December 28, 2004

Few Communities Interested In Romney ‘Smart Growth’ Plan

At first glance, it seems like a good "smart growth" idea: Encourage communities to build more affordable housing in areas where there's already existing infrastructure, such as near mass transit or on former industrial sites.

But the current state plan falls short in a number of key areas.

First off, one-time bonuses totaling $4,000 or so per new unit of housing is not necessarily going to do much to offset long-term costs of educating new schoolchildren or providing other services. And local officials are skeptical over whether even that promised money would ever actually materialize.

Some suburban communities view the required densities as too high (eight single-family units, 12 two- or three-family units or 20 apartments/condos per acre), and see a "streamlined approval processes" as threatening local control, according to the Boston Globe.

Not discussed in the article but an important corollary to the lack of state funding for towns that accept the program: It's simply unfair to place the primary burden of stopping sprawl and generating more affordable housing on communities that are already doing more than their fair share in the region. What about communities with lower-density development and almost no affordable housing? They should be required to contributing something substantial if they want to keep their snob zoning -- excuse me, "rural character" -- while other towns build the housing that their teachers, police officers and firefighters can afford.

As I said in an earlier post: While I support smart-growth concepts, "I’m NOT in favor of willy-nilly turning middle-class inner-ring suburbs into urban areas while allowing richer communities to continue building more McMansion developments unchecked, so they can dump more SUVs on everybody’s roads. Traffic in Framingham and surrounding communities already suffers when exurban communities build nothing but expensive housing without enough commercial development to support it. (Those people need to go elsewhere in order to work and shop). Suburban sprawl needs to be addressed in wealthier towns that can’t or won’t create smart-growth zones.

December 27, 2004

Traditional Town Or Suburban Sprawl?

How do you tell the difference between a traditional neighborhood type of community and housing that simply contributes to suburban sprawl? It's easy enough to label downtown Lexington as a traditional town center and Route 9 as suburban sprawl, but there's more to it than that famous judicial definition of pornography ("we know it when we see it").

Planners Dover, Kohl & Partners have come up with an easy quiz to test whether a neighborhood is an "authentic, mixed-use community" or not. Questions include: Can you find within a 5-minute walk of your home, a gallon of milk? A newspaper? A school? Does your community have an identifiable center or gathering place?

I would add: Do you enjoy walking around the neighborhood? Do you see others out walking? Is there anywhere to walk TO besides getting exercise and fresh air? Can you do any errands on foot -- and would you want to?

December 26, 2004

How Not To Build Student Housing

The Harvard Business School's new student housing complex made James Howard Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month this summer, thanks to hideously offputing architecture at every turn.

Do take a look at his commentary with photos, which clearly demonstrates why simply plunking down "green space" and a "courtyard" doesn't necessarily make an inviting public space.

December 24, 2004

Opportunity For Community: New McAuliffe Branch Library

This project would be so great for the Saxoville community and Framingham's north side in general, it's hard to know where to begin.

The north side of town is terribly underserved by library services compared with demand. Last year, the McAuliffe branch library in north Framingham was the busiest branch library in Massachsuetts. But it's certainly far from the largest.

"Based on well-established nationwide standards for library collections and services, the size of the branch needs to be nearly tripled," according to the Framingham library Web site.

As I've complained before, the current branch library has the look and feel of a trailer. There's not enough room for books, there's nowhere to hold either library or community events, and there's very little place to actually sit, read, research and spend time. In fact, there's not even enough space for the books. The building was designed to hold 16,000 volumes; it currently has more than 72,000 stuffed in.

The staff does an amazing job considering the cramped size and inability to offer any kind of appealing place to do anything more than check books in and out. But this is an unacceptable situation that's getting worse.... yet we now have a great chance for a new building that would offer so much to the community.

December 22, 2004

Average Supermarket Size Decreases

"Driven by a robust growth in target market segments — such as natural/organic, ethnic and gourmet stores — the average size of a supermarket in the U.S. decreased to 34,000 feet in 2003, taking the size of new stores below 40,000 for the first time in 10 years, according to a new study by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI)," FMI announced.

Good news indeed. Yes, superstores can be useful, but having fewer, larger grocery stores means that more people have to get in their cars and drive, even just to pick up some bread and milk. And that's a pity.

Here in north Framingham, we've lost at least three food stores since I've been here -- the old Round-up in the Saxonville Walgreen's Plaza, Purity in Pinefield and most recently Countryfare in Nobscot. Being able to walk to a supermarket was an important plus when I bought my house, but now it's either walking to an expensive convenience store (with no meat or produce), or the car (more than half an hour each way isn't really practical).

I grew up being able to walk to two supermarkets and a deli, and my mom could send my sister & I out for milk, bread and sandwich meat beginning when I was fairly young. Kids lose something when they don't have that kind of independence to run errands themselves.

December 19, 2004

Surprise: Making Driving Seem More Dangerous Could Make It Safer

"Hans Monderman is a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs. Oh, he can put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considers most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign - literally - that a road designer somewhere hasn't done his job," starts an intriguing profile in this month's Wired magazine.

"Monderman is one of the leaders of a new breed of traffic engineer - equal parts urban designer, social scientist, civil engineer, and psychologist. The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they'll be safer." One component of this idea is to trim back wide, superhighway-type road design and return to a more human scale.

In one Dutch village, "what was once a conventional road junction with traffic lights has been turned into something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists." Thsoe on foot, bicycle and motor vehicle have shared the space without serious accident since 1999.

This trend is actually making its way across the Atlantic to a few select portions of the New World. "In the US, traffic engineers are beginning to rethink the dictum that the car is king and pedestrians are well advised to get the hell off the road. In West Palm Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact. The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times," the Wired article notes.

Narrowing the roadbed. Not exactly what we ended up with on Rte. 30, where recent construction has made the street even more offputting and threatening to non-motorized travelers.

December 13, 2004

Walker-Friendly Mixed-Use Development Under Way in N.J.

The 230-acre Chrin Commerce Centre, "years in the making ... is set to launch in Tatamy and Palmer Township early next year," according to the Express-Times.

The mixed-use development will include a business park with light industry in one corner, a town center with more industry and office space, and a village with shopping and "loft apartments."

"The concept brings buildings closer to the streets, which are narrower than in most new developments, and creates a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with trees on both sides of the sidewalks and designated bicycle lanes on the roads, [developer Craig Weintraub] said," the article explains. "Community continuity is the goal, with the streets and sidewalks tying into existing road patterns."

There, local officials support such ideas.

"Tatamy Planning Commission Chairman Anthony Jaskowiec said he likes that the design allows people to stay in the community to do things, such as shop. 'We like the concept of a walker-friendly community where people can get out and become part of the community,' he said," the Times-Express reports.

Ah, if only...

December 8, 2004

Meanwhile, In Arizona….

...a business owner and chair of the Gilbert Redevelopment Commission, is urging her town to create a pedestrian-friendly streetscape. And Mary Ellen Fresquez understands that this means more than installing sidewalks.

"If you're walking downtown, we want to make sure that there are windows you can look into to see what is available down here," she told the Arizona Republic.

Gilbert Planning Director Jerry Swanson agreed, explaining: "You don't want pedestrians to have to walk very far before they get to the next shop or business or restaurant. ... The places that we all flock to like Sedona, in the old part, is not a place that you drive from one business to the other or have to walk a quarter of a mile to go to another door. ... It's the place where the next business is right next door to the first business - and it's a short trip."

Reminder: Rte 30/Rte. 9 is also a business district here in Framingham, not only downtown.

They get it in Gilbert. Why don't we?

December 5, 2004

Natick Mall Expansion: Disappointment

I sat down with Dick Miller (chair of the Natick Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee) yesterday to take a look at detailed plans for the Natick Mall expansion, including a drive around the site .... and I was awfully disappointed.

At a time when pedestrian-friendly "lifestyle centers" are the cutting edge in suburban development, the Natick Mall plans appears to stick to the same old car-centric, pedestrian-hostile philosophy we've suffered through in the "Golden Triangle" for half a century. Unless local officials and residents make their demands NOW, we'll lose this opportunity for another generation.

December 4, 2004

Walking More Dangerous Than Driving

Thanks to communities designed for vehicular traffic and not pedestrian safety, "walkers are far more likely to be killed in street accidents than are motorists, according to a report on pedestrian safety released yesterday," the Washington Post reports.

"The report found that in 2001, the last year all data were available, the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled for walkers was 20.1, compared with 1.3 for car and truck travelers."

The "Mean Streets" report was conducted by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. Anne Canby, president of the organization, blamed roads designed solely for cars, lax traffic enforcement and traffic lights that are not timed for walkers.

"People have not accepted that walking is a legitimate form of transportation," she told the Post.

The report also showed that a dismal 1.3% of all federal transportation funds in Massachusetts were spent on pedestrian and bicycle porjects from 1998-2003.

"Streets designed with wide travel lanes and expansive intersections have been the norm or local zoning and parking requirements that don’t account for pedestrians and public transportation riders is too often standard practice. Private sector actors routinely design malls, shopping centers and housing for automobile access, without suitable facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users," according to the report's executive summary.

Associated Press notes that Salt Lake City, which was rated poorly for pedestrian safety in 2000, improved its walking environment -- with policies not only promoting safety, but walkability and an appealing outdoor environment.

Update: Boston was deemed the safest city for pedestrians among 50 major metropolitan areas with more than a million people, the Boston Business Journal notes, with a 3.8% improvement over the last decade.

December 2, 2004

Status Of Mixed-Use, Smart-Growth Projects In The Boston Area

Dr. James C. O’Connell, a planner with the National Park Service, takes a detailed look at "compact mixed-use development in suburban Boston" with an eye on smart-growth policies such as re-using previously developed sites and building near mass transit.

"Some communities in Eastern Massachusetts want mixed-use development near public transit stops in order to attract commuters to become residents. Such town center redevelopment is not just an alternative to sprawl, it revitalizes traditional business centers, many of which had been declining for years," the report notes. "Living and shopping in town centers is growing in popularity, especially for young adults and empty-nesters. Apartments and townhouses in town centers are an emerging housing market niche."

Despite the fact that Dr. O'Connell calls Framingham "a small city" and Natick a "large town" (news flash: Framingham is the largest town in Massachusetts), this is an interesting roundup for those seeking to see the status of mixed-use projects throughout the region.

Pedestrian Killed On Old Connecticut Path

A woman was killed yesterday while trying to cross Old Connecticut Path near Hamilton Street during afternoon rush hour, the MetroWest Daily News reports.

Miriam Meyers, 88, was struck by a car at around 5:30 p.m.

I walked in that area for years during lunchtime when I worked on Old Connecticut Path, and still often do, and I can say that traffic is much heavier than it used to be, and it's a lot more difficult to cross the street even at lunchtime, let alone peak commuting hours.

With plans for the Cochituate Rail Trail to cross Old Connecticut Path, there's a clear need for a traffic signal and not simply marked crosswalks (that drivers can't see in the dark).

December 1, 2004

So You Think Your Commute Is Bad?

3.4 million Americans "endure a daily 'extreme commute' of 90 minutes or more each way to work," USA Today reports. They're among the fastest-growing segment of commuters, according to a Census study, Journey to Work, released in March. Their commute times are more than triple the national average of 25.5 minutes each way. "

I had a few summer jobs with commutes longer than that -- I'd leave my parents' Long Island home at 7:20 a.m or so to get into Manhattan by 9. But that was because I was taking a car to a bus to a subway; actual mileage probably wasn't more than 25 each way. However, the commuters being profiled here are going so far that "they actually travel through several weather zones — from the edge of the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, or from Pennsylvania resort towns in the Poconos to midtown Manhattan."

That's insane.