Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.


The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.


On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

ros square substation 36

On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

Egleston substation walgreens

Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.