ULI Boston/New England Blog

5 Questions with Phil Colleran, Principal, CRJA-IBI Group

Phil Colleran is a principal at CRJA-IBI Group, a landscape architectural design and environmental planning firm in Boston. Since joining the firm in 1995, Phil has directed a range of urban developments in the U.S. and abroad, including the Masdar Institute of Technology, Shams Abu Dhabi, and the American University in Cairo. He has significant experience with complex planning/design projects and large teams in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, with a focus on addressing environmental and civic concerns. His current work centers on the design of forward thinking public realms, urban open space, campus planning, mixed use/commercial and large scale community master planning. He is a member of ULI Boston/New England’s Urban Development Council. One of these days, he will own a dog again.

In your role at CRJA-IBI Group, you have led large-scale projects in places like China and the Middle East. What are the emerging global trends you see in your work when it comes to planning and design?

Creative site programming that adds value to developments has been a key driver in all of these projects. Whether these are active or passive open spaces, cultural zones, cafes or public realm that supports and enhances pedestrian retail experiences –there is a heavy emphasis on the creation of unique exterior environments that not only support the architectural program but function as standalone landmarks and places.  I think there has been more awareness of the importance of these components. People are demanding more, and owners and developers are responding. Pedestrian street environments are more popular than ever, especially when they are connected to transit-oriented design. It’s really about taking that unique program and weaving it through an interconnected system that allows people to have a seamless experience and get from point A to point B in a logical—and interesting–fashion.

The restoration of South Boston Beach is one of the many projects in your portfolio. What was the design approach for restoring this beloved public good for the city?

A lot of people who live in the city don’t understand what a resource the South Boston beaches are.  Its four distinct areas let residents and visitors stroll the shoreline, swim, fish and feel the sand between their toes. The beach has a lot of landmarks and history, including the famed Pleasure Bay promenade basin which connects to Castle Island, which had, unfortunately, fallen into disrepair over the years. The main design idea for the project was to bring the public back to the beach.  Not that the die-hards had ever left – but at the time, the MDC wanted this to be a public showcase for the city. The restoration of the McCormick Bath House along Day Boulevard was the beginning, and it reflected an overall theme of connectivity, accessibility, and community interaction along the three miles of shoreline. The entire beach was re-sanded with the existing seawall fully repaired, making the overall beach experience much better. Key landmarks like the Mother’s rest pavilion, bandstand, and fishing pier were restored to their original greatness. Parking was revised and increased. Finally, new walkways, boardwalks, and accessible beach entrances provided a continuous and varied pedestrian experience.

Your international professional experience has given you the opportunity to design across a diverse range of topographies. Do you see the impact of climate change in your work? If so, how is it affecting your approach to design?

We definitely see it in places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai where it stays warmer for longer periods during the year. Design in that region must go through a strict government controlled sustainability checklist and review called Estidama which is very similar to our LEED. It’s not an option, but a requirement.  Due to these mandates, we need to get very creative in our design thinking when developing public realm so that we can adhere to the regulations and reviews, while still pushing design and experience forward.  We are constantly working with teams to do things like locate building footprints that take advantage of prevailing winds, reduce solar gain, and provide more shade in public areas. It’s truly amazing how the temperature drops in the shade and if you add some air movement into the equation, you have spaces that can be used throughout the year.

 Why ULI?

About five years ago, I was looking for an organization where I could be involved in a variety of activities that make a difference to local communities. I was really impressed with ULI’s public outreach and the different programs they host. I have participated in a few TAPs and find them to be extremely rewarding experiences in giving back to the community.

To be honest, I also really wanted to join an organization that was not filled with landscape architects. Not that there are no LA’s in the crowd, but we are small compared to the other groups represented. There is such a diverse cross-section of professionals that I am constantly meeting interesting and engaging people. It’s a fantastic organization for making connections and lasting relationships, as well as furthering your knowledge of all aspects of the real estate industry.

Outside of your professional practice, what do you do with your time?

I pretty much never stop moving. My wife and I have two sons, 17 and 9, who keep us very active. We are outside people: ski/snowboard in the winter, beach in the summer, and hike and bike whenever we can.I have been a mountain biker since my teens and about three years ago took up road biking, which I enjoy. A good ride can take a lot of time, but I love riding from my house in Somerville to the countryside of Concord and beyond. I have also met a few great bike partners through ULI!

Our family loves to travel, as well. We just recently returned from a trip to Australia, which was fantastic. If you have never been, go!


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