History, Boundaries and the Future – Conservation and Infill in Boston’s Chinatown

Boston is fortunate to have large, intact, precincts of fine scaled historic fabric whose character and conservation is carefully monitored through established regulatory processes.  However, many historic neighborhoods in thriving cities have been significantly altered by modern, haphazard development.  The resulting fragmentation makes the crafting of conservation guidelines a nuanced and daunting exercise, especially as these are often contested spaces in which community aspirations compete with development forces to preserve the integrity and affordability of their district.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Chinatown, cleaved by two interstate highways and bounded by Boston’s high-rise downtown core, an intermodal transportation center and the continuously expanding Tufts New England Medical Center (TNEMC).  For decades, with strong community support, Chinatown has struggled to simultaneously sustain its identity and cohesion as a neighborhood, while improving the quality of life for its inhabitants.  

The South Cove neighborhood that became Chinatown was built on fill, a process that began in the 1830s.  The Chinese began to settle this area before 1880, following waves of Irish, Jewish and Syrian immigrants, and had established a coherent, identifiable community in roughly the area occupied today by the 1940s.  The buildings of this precinct are highly varied from mid-19th century brick rowhouses through turn of the 20th century manufacturing lofts and a plethora of modern era and recent development. 

The purpose of this studio is to aid the community in the development of plans and guidelines to protect the integrity of those areas of Chinatown currently lacking historic designation; it will have two foci:  The first will be to map and evaluate the physical and cultural history and general urban morphology of Chinatown with an eye to what has value and why.  Students will identify ways in which resources may be protected, and where appropriate enhanced through sustainable development.  Deliverables for this portion of the studio will be illustrated analytical maps identifying the type and location of historic fabric, with preliminary asset classification utilizing values-based conservation criteria and including a listing of general exterior character defining features.  

The second half of the studio will be a design/planning implementation exercise incorporating knowledge gained in the first half, using one of three types of options.  The first is to propose a program and concept level design for a vacant site, suggested at this time to be Parcel R-1, a cleared site bounded by Tyler, Harvard and Hudson Streets.   An alternative infill site may be proposed with the instructor’s concurrence.  The second option is to renovate an existing building within the district such as the 125 Lincoln St. Parking garage – which would be adapted for non-automobile mixed use.  The third choice, geared particularly to Planning students, is to develop and present a more in-depth conservation planning study.     

The studio will be informed by visits to the site, guest lectures, and meetings and a possible workshop with both community representatives and officials from the City of Boston.