April 30, 2004

Landscape Designer Helps Create Livable-Community Space

There's an interesting piece in the San Francisco Chronicle on landscape designer Walter Hood, and his work in making more livable urban spaces. For example, he redesigned Splashpad Park in Oakland, "a dilapidated plot near Lake Merritt that was surrounded by traffic and almost sold by the city."

"Bounded by Interstate 580 on the south, Grand Avenue on the west, Lake Park Way on the north and Lakeshore Boulevard on the east, the site with its forlorn fountain epitomized the kind of challenge that Hood finds invigorating. Using layers of plants and varied surfaces, including crushed granite, wood, brick, concrete and grass, Hood has sought to provide 'rooms'' for different activities.

"The design Hood devised after meeting with community activists provides a setting for a thriving Saturday farmer's market, a stage for musical performances, an oasis of green with benches and a pedestrian thoroughfare from a parking lot under the freeway.

"By closing a street, installing a median with palm trees and relocating crosswalks, Hood sought to calm traffic and improve the connection between the park, stores on Grand Avenue and nearby residential neighborhoods. "

April 29, 2004

Cochituate Rail Trail Cleanup Saturday

There will be a volunteer clean-up day on the Cochituate Rail Trail this Saturday, May 1, either 9 am to noon or noon to 3 pm. All are welcome! Park at 500 Old Connecticut Path in Framingham and check in across the street. More info in the Rail Trail Committee flyer.

Update: There's more about the cleanup in Friday's MetroWest Daily News.

A small portion of the trail may be open to the public as early as June, Boston Globe West Weekly notes. "The half-mile stretch starts near the Framingham-Natick line, at Route 30 near Speen Street, and ends at the Mass. Pike, near Old Connecticut Path."

April 28, 2004

Retailers Look ‘Off Mall’

"Department store operators are starting to shift from their mall bases to more freestanding stores, a strategy that offers more flexibility in opening stores and tries to capitalize on changing consumer shopping preferences," USA Today reports.

Apparently, increasing numbers of shoppers are discovering that they don't like the experience of parking in enormous asphalt lots and then taking an unappealing walk through pedestrian-hostile space to the mall, where they then have to wade through a crowded, artificially created space to get to their destination.

Bloomingdale's, for example, just opened a store in New York's SoHo neighborhood, "a densely populated area made trendy in recent years as former warehouses have been converted to boutiques, restaurants and other shops."

Shoppers probably have to walk MORE in such areas to get to the stores they want -- but the walking is a much more pleasant experience than going through a mall parking lot.

Downtown-type retail areas with pleasant walking ambiance and a true sense of place are making a comeback. See areas like Waltham and Somerville locally for evidence. Is Framingham finally ready to take advantage?

No Place To Play

Boston offers the best access to public parks for its children among seven cities studied by the Trust For Public Land, with 78% of its youngsters living within a quarter-mile of a public park. Los Angeles (34%) and San Diego (32%) were worst.

The report, No Place To Play, notes that L.A. actually offers a lot of park land per capita -- 7.9 acres per 1,000 residents -- but a few large parks far away from most-populated areas skew those results. New York offers much less park space per capita -- 4.6 acres per 1,000 -- but it's distributed much better for easy access (close to 60% of New Yorkers live within a quarter-mile of a park).

Open-space per-capita statistics don't tell the whole story about whether that space makes for a more day-to-day livable communy. Large recreational parks are indeed a great asset. But it's also important to see how accessible and usable is open space is for residents in their daily lives.

The same holds true for any kind of open-space requirement when a development project is approved. There's space that will add value to the surrounding communities, and space that doesn't do anything except make a project even less pedestrian accessible.

April 27, 2004

Mixed-Income Housing Success in NC

"In one unusual spot in Raleigh, you can find kids of many races, from the poorest to some of the richest, playing basketball, soccer and lacrosse -- across the street from public housing," writes Matthew Eisley in the News & Observer.

A crime-ridden project was demolished to make way for "a mix of public housing, subsidized and market-rate apartments, townhouses and single-family houses. ... Where walking used to be a hazard and even driving past risked drawing threats or bullets, now children play without fear."

San Francisco Officials Seek To Restrict ‘Big Box’ Retailers

A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee backed a measure to restrict large retailers in the city, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The proposal would limit very large stores to the downtown district, and require any store over 50,000 sq ft to get a "conditional use" permit.

The full board is slated to vote on the issue next week.

April 26, 2004

Green Light For Rail Trail Easement

"Selectmen last week unanimously approved signing an agreement with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that will permit public use of the first half-mile of the four-mile Cochituate Rail Trail," according to the MetroWest Daily News.

The agreement covers at least a 24-foot-wide easement for the trail, although not the full 65+ feet of width.

Negotiations are still underway for the rest of the trail, currently owned by the MBTA and CSX.

You can see more info on the trail project at the Cochituate Rail Trail Web site.

April 24, 2004

Deal Reached on Preserving Adirondack Land and Economy

"In the largest land protection deal in New York State history, more than a quarter million acres of privately owned spruce forest, untamed river and true back country wilderness scattered across the heart of the Adirondack Mountains will be forever protected from development and opened for camping, hiking and other public uses, Gov. George E. Pataki will announce today," according to the New York Times.

The 257,425 acres -- physically larger than all of New York City, the Times notes -- will become available for public recreation. And, owner International Paper "will retain the right to harvest wood using sustainable methods." The Times calls this compromise "an important change from past land acquisitions, a shift that some environmental groups say could be a model for the rest of the country."

April 23, 2004

Nexum to Appeal Cluster Development Denial

Nexum is appealing the Framingham Planning Board's denial of its Ford's Meadow cluster development plan for Nixon Road, according to the MetroWest Daily News.

The development was for 24 units of housing on 32 acres of land, with 20 acres set aside as open space and several walking trails planned. Planning Board opponents said the "maximum bedroom count" of 72 allowed by the plan was too high.

Too much? That's rather odd, considering no one seemed to complain when former state Rep. Barbara Gray applied to subdivide her 3.5-acre lot into 3 parcels, which would likely each sport a 4-bedroom home. Let's do the calculations here. 12 bedrooms on 3.5 acres -- 3.4 bedrooms per acre -- that's fine, as long as it's all conventional housing. 72 bedrooms on 32 acres -- a much lower density of 2.25 bedrooms per acre -- is too much.

The problem isn't density. The problem is that someone is trying to plan something slightly innovative and different from conventional suburban sprawl.

April 22, 2004

Aging Americans: Stranded Without Options

It's not just young and mid-life exercise enthusiasts who are seeking more walkable communities. A new report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project notes that 1 in 5 people age 65 or older don't drive, and many experience great challenges doing simple tasks like trying to go grocery shopping or get to the doctor.

Today's problem will be magnified 20 years from now, when the 65+ population is expected to grow from 35 million today to more than 62 million by 2025.

The report's recommendations include "providing a place for safe walking and bicycling for people of all ages."

April 21, 2004

Is Sprawl the American Dream?

That seems to be the view of an organization called the American Dream Coalition, which favors "freedom, mobility, and affordable homeownership." However, they use "mobility" as a synonym for "automobile" -- walking, biking or hopping on the T don't count as being mobile. This group is actively hostile to "smart growth," believing it means dense urban development, "rail transit boondoggles and barriers to auto driving."

Excuse me? $14.6 billion for the Big Dig in Boston and anyone has the nerve to talk about mass-transit "boondoggles?"

That aside, you CAN have smart growth that includes single-family homes and adequate roads. It's how you site and design them that matters.

Concord Center, where homeowners can walk to shopping and restaurants, is one type of traditional neighborhood that smart-growth advocates would like to emulate in newer developments. Is Concord so undesirable?

Homes that create an attractive front to the street are one important issue -- putting things like windows, porches and front entryways closest to the sidewalks instead of off-putting behemoth garage doors. Making an appealing walking environment -- with roads that aren't too wide, some landscaping and buffers between walkers and moving traffic -- are also important. There's a reason people enjoy walking along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay, despite the two lanes of traffic in each direction, while no one would want to stroll along Rte. 30 in Framingham's retail "Golden Triangle."

In fact, besides being ugly and pedestrian-hostile, auto-centric ever-wider road planning doesn't even accomplish its main goal of trying to keep traffic moving (see my post below).

April 20, 2004

56 cents/mile

56.2 cents/mile, to be exact. That's how much it costs the average American to drive these days, assuming you drive a new car 5 years for 75,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association.

That doesn't include your property taxes that pay for all that road upkeep, of course -- just your out-of-pocket expenses for the car, insurance, gasoline and maintenance. (And one suspects the insurance costs are a wee bit higher here than the AAA average.)

So a 40-mile roundtrip to Logan Airport, for example, costs you an average of $22.48, excluding Pike and tunnel tolls (and parking). Logan Express roundtrip is now $20.

April 19, 2004

Transformation of a Waterfront

Perth Amboy, N.J., is about to get a major new revitalization project. The $600 million mixed-use waterfront plan was "designed by architects advocating 'New Urbanism,' which, in the words of one of them, Ted Liebman, 'is really about providing people with the kind of lifestyle that preceded today's overdependence on the automobile,' " the New York Times reports.

"The project will include low- and mid-rise condominium buildings, town houses, duplexes and triplexes, all with shared courtyards, underground parking, and access to three waterside parks, retail shops, an international market selling ethnic food, restaurants — and, eventually, a hotel."

The idea isn't yupscale gentrification or "creating a gated community," Liebman told the Times -- that would be out of character for a place that has a history of housing new immigrants (not unlike, say, Framingham's downtown). This revitalization project is designed to create a community "with pedestrian-friendly streets, trees, recreation areas and an accessible downtown," Liebman said. "It's about a place that encourages people to leave their cars behind and go out on foot to socialize, relax, shop and play."

Precisely what's bringing life back into places like Waltham's Moody Street -- and what downtown Framingham needs. More asphalt won't do the trick.

April 18, 2004

More Traffic Sewers!

That's apparently what we need to keep the traffic flowing, according to an article in the Sunday MetroWest Daily News, "Small Roads Can't Handle Large Traffic As Main Arteries Clog."

"Keeping cars moving along 'feeder roads' such as routes 9, 135, 85 and 20, to name just a few, is as critical as controlling traffic on major highways," the article concludes.

Why is no one in that piece pointing out the obvious: As long as you keep creating more development that forces more and more cars on the same few roads because everyone has to use the same few roads for everything, you will never get ahead of the problem. What you will assuredly do, however, is make an unpleasant environment along those feeder roads and discourage anyone from using them to walk, even if they're only traveling half a mile.

"Why have suburban areas, with their height limits and low density of population, proved to be such a traffic nightmare?" ask the authors of Suburban Nation. In large part because of this inefficient traffic patern.

Even worse: By widening roads, you encourage people to drive a lot more than they did before, quickly filling new asphalt back up to capacity.

April 17, 2004

Saxonville Lumber?

While everyone's talking about revitalizing downtown Framingham, isn't it also time someone finally did something with the abandoned Saxonville Lumber property in the northeast section of town? That prime piece of real estate has been sitting unused for years now, except for the little shack nearby selling flowers and such (customers can park in the adjacent massive asphalt expanse).

About a year or so ago, I saw a group of serious-looking businessmen types walking the property, and was hopefully something might be in the works. But nothing since then.

Imagine a nice, small restaurant with river view, that could serve those coming and going from the start of the Cochituate Rail Trail. A small specialty grocer. Neighborhood-friendly housing, perhaps. Or tear down the buildings and turn it into a park. Get rid of the parking area and concrete barriers fronting the sidewalk (parking around back please), and do something with it to enhance the neighborhood and make that corner a pedestrian-friendy zone!

April 16, 2004

Southeastern Mass. Planning Conference

The Southeastern Massachusetts Environmental Collaborative is hosting a conference geared toward "local officials, citizen activists, policy makers and others who are interested in protecting critical environmental resources and improving land use planning and decision-making." Registration is only $10, due to support from the Sheehan Family Foundation. The conference is Saturday, May 8, 8:30 am to 3:30 pm at Bridgewater STate College. More info at


April 15, 2004

Do You Live In A Smart Growth Community?

Nice article in the Salisbury (NC) Post that offers some good, simple tests for your community, such as: Can your kids walk places "and feel good about it?" Do adults "want to be there, doing things like smooching on a bench in broad daylight?"

Sprawl’s Impact on Maine

It's the classic problem of ever-expanding suburban development: More individuals get their "American dream" house and big yard, but "what for any individual family was better housing and an improved way of life was, for society as a whole, the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, increased traffic congestion, increased pollution, an ever-growing demand for municipal services in formerly rural small towns and a growing struggle in our traditional urban centers to operate aging and underutilized schools and other capital facilities and equipment," according to a column in the Press Herald .

April 14, 2004

Successful Downtown Revitalization: Waltham’s Moody Street

Have you been to Moody Street in Waltham lately? The city's South Side main commercial street is a great example of revitalization done right, in a way that turned a once borderline-seedy neighborhood into a regional destination. People from throughout the area come there to park, stroll, eat at one of the many diverse restaurants and then walk to the cinema for a movie -- the theater is at the sidewalk with municipal lot parking around back. (Ever tried to walk to the Framingham multiplex from the Natick Mall? No, not a very pedestrian-possible experience).

April 13, 2004

Does Everyone Need Their Own Paved Acre?

"Does every new Hoosier, from infant to immigrant, need his own paved acre?" begins an opinion piece in the Fort Wayne, Ind. News Sentinel, Growth and Sprawl.

"Sprawl serves numerous individual interests. However, it also works against our collective interests. Rapid-fire commercial construction lines our roads with ribbons of visual tedium. Spreading out housing necessitates the construction of new sewers, new streets and new schools."

The same, of course, is true in Massachusetts.

Framingham Planning Board Begins New Session

"Krispy Kreme, Lowe's and a fourth TJX tower are expected to highlight another busy year for the new-look Planning Board, which will begin deliberations Tuesday without two longtime members as another returns," according to the MetroWest Daily News.

No new major residential developments are currently in the works, although there has been talk about "more downtown mixed-use projects. Planning Board Administrator Jay Grande told the News that there mght be a plan for residences on part of Eastleigh Farms.

Update: Tom Manhoney is the board's new chair, the MetroWest Daily News reports this morning. At a meeting last night, the board discussed drainage problems at the Doeskins Estates residential development, according to another News article.

April 12, 2004

Inglewood (Calif.) Rejects Wal-Mart

What's particularly interesting about this is that Inglewood is a lower income, minority community -- not upper-income suburbanites hoping to keep an upscale ambience intact.

"This was more than the familiar battle between superstores and Main Street shopkeepers fearful of competition," says the Sunday New York Times in an editorial today. "With superstores now ubiquitous, the corporations that build them have been grabbing for increasingly inappropriate parcels of land to continue their expansion."

The promise of jobs "did not allay concerns over increased traffic, the environment and Wal-Mart's low-wage, nonunion jobs," the Times notes.

Update: Hillsboro, Ore., just denied permission for a Wal-Mart as well, according to The Oregonian.

"This is not a victory for us over Wal-Mart. It's a victory (for) good planning," Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes said, The Oregonian reports. "This will be an important tool for us to move forward and make decisions on planning the city."

April 9, 2004

Does Framingham Need More Planners?

Selectmen Vice Chair Katie Murphy wants the board to support hiring more planning staff, the MetroWest Daily News reports.

Town Manager George King "sees a potentially top-heavy administration to blame for the inefficiency," according to the article. "None of the 20 towns examined by town leaders have separate administrators for planning and economic development, as is the case in Framingham. . . . Eliminating one of the planning administrator jobs would free up some money to hire more planners, said King. That would mean more people to spread out all the work, he said."

It's unclear whether there's enough time before Town Meeting starts April 27.

April 7, 2004

Battling Chain Stores

Do chain stores kill off a neighborhood's "sense of place?"

Clearly, strip malls do, if they're surrounded by huge parking areas that make for a pedestrian-hostile environment. So do "big box" retailers.

But what if a nationwide retailer moves into an already-existing space?

That's been the debate in places like Harvard Square in Cambridge and New York's Times Square, where critics say centers that were once truly unique have been turned into the equivalent of outdoor shopping malls, with many of the same chain stores you can find in malls around America.

Now, San Francisco officials are trying to institute an ordinance that would protect some neighborhoods from major corporate retailers, the Los Angeles Times reports.

April 5, 2004

What Use Rooftop Gardens?

Amidst all the talk about mixed-use, apartments, hotel rooms, parking and traffic in the recently approved Arcade project for downtown Framingham (see story), one of the less-publicized features of the project will be rooftop gardens.

If you're not living, working or staying there, should you care what's growing atop the buildings? Oh, yes, says a blurb in the Atlanta Journal-Consitution (via the American Planning Association). Besides a pleasing space for those around them, rooftop gardens help cool down hot buildings in the summertime as well as improve air and water quality (plants that soak up water help prevent runoff).

Another article in the same paper notes that Atlanta has launched "a pilot program that the city hopes will improve urban air quality, assist with storm water management and in general improve the environment." This piece has some details about the 3,500-square-foot City Hall roof garden.

April 4, 2004

Investing Beyond Highways Makes America Healthier

"The Congressional sponsors of the 'Cheeseburger Protection Act' are probably right about the obesity epidemic: We shouldn’t be suing fast food marketers. Instead, we should prosecute the transportation engineers and suburban developers who have made it nearly impossible to walk in most neighborhoods built since World War II," writes David Goldberg, one-time member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board and now communications director for Smart Growth America.

"Thanks largely to the shift to auto-only design, incidental daily exercise – the kind that melts fat and helps ward off high blood pressure without a trip to the gym – has dropped like a stone over the last 50 years. Certainly, if more of us could stroll to the store or bike safely to work, we could easily burn enough calories to offset the odd Super Slurp or Boffo Burger. "

The piece goes on to highlight some of the absurdities in current planning, the need to return to walkable comunities and the urgency for the current federal transportation bill "to support what has become a nationwide clamor for communities that encourage more walking and bicycling."

Great quote from Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer: “Let’s have a moment of silence for all those Americans who are stuck in traffic on their way to the gym to ride the stationary bicycle.”

April 2, 2004

Cochituate Rail Trail Update

With spring comes increased activity on the Cochituate Rail Trail, a proposed walking and cycling path that will hopefully go from Saxonville in northeast Framingham to Natick. The section from Saxonville to Cochituate State Park is currently under development. When finished, it should be a great recreational addition to the area.

The proposed additional piece is crucial, though, because it would extend to the Natick Mall and train station in downtown Natick. This is a major issue for creating a less car-dependent community -- people could use it to get to shopping and commuting destinations. The Framingham Cochituate Rail Trail Committee and the Natick Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee want a trail extension to the mall to be part of the proposed Natick Mall expansion plans -- a super idea!

The Framingham Cochituate Rail Trail Committee's next meeting is Thursday, April 15 at the Framingham Police Station's conference room.

There's also a Cochituate Rail Trail Clean-up Day Saturday, May 1 -- participants are asked to park at 500 Old Connecticut Path, Framingham, and then walk across the street to the sign-up table. More info on the group's Web site.

Spotlight: Saxonville

Saxonville Studios is having its annual spring open house this weekend, April 3 -4, 2004, 11 am to 4:30 pm, free for the public to stop by.

Update/additional Saxonville happenings: The Friends of Saxonville annual meeting is Tuesday, April 7, 7:30 p.m. at the Stapleton School, with a social starting at 7.

The artist studios in the old mill complex are a great addition to the neighborhood. Note: If you missed it, the Boston Globe magazine had an article about Saxonville's shopping appeal. And in fact, there are a number of wonderful features to this area in northeast Framingham.

But some changes could make the area even more pedestrian -- i.e. shopper -- friendly, and truly a regional destination to spend an afternoon.