The Maplewood Village Alliance (MVA) Board of Directors heard from the architects and the developer of a new mixed-use building planned for the site at Toomey’s Garage on Baker Street at a special meeting on September 4. The meeting, which took place at the Woodland venue, ended with an approval of the project among the thirteen members present, but it sparked controversy among the residents who came out to hear the presentation on the project.
“We are so pleased with the way the process went,” Josh Mann of Ironboard Properties, which is building the new mixed-use structure, told the MVA board at the start of the presentation, which came after a laborious effort to bring the project to fruition. Noting all of the ideas contributed by the board’s volunteers as the design and concept took shape, Mann added that such input “really made the project marvelous.”
Architects Christian and Josh Uhl of Uhl Architecture did most of the talking. Explaining how they came up with the modern design of the building of 104 Baker Street, they showed how a mix of different architectural styles, ranging from Spanish Colonial and Tudor Revival to Modernist and Art Deco made Maplewood Village a district with a special rhythm that they hoped their building would add to, and how key buildings anchored the area. The Uhls were inspired in part by the modernistic designs of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the basic outline of the building but sought to soften Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” style. They explained that the building needed to reflect a “contemporary understanding of humanity;” that is, the building should honor the streetscape and continue the fabric set by the existing buildings.
“We’re not creating a building that rejects the street,” Josh Uhl said.
The design of the new building features multiple bays vertically demarcated by recesses to break up the massing of the structure along with a series of pilasters anchoring the retail portion of the building on the first floor. The first floor would provide retail space along the front façade with parking for eleven cars in the back, and the parking lot itself would be at a lower grade to obscure the sight of cars from the houses in back; a screening employing ivy and trellises would ring the rear of the property. A two-story commercial space would occupy the building in northeast corner of the first floor and the second floor, and the residential entrance would be on the side. Five apartments, four two-bedroom units and one one-bedroom unit, occupy the second floor in the design, while the third floor would have six apartments – four two-bedroom units and two one-bedroom unit – for a total of eleven residential units.
The façade would mostly be of two-tone light brick with wood-plank siding in the back to diversify the overall texture, and the windows would provide an open feel, especially along the first-floor façade in order to provide pedestrian visibility. The Uhls envision retail that would enliven the space into the evening hours. The overall linear pattern of the building would complement the Belmont and Drake buildings on the other side of Baker Street and the long Roosevelt building next door.
Members of the MVA had a few questions for the architects despite the detail of their presentation. Among the questions asked were about window treatments, which the Uhls said would likely include roller shades, and about garbage and recycling, which the Uhls explained would be provided for with bins in the rear corner to be shelter from view. MVA member Jim Nathanson, though, had serious issues with the design, saying that he did not believe the design complied with the MVA’s design standards, and he opined that the mass of the building, its height, and the different style would disrupt the continuity of Maplewood Village’s existing structures. Josh Uhl begged to differ, saying that the different design added texture to the overall rhythm of Maplewood Village’s buildings and that it would be a mistake to design a building that conformed to a pre-existing style.
“If all of the buildings are of the same height and all the same style, you’ve got Disneyland,” Josh Uhl said. He said Maplewood is different from places like Nantucket, where the design scheme is uniform. Nathanson denied that he wanted to see all of the buildings in Maplewood Village look the same, and he added that he was also concerned that the building’s height would be out of character with the overall look of the district.
Public opinion was divided on the proposed building. Fred Profeta, a former mayor and planning board member, said that he liked the architecture but thought that the building was inappropriate for its location, saying that it violates the legal definition of design criteria for Maplewood Village by failing to have any visual compatibility with the existing buildings. Profeta also said that the law defining design criteria would have to be amended to allow it. “You approve this, if you want to, then you gotta change the law,” he advised.
Not everyone agreed with Profeta’s or Nathanson’s overall assessments. Resident Hope Chernoff said that the building would bring excitement and energy to Baker Street, and resident Michael Choi said that it complemented Maplewood’s distinctly eclectic character, where houses and commercial structures look completely different form each other – the reason he moved to Maplewood in the first place. But resident Gary Nelson, a long time Historic Preservation Commission member, said that while he didn’t dislike it, he agreed with Profeta that the building belonged elsewhere. And resident Kathy Coleman read a letter from longtime resident Steven Christman arguing that the building violates and disrupts the interwar-period (1920s and 1930s) character of the village. When the board deliberated,. Nathanson reiterated his point that the building looked too bold and would stand out too prominently despite good-faith efforts by the Uhls to modify the design.
In the end, the board voted 9-4 to approve the project after MVA Board President John James called for a motion to vote on approval, which was quickly seconded. The four negative votes came from Nathanson, John Branigan, Lorraine Labonne-Storch, and Karin Davis. Members not present were Alan Weiser, John Meade, Fred Shandler, Aris Vayas Savas Savidi, and Tom Carlson.