Ark-inspired building on Blue Hill to anchor near zoo

A building proposed for Blue Hill Ave. near Franklin Park will resemble an ark and hopes to jive with the nearby zoo. Image courtesy John Spears/GBDA

Just across Blue Hill Avenue from the entrance of the Franklin Park Zoo and down the street a bit, a strange triangular vacant lot is about to become a giant glass boat-shaped building with oversized animals perched on top.

"I am thinking of hanging a gorilla at the edge of the building," said private developer Natasha Kapij.

The building would be used for retail and Kapij's company, Modernova Development, aims to find a restaurant and other businesses that cater to children or otherwise tie in with the zoo and the park, something along the lines of a Rainforest Café or a Chuck E. Cheese Restaurant.

"I'm the architect, and I'm also a zoo user," said John Spears, owner of Greater Boston Design Associates in Jamaica Plain. "I've got five grandsons and all of them love going over there. Part of what we're working on is giving the zoo a helping hand with their image, bringing it out from behind the trees and fences and onto Blue Hill Avenue."

"I'm happy to have them resonating the image of the zoo out there," said John Linehan, director of the zoo. "I'm really appreciative of the fact that they brought us into the process real early. I certainly have good feelings about them. It's one of those buildings that people will talk about."

Kapij said she has notified direct abutters, the zoo, the Harvard Street Health Center and Dudley Square Main Streets. The building is as-of-right, meaning it needs no zoning variance that would require neighborhood support. But so far, everyone she has talked to has been supportive, she said.

"I've always thought that lot should be developed into something with Franklin Park in mind," said Joyce Stanley from Dudley Square Main Streets. "If the health center couldn't get it, I think this is a good thing. We don't have a lot of private things for kids in the city. Chez Vous and the Tennis Club might be the only things in this area."

Kapij moved to the United States in 1995 from Kiev, Ukraine and started Modernova shortly after graduating from Boston Architectural Center just a few years ago. Most of her buildings have been built in Dorchester or Roxbury and she is always "scouring" the city for more opportunities. Before starting Modernova, she operated NK Interior Design spreading a decidedly modern, bright and colorful style to private homes, schools and at least one retail outlet. Spears described her and her collaborator as a rare client. "You don't really run into these kinds of people as an architect," he said.

With that collaborator, Dionei DaSilva of Quest Contractors, she has put together a handful of small developments. A recent project from the two stands at 1096 Blue Hill, home to a chiropractor's office and four condos. It looks like the traditional Dorchester six-unit three-decker on the outside, but with oversized window bays on its four corners. On the interior however, the lighting and floor plan is strictly modern. Wide-open spaces and cleverly placed halogen light fixtures. Bright and unexpected color palettes. Kapij said the chiropractor's business has taken off since opening and now outpaces his older Charlestown location.

The proposed site of the ark, 646 Blue Hill, is a wedge-shaped lot that tapers off where Blue Hill, Glenway Street and Old Road meet. Here, Mordenova is taking a decided departure from the traditional Dorchester look.

"As we started to deal with the lot, it became… well it's not exactly an ark, it's a boat of some kind," said Spears. "It will look like an ark, but not in a religious sense. Nobody with a long white beard will be up there."

Tall panes of glass will form the bow of the building, which will take Southerly tack, and porthole-like ventilation shafts will adorn the sides. They have a practical purpose, airing out the ten parking spaces tucked away under the building and accessible to Old Road. On the roof, a mock railing gives the impression of a deck, and this is where the animals are likely to be poised. "The pride of lions could become the pride of Roxbury and Dorchester, symbolizing far more than just animals," Kapij wrote in an advertisement seeking commercial tenants.

She is hoping to make a sculpture-commissioning deal with Cape Anne artist Chris Williams. He creates stainless steel animals that fit her concept.

If the final permitting comes through in the next week or two, as she expects, construction could begin as early as January, with a grand opening sometime in the summer of 2008.

"We do need to reach out more to the neighborhood," admitted Spears. "I was at a meeting of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council recently and I think they should meet Natasha. There's a lot of vacant land in the area and somebody like Natasha could really pop out some great ideas. This might just be the top of the zoo-berg, so to speak."