Hill.
City Hall is selling the real estate for the E+ project at a modest discount, but there’s no cash subsidy for developers who take on the green housing projects. The competition is a bet that a market already exists for homes built with a social agenda in mind, and ones that will be ridiculously cheap to heat and cool.
Boston has already pulled off this maneuver once. The city wrote green zoning requirements for large commercial buildings into its zoning code in 2007, and the market rendered the law obsolete within a few years. Developers now build advanced green commercial buildings because the market demands it.
The hope at the city’s vacant parcels is that, once developers and architects go through the work of designing and building homes that feed energy into the grid, they’ll be able to replicate their work throughout the city. The public parcels in play now aren’t the end game, as they were with the public garages that became downtown office towers; the city-owned real estate is being used to nudge the market in a radically new, but self-sustaining, direction. It’s ushering in the city of the future, not by rolling out a set of heavy-handed regulations, but by challenging the private sector to up its game.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.