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How Boston's Busiest Architects Are Changing Their City

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Rendering of 1 Ink, 2 Ink, and 3 Ink, as seen from the corner of Harrison Avenue and Herald Street. Rendering by Elkus Manfredi Architects.

At a meeting in early 2007 in the Fort Point, Boston, headquarters of the architecture firm Elkus Manfredi Architects, cofounder and principal Howard Elkus welcomed developer Ori Ron to discuss his residential conversion plans for the old Dainty Dot factory building on the edge of Boston's Chinatown. Ron had with him several different brands of water bottles, from the stumpy plastic of Poland Springs all the way to the cylindrical glass of Voss.

"Let's imagine every water bottle is a building," Ron said. He began placing them on a table between Elkus and himself, careful to end with the Voss bottle. "I want you to build this type of building."

Elkus laughed. "You're challenging me," replied the veteran architect, whose firm had by that point designed dozens of projects in the Greater Boston area and throughout the world. "You know what, I know where you're coming from."

Voss it was. Seven years later, in February 2014, Ron's Hudson Group North America would commence leasing at its building at 120 Kingston, now called Radian Boston. True to its geometric name and that 2007 brainstorm, it was cylindrical and glassy—and, for Boston, quite tall: 27 floors of 240 luxury apartments starting at $3,000 a month for studios, with 4,500 square feet of ground-floor retail.

It was the latest debut of the latest project for the most prolific architecture firm in Massachusetts. In 2012, the last year comprehensive data was available, Elkus Manfredi had billings of $37,731,000 for projects in the commonwealth, most of them in the Greater Boston region; the firm also had 66 architects registered with Massachusetts. Both measures placed them far ahead of the next busiest firm, CBT architects, with billings of $32,800,000 and 51 architects in-state.

More than Elkus Manfredi's activity is the scope of that activity: big and often tall. Such scope has placed the firm's work toward the center of the region's raging debate over density and height, particularly in Boston, a city with designs on being a global capital of biotechnology and technology as well as a pioneer of crunchy urban planning that includes miles of bike tracks and acres of pedestrian-friendly squares. It's also a city plagued by a notorious housing shortage, with rents at Manhattan-like highs and sales prices to rival San Francisco's.

Projects such as Radian Boston are meant to alleviate that shortage through fresh supply, which can in turn satiate Boston's demand for housing—and, therefore, theoretically, at least, drive down housing costs. But getting such projects built remains a challenge, thanks to often byzantine zoning requirements and a feature seemingly unique to Boston amid America's largest metro areas: unremitting opposition to building high and dense, even in urban cores.

"I will define Elkus' job almost as a mission impossible," Ron said, ticking off the engineering, zoning, and economic challenges of building ambitiously in Boston. "If someone is ever able to building anything of substance under those constraints, he should be applauded and saluted."

[A rendering of Sepia, part of the Ink Block project. Rendering by Elkus Manfredi Architects.]

Elkus Manfredi has been able to build quite a bit since its founding by Howard Elkus and David Manfredi in 1988. Here is but a sampling of recent projects, either planned or underway: the 471-unit Ink Block in the South End, which also includes the 83 condos of Sepia Boston; the 290-unit Van Ness near Fenway Park, which also will have a sizable amount of office space; the $950 million mixed-use addition to TD Garden, the arena where the NBA's Celtics and the NHL's Bruins play (the tallest building there will reach 600 feet, making it one of the steepest ever in Boston); Boston Landing, the multifaceted project that includes a 250,000-square-foot headquarters for sneaker giant New Balance, a 175-room hotel, and three office buildings; and the redevelopment of an old courthouse and jail in the eastern reaches of Cambridge. (Gensler Architects took over the TD Garden project in March 2014.)

It's that last project that perhaps most acutely demonstrates the challenges of building dense in Greater Boston. Plans call for redeveloping the building into 22 floors of apartments, offices and shops stretching about 300 feet (Cambridge, like neighboring Boston, also suffers from a lack of housing supply amid student-driven demand, which keeps rents and prices abnormally high).

[A rendering of the New Balance Headquarters complex at Boston Landing. Rendering by Elkus Manfredi.]

Well-organized opponents, including members of the Cambridge City Council, want the building to be no higher than the existing 80-foot zoning for the area, citing concerns that it would be out of scale. In other words, they want a cap on the proposed tower which would make it much shorter than the tower that's been there since the early 1970s. They see their opposition as a way to undo a real estate mistake in an otherwise low-rise neighborhood.

For their part, Elkus Manfredi's founders are diplomatic about such challenges. They speak in terms of "public realm" and "city of neighborhoods," and responding to and maintaining that, rather than carving out something too new. This worldview rounds the edges of the opposition. It makes it about contexts rather than complaints, and offers a whole other perspective on the opponents of building big in Boston.

"I take a little exception to 'mission impossible,'" David Manfredi, 62, told Curbed. "There is a lot of development going on in Boston by a lot of good clients, good developers, good institutions and good architects."

Corralling the cofounders for an interview proved difficult given their schedules. While Elkus Manfredi dominates the recent architecture of Greater Boston, the firm also does work worldwide, from Las Vegas' new city hall to Russia's Sochi Grand Marina, a project tied to the recent Winter Olympics. Howard Elkus and David Manfredi talked by phone with Curbed from two different spots: Elkus from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., near where he was meeting with a client; and Manfredi from the firm's headquarters in Fort Point, on the rapidly gentrifying South Boston waterfront. The pair are the firm's co-CEOs and its principals along with Elizabeth Lowrey, Samuel Norod, and John Martin.

Elkus and Manfredi met in the 1980s while both at the Architects' Collaborative, a groundbreaking Cambridge-based firm started in 1945 by Walter Gropius, a pioneer of both modernist architecture and collaborative design. The pair have built myriad connections over the decades with business and political leaders in the region as well as with academic institutions such as MIT and Harvard. The Boston area can be a small town, with a relative handful of developers doing a majority of the larger projects; connect with a few and you've connected with most.

The developers bear the brunt of the scrutiny leveled at their projects (never mind the financial risk as well), a scrutiny their favored architects see as a general positive. "It has clearly prevented," he said, "the city at times from overbuilding and the kinds of ebbs and flows you see in other cities." In short: Boston did not become Miami after the real estate bust, a city full of unsold condos and stranded cranes. It and surrounding municipalities such as Cambridge and Somerville remained ones of low housing inventory and robust competition for real estate.

If anything, according to the architects, the slower, more deliberative pace of development is due to a desire to integrate projects into the overall cityscape. Boston, Cambridge, et al, want their new apartment and office buildings to fit with the surroundings, including historical aspects of one of America's oldest urban areas, and to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Public spaces, such as plazas or small parks, are often a must in different plans. Barring that, locals and elected officials expect them to gel with existing open space. Witness Radian Boston's marketing making much of its location on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the ribbon of parkland wending through the city.

"I will define Elkus' job almost as a mission impossible."—Ori Ron

The Arlington is another Elkus Manfredi project, co-developed with Related Companies and conceived and initiated by The Congress Group. The recently unveiled 128-unit luxury apartment tower, with a pet spa and one-bedrooms starting at $3,200, was carved out of a building constructed in 1927 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, not an uncommon fate amongst Boston real estate.

"We wanted to maintain a lot of the historic detail of the building, but also create a luxury residence," said Patrick Sweeney, an executive at Arlington developer the Related Cos., who described Elkus Manfredi as "super responsive" during the development process. The architects worked the extant building's makeup into the final product, for instance, placing a basketball court in one of the basement spaces.

That adherence to context might, in the end, be Elkus Manfredi's design modus operandi in Greater Boston. None of their works—commercial, residential, academic, or an admixture of the three—are particularly jarring. No Gehry-esque cuts or crumples nor blocky monoliths a la Le Corbusier. Instead, the firm's designs tend to be sleek and clean, like with the Radian, or barely noticeable from the outside, like with the Arlington. At the same time, due to the size of the projects they work on, the go-to architects in Greater Boston are changing the area's architecture forever. They welcome the scrutiny that brings.

"Many of our projects involve significant urban design," Elkus, 75, said. "And, as urban designers, we are always looking at the context and relationship to our work and their surroundings. And that has been a priority of the city as well."