October 29, 2004

Revitalizing Inner Suburbs By Attracting Artists

There's an interesting piece in The Aurora Daily Sun & Sentinel about how a declining inner suburb with relatively high crime is being revitalized in part through a government investment in attracting artists to the area.

A new mixed-use development dubbed Florence Square in an area of Aurora, Colo., includes a hundred residential units with art studios. The rest of the 4.5-acre square will feature retail shops, office buildings, more apartments and an "arts walk."

In fact, walkability is a prime attraction of the center -- walking to galleries, other stores and public transportation when needed. “I love the idea of being able to walk to galleries and local shops that might be selling my art,” long-time Denver-based artist Irving Watts told the paper.

Downtown revitalization, anyone?

October 25, 2004

REI: Flagship Store Vs. Framingham Store

Maybe you've been to the REI store in Framingham, off Rte. 30 in one of the most pedestrian-hostile areas of town. Trying to get there by foot from the other side of the street is an adventure, although not exactly the kind of excitement that the outdoor-gear retailer has in mind.

It's a typical suburban-sprawl kind of place, set back from the road, offset by unlandscaped asphalt.

But their flagship store in Seattle sure sports quite a different look -- it's surrounded by a half-acre of beautifully landscaped forest, complete with waterfall.

"For most stores, the landscape consists of little more than a parking lot or garage and perhaps a few pots of seasonal flowers, a small investment compared with the building itself. But the forest surrounding REI stretches over 21,000 square feet, even though code required less than 3,000 square feet of landscaping. The waterfall alone cost more than $100,000," the Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest magazine reports.

Project manager Greg Brower explained: "Even though it's a retail store, it's all about the outdoors."

Well, in Seattle maybe. Certainly not in Framingham.

October 24, 2004

Saving Charlestown’s City Square

If you've got today's Boston Globe, take a look at the Sunday magazine's last page, Cityscapes. You'll see three photos: how a wonderful urban space looked a hundred years ago, how that place was pretty much destroyed by design for the automobile, and then how it's been restored to once again be a place that draws people in.

"In our 1987 photo, we see the ravages perpetrated on so many American cities when they carved themselves up to make way for the automobile," note Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker.

Now, though, the elevated roadway has been torn down and "the square is a park again, designed by landscape architect Craig Halvorson, who also did Boston's fine Post Office Square park. . . . City Square is again an active part of the city."

October 23, 2004

Demand For Housing Near Train Stations

Demand for housing near subway and commuter rail stations is expected to skyrocket in the next 25 years, with "at least a quarter of all new households — 14.6 million households -- [potentially] looking for housing in these transit zones," according to a study, Hidden in Plain Sight, from planning groups in Chicago and San Francisco. "This is a staggering figure, since only a small portion of all new housing is being built in these locations today."

An estimated 6 million households are now within half a mile of transit stations.

Much of the demand will occur in five cities with "mature and extensive transit systems," the study says: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. But other communities with smaller systems but soaring growth, such as Denver and Salt Lake City, are also likely to see heavy demand for housing within walking distance of a subway or commuter rail line.

October 17, 2004

‘Smart Growth’ Around Train Stations: A How-To

This easy-to-read 4-page guide (see PDF file) offers basic advice on how to get maximum community benefit out of developments around transit stations.

For example, an obvious but often-ignored suggestion: "Coordinate safe and easy transfers between transit, car, bicycle, and pedestrian travel ways." (I'd add "appealing" to "safe and easy").

The guide also includes some photos to illustrate what they're talking about.

No one is expecting that everyone will foresake their cars and walk or bike to the station, even with "smart growth." The point is to allow, encourage and entice more people to use alternate transportation -- especially if they're within walking distance.

It's important to remember that people will still drive their cars from place to place even if they're close enough to walk, unless there's a pedestrian-friendly route for them. And that means more than installing sidewalks in an environment that's still off-putting to walkers.

(Thanks to Beyond Brilliance, Beyond Stupidity for the link, and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission for the guide.)

October 16, 2004

Just Plain Silly

Stone's Auto Service in Natick has removed its gas pumps, prompting Bulletin & TAB Columnist Maureen Sullivan to bemoan the difficulty buying gasoline downtown these days. There are now "only" two gasoline stations in "that part of town."

Maureen ... are you listening to yourself? It's "challenging" to buy gas now? If there are stations nearby that sell gas and don't have long lines, what's the problem? How spoiled have you become? How many gas stations do you need blanketing an area so it's enough? Four? Ten? Three on every corner?

"Whether it's a consequence of big oil or an effort to make downtown more pedestrian friendly, getting gas in downtown Natick just became a bit more challenging," she writes in Sullivan's travels: Natick is running out of gas.


Actually, there are strict environmental regulations governing underground gasoline storage tanks. That might make more of an impact on a business's decision to remove their tanks than "making downtown more pedestrian friendly." And anyway, keeping the service station's existing footprint, including all the asphalt, doesn't do all that much to help pedestrians, other than a reduction in the amount of cars going in and out over the sidewalk.

October 15, 2004

Where Public Transportation Works

Where? New York City!

So says Atlanta photographer Charles Lyon, who marveled that for 10 days in New York, he "left the driving to professionals — cabbies, subway motormen, train engineers, bus drivers and ferry captains. . . . Instead of sitting in traffic, stressing out, I sat in the train, relaxing and reading the newspaper. "

Having spent several summers commuting from Long Island to Manhattan as he did -- but by bus to subway, not the Long Island Railroad -- I'm not necessarily eager to go back to three hours each day of enjoying public transport. However, I agree that public transportation works a lot better in New York than most American cities.

October 10, 2004

‘Village’ Proposed Near Westborough T Station

"In a sharp departure from the typical subdivision of large lots, a developer wants to build a cluster of shops and condominiums near the Westborough commuter rail station," Boston Globe West Weekly reports. "The village-style development is designed to attract younger residents who cannot afford the price of an average home in the area and are seeking a more urban environment."

The development would include small restaurants and cafes as well as convenience stores. Residents would be able to do some shopping and dining there, as well as walk to public transportation into Boston or downtown Framingham.

There would be no detached, single-family housing in the village.

Town Meeting will be asked to rezone 100 acres of industrial property as a "smart-growth" zone to allow more dense development. 20% of the units would be affordable. In exchange, the developer would have to buy land somewhere in town to be used at open space.

Not surprisingly, some neighbors are complaining about the density, including concerns about traffic and expenses for educating new children in the village. Original plans for 350 units have been cut back to less than 300.

October 8, 2004

How Do You Make An Area Pedestrian-Friendly?

Philly.com asked successful restauranteur Avram Hornik about the Ben Franklin Parkway, an "oft-deserted strip." How do you turn an area with buildings and residences into a thriving center of activity? Not by designing it so traffic whizzes through but pedestrians are put off, that's for sure.

"There's museums, schools, some residential, but it's not really a pedestrian area people go to stroll around. You don't hear people say, 'Oh, let's go to the Parkway and just hang out.' While on Walnut Street and Rittenhouse Square people do that," Hornik said.

"You have to change the architecture of the space, you have to make it pedestrian-friendly, you have to do landscaping, you have to create a mixed-use environment that makes the walk from Logan Circle to the Art Museum something people want to do.

"Just plopping a sidewalk cafe in that area right now would do no one any good. Nobody is going to walk five blocks just to sit outside. But if there's a series of sidewalk cafes, of small-scale amusements, now this is not something the city would necessarily have to invest in."

October 3, 2004

New York’s One-Time Slums Are Thriving

First one-time "dowdy" areas like TriBeCa became hot areas to live. "Then far bleaker neighborhoods like Harlem, the South Bronx, Fort Greene and Williamsburg saw their rubble-blanketed lots, burnt-out shells and down-at-the-heels brownstones transformed into appealing, sometimes voguish habitats," the New York Times reports in a Sunday feature, The Next TriBeCa? Stick a Pin in the Map. "Now even the badlands of East New York, Bushwick and Red Hook are luring adventurous developers and homesteaders. There is scarcely a New York neighborhood that is not on an upswing."

What's prompted the rebirth of neighborhoods that not too long ago, many people feared walking through in broad daylight, let alone investing in? The story says:

Waltham Eyes ‘Smart Growth’ Zoning

Waltham has hired a consultant to overhaul its zoning codes. And that consultant is looking to create business centers with residential as well as commercial activity.

"People can walk to the store and their jobs. They wouldn't have to use their cars if they didn't want to," the consultant, Ralph Willmer at McGregor and Associates in Boston, told the Waltham Daily News Tribune.

Such development can reduce congestion as well as improve quality of life for those who dislike dependence on automobiles or are unable to drive.

"That's where urban planning is going," Building Commissioner Ralph Gaudet told the paper. "It's what's called live, work and play zones."

October 2, 2004

Charles River Path From Newton to Boston’s Science Museum!

"By fall's end, people will be able to do something they never could before along the Charles River: walk, jog, or cycle on a single pathway from Norumbega Park, near Route 128 in Newton, to the Museum of Science in Boston," today's Boston Globe's West edition reports (I don't see the story on the Web yet).

What a fabulous idea -- being able to recreational walk or bike, or COMMUTE by foot or bicycle, along the river.

"Perhaps the most dramatic piece of the new pathway is the Blue Heron Bridge, a 140-foot suspension bridge for pedestrians that crosses the river by Cheesecake Brook in Newton. ... One couple has already asked to hold a wedding ceremony there...."

I used to live in downtown Waltham, just blocks from the Charles. In the early '80s, there wasn't that much pedestrian access to enjoy the river.

Now I live in Saxonville, just blocks from the Sudbury River. There's the lovely Carol Getchell Trail along the river for a couple of miles, thanks to Friends of Saxonville. But that's about it for river access around here, except for a few small disconnected parks. Imagine how fabulous it would be if there were a walkway and bikeway ALL ALONG the Sudbury River, including right in the business district, and you could actually get from one place to another on it as well as using it for recreational hiking.

If they can do it by the Charles, why can't we do it along the Sudbury River?

Update: The full article (although not the cool graphic of the trail) is now on the Globe West Web site.

Traditional Development Planned For Austin Suburb

A more traditional community/neighborhood development is underway in the Austin suburb of San Marcos, near Texas State University, designed to offer suburban living without the sprawl.

"Your kids will be able to walk to a store," developer Jeff Etheredge -- a native of San Marcos -- told the Austin Business Journal. "What we tried to do is blur the line between residential and commercial, so it's a more accessible neighborhood."

This kind of smart development doesn't mean densely packing 8 residences per acre. A lot has to do with walker-friendly design. "Homes will have wide front porches, the garages will be in rear alleys and the streets will be narrower," the article explains. "[Etheredge's] goal is to make the neighborhood pedestrian-friendly. Put another way: Wal-Mart stores won't be welcome."

There are 352 homes planned for 106 acres, with another 5 acres of commercial development and a 14-acre riverfront park.