Is Brown the New Green? Why Boston’s Ugly, Expensive Macallen Condos Shouldn’t Be a Model For Green Buildings

Along West 4th Street in Boston, just past I-93 and the MBTA train yard, there’s a big brown apartment building with an odd sloping roof. I live about a mile away, and I’ve gone past this building several times on walks and bike rides without thinking much about it, except that it’s unattractive in an early-1970s sort of way. It reminded me of the work of the late Josep Lluís Sert, the architect responsible for such aging modernist eyesores as Harvard’s Science Center and Holyoke Center, the Peabody Terrace apartments in Cambridge, and the George Sherman Union complex at Boston University.

I was surprised to learn this week that not only is the brown building brand new, but it’s being celebrated as an example of green design. It’s called the Macallen Building, and it’s the subject of an independent documentary, “The Greening of Southie,” that’s currently making the film-festival rounds; I caught the movie this Tuesday at a screening hosted by Atlas Venture, a Boston-area venture capital firm. (Update 11/20/08: Here’s a video about the screening prepared by the filmmakers themselves.)

A 140-unit luxury condominium complex, the Macallen Building has garnered warm reviews from architecture critics, including no less a figure than Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe writer Robert Campbell. It’s also the first residential building in Boston to win a Gold-level LEED rating, something that can only be achieved through serious effort on the part of architects and developers. (LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary certification system devised by U.S. Green Building Council to encourage sustainable building practices.)

So I’ll probably sound like an unenlightened, anti-environmentalist crank when I say this, but the Macallen Building strikes me as a sorry excuse for the “greening” of anything, let alone South Boston, the working-class neighborhood over which it looms. If this project comes to be seen as a model for green development in Boston and other cities, the green-building movement is in big trouble.

Macallen Building, South BostonI do give the developers of the Macallen Building, Pappas Enterprises, credit for deciding to pursue LEED certification in the first place. As the film makes clear, the decision led to a thousand headaches that the company could have avoided by doing things the old-fashioned way. Construction crews had to set aside scrap metal for recycling, for example, rather than tossing all of the project’s construction waste into landfill-bound dumpsters. They cheerfully tried unproven but “sustainable” materials—such as the non-toxic glue holding down the condo units’ bamboo floors—that wound up causing costly complications. And you can’t argue with green design’s benefits: features like double-flush toilets, rainwater-trapping systems for landscape irrigation, and extensive natural lighting through double-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows mean that the building will save 600,000 gallons of water per year and use 30 percent less electricity than a non-green building.

I also have no objection to the way Pappas has made the building’s green design into a selling point with environmentally conscious condo buyers. Because the building is LEED-certified, the company is able to charge about 10 percent more than developers are getting for similarly sized condos in this corner of the city, according to the real estate review site ApartmentTherapy. That’s fine with me. After going to so much trouble, the company deserves to earn a bit of profit—and who’s going to finance the green-technology overhaul this country needs, if not capitalists? “Green is not about sacrifice…it is about understanding that doing good and doing well often go hand in hand,” the Macallen Building’s website intones. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

But there are several aspects of the Macallen project that bother me. One is the unfortunate symbolism in the fact that Boston’s first green residential building is a luxury condo. You have to be doing pretty well, indeed, to afford a one-bedroom, one-bath unit for $600,000 or a three-bedroom for $2.1 million. According to this 2005 Boston Globe article, the Pappas brothers—Tim, Andrew, and Jay—design their urban properties for city-loving young professionals like themselves. “We look at our peers and we look at our friends,” Andrew Pappas, then 26, told the paper. Another Globe article described Luke Peterson—a 25-year-old mortgage banker who put down $685,000 for a townhouse at First+First, another Pappas project in South Boston—as the ideal Pappas client.

I’m going to hazard a guess that 25-year-old mortgage-banking tycoons are in shorter supply these days. Indeed, there are still 20 empty units at the Macallen, even though the company briefly tried giving away a Toyota Camry Hybrid with each purchase. But at least the penthouse may soon be occupied; at last report, Tim Pappas, the 34-year-old real estate heir who heads Pappas Enterprises and drives racecars in his spare time, was close to persuading his girlfriend that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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