Let’s Ask Wentworth: Boston’s Growing Refrain Over Property and Transportation Challenges

December 13, 2019

people walking near growing vegetables in rendering

Above: a rendering designed by students Kayta Balsamo, Joana Plana Ortiz, Andrea Symonds.
Below: a rendering designed by Molly Aldrich, Becca Klanchesser, Lily Reiner, Alli West.

Once again, Boston officials are turning to Wentworth Institute of Technology’s students and faculty to reimagine the use of City property—this time underused and inhospitable areas of the John D. O’Bryant School complex in Roxbury.

The facility was designed in the 1960s and 1970s by the renowned modernist, Marcel Breuer. The Wentworth project encompasses how the site functions physically—or doesn’t work well—as part of the larger campus that includes the Madison Park Technical Vocational School. The students are from the Architecture Program, most of them fourth-year undergrads working with professor and Boston architect Mark Pasnik and two adjunct faculty members, Maressa Perreault and Aaron Weinert.

The O’Bryant project reflects an increasingly common inclination among City of Boston officials—their eagerness to tap Wentworth students for imaginative field work and the university’s faculty for leadership and familiarity with the local environment. Like many such projects before it, the O’Bryant School collaboration is quintessentially symbiotic. Free of charge, the City gets the insight and energy of young minds at the university and the expertise that Boston needs in Wentworth’s mainstays of engineering, design, management and sciences. The Institute’s students use City property as an extended, real-world classroom. The result is the practical, career-oriented student experience that is the heart of Wentworth’s contemporary educational model.

The consensus is that these factors combined have set Wentworth apart, made it unique for Boston, earned it a reputation as a top go-to place for solutions in a city full of colleges and universities.

On December 5, Pasnik’s students previewed their ongoing work for John Hanlon, chief operating officer of the Boston Public Schools; Alexandra Valdez, director of engagement for the City’s Economic Mobility Lab; Elia Bruggeman, high school superintendent, Boston Public Schools; Lindsa McIntyre, high school superintendent, Boston Public Schools; Brett Dickens, assistant principal, Madison Park Technical Vocational School; Axel Martinez, a teacher at O’Bryant; and two O’Bryant students. More than a dozen project “critics,” including architects Kelly Haigh of DesignLab, and Tricia Kendall of Tricia Kendall Architecture & Design, are reviewing the work. All agreed that the students’ work is laudably imaginative and aesthetically rich but in need of fine-tuning, which will happen as the project progresses during the spring 2020 semester.

With the Build Boston Public Schools facilities master plan as background, the students completed a nine-point review of the property already, including interviewing more than 30 juniors and seniors at the O’Bryant School and meeting with teachers and administrators there.

Four potential themes have emerged: a green campus, or developing strategies for sustainability, ecology and resiliency; a mixed-use campus or adding community uses or other functions to the site; a secure campus through interlinking buildings for an indoor-outdoor campus; and an interconnected campus, or enriching a sense of place and linking to urban surrounds. One vision shows conceptual renderings of secure gardens, new walkways, new architectural spaces, and a brilliant color scheme for the property,

Some other recent and ongoing collaborations between Wentworth and the City of Boston include:

  • The City has been struggling mightily with what to do about the problem plagued MBTA transportation system, and Wentworth Professor James Lambrechts, Department of Civil Engineering, and his students are deep into the search for solutions. Lambrechts has worked on T issues for years, making that a second career in effect. He teaches a course on the subject and engages students in projects to help remedy some of the problems. This summer, Lambrechts worked on several ideas with his students, including a Blue Line western extension from Government Center to the Longwood Medical Area and to Allston Landing and Arsenal Mall, Watertown. They have also been exploring parking garages at the 128 perimeter, with express buses to rapid transit stations (or shuttle trains, where commuter rail is available); and major additions to the rapid transit system—a Green Line trolley from Boylston to Mattapan; a Red Line "bypass" from Central Square to Andrew Station; an Everett to Central Square Cambridge trolley; and Seaport Access from Andrew Station on the Red Line. Wentworth students have worked on these projects to varying degrees over the past two years, says Lambrechts, and are continuing to evolve the engineering details. 
  • Wentworth Architecture students have been working with pastor Evan Hines and the congregation of the historic Eliot Congregational Church property in Roxbury. The congregation is interested in modifying its facilities to better serve the church's mission. Student design teams created and presented proposals for affordable housing and community spaces. The design work led to several other Wentworth-based projects, including steps toward energy conservation and proposals for new uses of the church's commercial kitchen.
  • In August, two teams of management students presented business proposals for the City of Boston to designate a “safe haven” gaming center for teenagers in Dorchester’s Codman Square and culture café and community space in the Fields Corner area.

“These projects provided practical, hands-on education for the students and actionable plans for the city at the same time,” said Michael Mozill, associate professor in the Department of Management.

With market analyses and details all the way down to desired community outcomes, funding and equipment costs, the projects dovetail with elected officials’ ongoing efforts to re-purpose abandoned and languishing properties in City Council District 4, which encompasses Dorchester and Mattapan, and parts of Roslindale and Jamaica Plain.

“These innovative proposals from talented young people are exactly what our team is hoping for as we evaluate options for re-using available parcels in the district,” said Boston City Council President and District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell.

  • The city’s ongoing discussion about Boston City Hall, the building and its plaza, involves Pasnik’s expertise from his research and teaching at Wentworth. In a series of seminars, students conducted archival research, interviewed architects and documented the breadth of concrete buildings in Greater Boston in the 1960s and ‘70s. The project culminated in Pasnik’s award-winning book, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.
  • Pasnik, with Associate Professors Carol Burns (Architecture) and Peter Greenberg (Interior Design) organized an interdisciplinary set of students over three semesters to study, in part, how new development could work with the Charles F. Hurley Building in the heart of Boston. Recently, the outcomes and lessons of this work have been referenced by the Commonwealth in its discussions with the preservation community, and the Wentworth initiative was recently cited in a Boston Globe story on the future of that complex.
  • Professor Ilyas Bhatti and students in the Sweeney Department of Construction Management collaborated with the state Department of Transportation to transform the Bowker Overpass and Charlesgate Bridge area in Boston and finally blend the site into Frederick Olmstead’s Emerald necklace. The Bowker Overpass and Charlesgate Bridge are in one of the last remaining pieces of the chain in the Muddy River area and near Kenmore Square. The project, which also included input from Northeastern University, fell under Wentworth’s EPIC initiative—short for externally collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary culture for learning.

--Dennis Nealon

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