August 28, 2004

‘A Place To Shop And Enjoy The Atmosphere’

That's not what you get with a row of strip malls and big box retailers. It is what you get when you create a commercial district with a sense of place -- including a pleasant streetscape and pedestrian environment. (If you haven't yet, please do take a look at this Urban Advantage presentation, which shows exactly what a nicer streetscape can do for a business district).

The city of Holladay, Utah, is working on an ordinance designed to create a more walkable commercial center. "A little more homey, not big-boxey," community development director and architect Ken Millard told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "We want activity on the streets again."

The article explains:
As it stands, the area is a hodgepodge of aging storefronts, a spiffy strip mall adjacent to City Hall and the state's oldest pharmacy.

But crumbling asphalt, a dearth of sidewalks and the "dangerous" five-pointed intersection create what some in the city call "an embarrassment."

The ordinance - tweaked often since the spring - outlines size restrictions, how far a building can be set back from the street, aesthetics and landscaping standards.

"It tries to create a village instead of having walls that are 50 feet high," says City Manager Randy Fitts. "We want to make this a place to shop and enjoy the atmosphere."

August 27, 2004

Stopping Sprawl Is Up To Us

"Only when a substantial number of ordinary citizens decide that it's a critical national issue and follow conservation groups into battle will the destructive effects of sprawl move to the forefront of the national agenda," writes Anna Quindlen in an opinion piece for Newsweek magazine. "Sensible and ecologically sound development is possible, but people have to seek and support it. Otherwise the hideous stretches of superstores and supermarkets that turn downtowns into ghost towns will begin to meet across the great suburban plain, and every former cornfield in America will have a name like Fox Run. Without the fox."

This is a piece worth reading. She notes that sprawl isn't regulated by one or two governmental agencies, but by cities, towns and states across America. She compares sprawl to smoking -- and how it took concerted efforts of many, including massive public education campaigns, year after year, to finally have an effect in curbing the deadly habit. A similar, massive and sustained effort is needed to combat sprawl.

"[I]f you asked many Americans what is most devaluing the quality of their lives, I suspect the answer would be that their surroundings look like Monopoly boards at the very end of a hectic game," she writes.

"If that doesn't change, our kids will wind up in an unlovely and unlivable place, sitting in endless traffic because the exurbs have moved still farther out...., drinking degraded water because the water table has been polluted, taking pictures on vacation to prove that forests still exist."

August 26, 2004

Wal-Mart Part Of A Mixed-Use Development?

The world's largest retailer isn't exactly giving up the big-box store. But the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that in order to get a foothold into urban Atlanta, one proposed new Wal-Mart "is planned as part of a mixed-use development, including a second story of retail shops, apartments, streetscaping and decked, hidden parking. . . .

"The boulevard will have trees, fountains, benches, bike racks and restaurants with outdoor seating and a linear park that will lead to the apartments — not a typical Wal-Mart look."

Too bad we didn't get anything like that in Framingham. But then again, none of our town officials have demanded such things -- nor do our zoning regulations.

5.5 Miles of Assabet Rail Trail To Open This Fall

"After years of slow progress, the Assabet River Rail Trail is poised for a breakthrough with the expected opening this fall of a 5.5-mile stretch linking the downtowns of Marlborough and Hudson," the Boston Globe's West Weekly reports today.

"Supporters of the bike path, which will eventually run more than 12 miles from Marlborough to Acton, say the completed section will mark a milestone in the project's stop-and-go history."

Dunchan Power, a member of the group promoting the trail, told the Globe: "This path will connect two downtowns, and at peak hours, it's a very competitive route timewise with automobiles."

August 24, 2004

Why Johnny Can’t Walk To School

That's the title of a report published in 2000, and if anything, the situation has gotten worse -- more new schools built on large tracts of land in areas where it's impossible for kids to walk. That forces local governments to bus them all, or their parents to drive them.

There's a loss to the community as well, when a school is no longer an anchor and focus of a neighborhood, but tucked away somewhere like a big-box retailer. "Like residential or commercial sprawl, 'school sprawl' is contributing to the dismemberment of communities around the country," the report notes.

Meanwhile, in Fairfield Ohio, parents are facing the cutting of school buses for budgetary reasons coupled with police warnings that students shouldn't walk to the new high school because it's unsafe.

""Don't try to walk to school. There is no safe way to walk to the high school along Gilmore Road or Holden Boulevard," said Police Lt. Ken Colburn, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.

"Fairfield isn't alone," the article notes. "In recent years, new Monroe, Lebanon, Little Miami and Indian Hill high schools have been built on large tracts at the edge of the community - without sidewalks - which require most students to arrive by car or bus. "

Horrible planning! What about students whose parents aren't available to serve as chauffer service? They're advised to get a ride from someone else.

""That's the last thing I want, a car full of teenagers," one mother told the paper.

August 22, 2004

Whiter Rte. 495?

That's the question Sam Allis asks in the Observer column in today's Sunday Globe. He believes that development action is moving back to Boston while the current tech bust has put major corporate development around Rte. 495 on hold.

"The buzz is back in our much-maligned urban core," Allis maintains, arguing that "Big I-495 players that own swaths of land along the corridor have tabled many development plans."

Demographics aren't hurting either -- McMansions on McTwoAcreLots are likely to appeal to couples with school-age kids; aging, empty-nest baby boomers may be more likely to sell their larger homes and move back to a more traditional walkable community or urban atmosphere.

The high-tech industry will eventually regain its health and exurban office development is likely to resume at some point, Allis adds. However, without "smart, strategic planning ... the same dumb expansion will simply continue."

Mass transit isn't possible in exurban towns with 2-acre zoning -- there's simply not the population density to support it. And Allis believes that while Gov. Romney talks about smart growth, he's not spending any political capital to actually get plans implemented.

''Unless there's strategic planning from the governor's office, the whole concept of smart growth won't take off," says David Magnani, state senator from Framingham.

In addition, it's going to be tough to sell towns like Framingham, which justifiably believe they've already done far more than their regional fair share in providing affordable and/or multifamily housing, on doing some denser development if so many nearby snob-zoned communities remain far from the 10% affordable housing threshold.

August 21, 2004

Pioneer Developer Rouse To Be Acquired

The Rouse Company -- developer of Boston's Faneuil Hall, New York's South Street Seaport and the planned integrated town of Columbia Md.; a firm "well known for a series of ambitious projects that brought pedestrians back to neglected urban neighborhoods," as the New York Times put it-- will be acquired by major shopping center owner General Growth Properties (pending Rouse stockholder approval).

A General Growth executive told the Times that the merger will offer major U.S. and European retail chains "one-stop shopping" when they want to expand.

Oh, great. Now EVERY shopping center EVERYWHERE can have the same exact stores.

Rouse "helped revitalize urban cores across America, including Baltimore's Inner Harbor ... proving that the grim industrial waterfront could become a shining tourist attraction," said hometown paper the Baltimore Sun. "And with Columbia, Rouse made real a vision of integration - involving race, income and building types - on 15,000 acres of farmland in Howard County."

This was a pretty radical idea for its time (and still not that common in our own time). "Columbia, Maryland was opened in 1967 -- the same year Maryland legalized interracial marriages," notes Reuters. "It was viewed as an experiment where people of all races and socio-economic backgrounds could live together."

What will happen to that pioneering Rouse vision that focused on pedestrian-friendly retailing? In one hopeful sign, General Growth President and COO Robert Michaels told reporters that some Rouse-owned malls could become even more valuable by adding restaurants, theaters and stores that open onto sidewalks, the Times said.

August 19, 2004

‘Smart Growth’ in N.H.: Waterville Valley

Yes, it can seem like an artificially created resort town without much sense of history (or it did to me the two times I was there for business meetings). Nevertheless, AP makes a good point when noting that "unlike nearly every other growing town in New Hampshire, Waterville has remained compact rather than sprawling into the countryside. . . .

"Walking paths abound. A pedestrian tunnel lets walkers cross the highway without fear. The post office and shops are a natural gathering place. For those who can’t or don’t want to walk, businesses and the nearby ski resort have organized a shuttle bus. . . .

"A person can easily walk to the center of town from anywhere in this community."

That's definitely true. I went to Waterville Valley both times in someone else's vehicle, yet didn't feel the need for a car while I was there -- even the time I was on crutches.

This is a good article on smart-growth issues in New England (several other projects are mentioned) and worth a read, talking about the challenges as well as benefits -- and the fact that obviously, some homeowners will always want their own half-acre or acre+ in a conventional subdivision.

WHICH IS FINE. But those folks have plenty of choices in the suburbs west of Boston. And right now we seem to be reaching the traffic limit of how much more sprawl we can handle.

August 18, 2004

‘One Guy, One Vision, One Nation Stuck In Traffic’

That's MetroWest Daily News guest columnist Peter Golden's summation of highway-focused Robert Moses, whose ideas helped shape the modern car-dependent suburb.

Golden laments the modern vehicle and dreams of a smaller, cleaner alternative that would still give Americans the mobility and freedom they crave.

Good idea, although I'll still push first for the pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-possible alternative to sprawl. A park-once, walk-to-many-destinations retail center will be a lot less congested than the Framingham/Natick Golden Triange where everyone has to drive from one place to the next (even if they're just half a mile away). Planning centers with multiple routes to the same destinations -- i.e. a street grid -- as opposed to funneling all traffic onto a few feeder roads -- i.e. Rte. 9 and Speen Street -- will also help.

"“The efficiency of the traditional grid explains why Charleston, South Carolina, at 2,500 acres, handles an annual tourist load of 5.5 million people with little congestions, while Hilton Head Island, ten times larger, experiences severe backups at 1.5 million visitors. Hilton Head, for years the suburban planners’ exemplar, focuses all its traffic on a single collector road," notes one of my all-time favorite books on planning issues, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.

August 15, 2004

Wisconsin Officials Seek Pedestrian-Friendly Mixed-Use Development

Brookfield, Wisc. mayer Jeff Speaker and I have something in common: A great longing to see Newbury Street kinds of pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development expand around the country.

"[Brookfield officials'] vision is to create a bustling space where people can live, work, play and shop - a sort of suburban downtown with sidewalks, benches and streetscapes," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains.

"Speaker compared it to the night life he said he enjoyed during a recent trip to Boston, as he strolled along Newberry St. at 11:30 p.m. 'It's so alive and it's phenomenal to see that energy and that total mixture of uses,' Speaker said. 'I would love to be able to create that energy and synergy here in Brookfield.' "

In Brookfield, officials hope to target an area around the Brookfield Square mall with a special tax district, where revenues would go first to pay off work the city plans to conduct in the area. Only then would the money flow back into general coffers.

"The city, with the tax district, hopes to spur property owners to build mixed-used development of densely packed shops, restaurants, condominiums, apartments and office space. The mixed center would be a pedestrian-friendly area with a park-like public square south of Blue Mound Road."

Not surprisingly, there's some resistance still to the idea, which has yet to come to a vote.

August 12, 2004

Artana Art Gallery Closes in Saxonville

The Artana Gallery in Framingham is no more -- something I feared would happen once the gallery opened a "second" location in Brookline. The Head First Gallery next door already closed, bringing an end to the little art-colony enclave north of the Mill at 3 Elm Street (the building with the nice bay windows.)

According to signs on the building, coming soon are a nail salon and a door & window store. I wish the new businesses well! ... but I also can't help feeling that this is a bit of a step backwards for the Saxonville business district as a destination retail center.

I like a manicure as much as the next gal (even if I only average about one every 5 years or so), but there are already two beauty salons around the corner in the Pinefield shopping center. And while I really like the new doors and windows on my home, too, I'm guessing there's a reason home-improvement-type stores are mostly on side corridors at the Natick Mall instead of the main one -- they're not prime attractions for repeat shoppers or browsers (unless you're a contractor, how many times in your life do you need to look at windows and doors?). 3 Elm had been a nice regional draw, a retail "anchor" if you will, such as when Artanna hosted receptions.

Saxonville has a unique and special sense of place, but it can't compete with Rte. 9 for easy access and parking. It should be leveraging its sense of place by offering something different that you can't get elsewhere -- like the stores in the Mill such as Lasting Presents, like the artists' studios when they do their open houses. A nail salon, a Subway ... making Saxonville center look like Anywhere, Rte. 9 would be a pity.

August 11, 2004

For Livable Cities, Focus on the Basics

To create livable, appealing communities, planners need to worry about more than attracting the next major new office/residential/commercial development project, says this Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch editorial:

"For too long," the article wisely notes, "as Columbus boomed outward, city planners forgot that some people walk instead of drive. When thoroughfares such as Rt. 161 and Brice Road grew and bloomed with offices, stores and restaurants, the design was strictly for cars."

The basic yet too-often-ignored point: "Making cities more inviting isn’t only about the glamorous new high-rise or entertainment district. At the core, it’s often much more basic: safe, comfortable places to live, work and play.

"Columbus could make headway in this area by taking action on two unglamorous fronts: sidewalks and vacant buildings. The city needs more of the former and fewer of the latter."

How can you argue with that?

August 9, 2004

What Happens When Communities Seek Jobs, But Not Housing

Suburbs around Washington D.C. are encouraging more commercial development for the tax revenue, while not balancing it off with equal amounts of housing. And that's causing problems throughout the region, according to a Washington Post news analysis.

For example, Montgomery County's master plan calls for building office space and retail to generate 40,000 new jobs -- but fewer than 15,000 new units of housing, the Post says. And Mongomery isn't alone.

"...[B]y creating housing shortages, the policies push developers, home buyers and renters farther and farther away to find available land and more reasonably priced houses," the article notes.

"This migration, in turn, produces longer commutes to work, more road congestion and the destruction of remote natural habitats, planners say. The extra auto travel contributes to other troubles, including air pollution and the "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. And, most of all, sprawl."

As Gerrit Knaap, a planning professor at the University of Maryland, told the Post: "Many local governments haven't controlled growth, unfortunately -- they've deflected it."

August 8, 2004

Downtown Making Gains Over Mall-Centered District in Houston

"In the battle of downtowns, the original is scoring a comeback victory over the upstart in Texas' biggest city," the Dallas Morning News reports from Houston. "In the 1970s and early '80s, it appeared that downtown was fading and that the West Loop area around the high-end shopping center the Galleria might become the new city center."

Today, though, the Galleria business district known as Uptown "has seen its office market stall," the article says; new construction seems to be primarily residential, and the area is turning into a mix of luxury residential and high-end retail.

"Meanwhile, the original downtown has undergone a multibillion-dollar revival in the last 10 years, adding stadiums, rail transit, hotels, clubs and residences, and an after-hours life. It's quite a change for a place that once emptied at 5 p.m.

"And it's pedestrian friendly; Uptown still depends on cars."

Downtown Framingham isn't likely to get either a multibillion-dollar renovation or a sports stadium. However, as the town looks to revitalize the South Side traditional business district, just as the Natick Mall is adding residences to what's likely to be upper-end retail, the Houston model is one worth noting. Downtown CAN complement Rte. 9 by becoming a pedestrian-friendly center with appealing, multi-ethnic offerings for residents and visitors alike.

August 6, 2004

What’s Life Like In A “New Urbanist” Community?

The Seattle Times last Sunday took a detailed look at several such developments, where "people, not cars, are king. Cul-de-sacs are conspicuously absent, frowned upon because they isolate residents. Dry cleaners and sandwich shops face the sidewalk, not the parking lot. Homes are set back on small lots, creating buffers between front doors and the road. . . .

"Behind [the Carlson's] house is their all-important alley, the bull's-eye of community connection the couple was searching for: Back yards bordered with low, picket fences overlook a well-lit central lane where kids play, moms pull weeds and dads wash cars. Maria Carlson calls the alley 'party central.' "

While yards are small, neighborhood parks abound. And, the developments are typically surrounded by nature.

But, the article notes, there are still problems ... and questions.

August 3, 2004

A Golden Opportunity For Framingham

"If Lowe's application to build a store nearby is approved, there's another chance to begin remaking Rte. 30 into a park-once, walk-to-many destination," says this opinion article in the MetroWest Daily News by ... um, me :-)

The piece expands on several posts here, urging the Framingham Planning Board to make decisions that give pedestrian needs as much weight as automotive needs; and to demand that developments offer an enjoyable sense of place as well as deal with traffic and parking issues.

Had we started ten years ago, we could have had a walker-friendly Shopper's World, Target, Wal-Mart and Kohl's; the whole region could have been a pedestrian boulevard with parking in the rear, a commercial center with a sense of place instead of a sprawling collection of strip malls. But the answer here isn't to throw up our hands and say too late; it's to START NOW so that in ten years, people will enjoy BEING in the "Golden Triangle," not only shopping there.

August 2, 2004

Livable Suburbs

Although the two can be paired as often as peanut butter and jelly, "suburbs" and "sprawl" don't always have to go together. It's more than a year old now, but I still found Utne magazine's list of the 10 Most Englightened Suburbs fairly interesting.

The Tempe, Arizona listing caught my eye:

Standard-issue Sun belt sprawl has been transformed into a genuinely lively town through smart redevelopment and historical restoration. Local planners capitalized on the presence of Arizona State University to create a lively main street that attracts shoppers, cultural patrons, and lovers of urban atmosphere from around the area.

As Framingham looks to revitalize downtown, we ought to think about how to incorporate Framingham State College into the pedestrian life and streetscape of Framingham Centre, along with making an attractive transition between the center and downtown retail district. Is there a way to draw more FSC students and teachers off campus, on foot, to surrounding areas? YES: If there's an appealing walking environment all the way from the campus to attractive destinations.

August 1, 2004

‘Quality of Life’

While not about planning, designing and building livable communities per se, I'd still like to note a fascinating New York Times/International Herald Tribune piece about the differences between European and American views of vacation and leisure time (this version on may be available longer without having to pay).

"Some economists and European officials argue that, rather than reflecting a failure to catch up with its more industrious competitors because of faltering productivity growth, Europe's more modest income level mainly reflects policy choices that have tended to put a premium on leisure and equality at the expense of greater wealth," the article says.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, Western European productivity growth outpaced that of the United States in the last 30 years. In some countries, including France, productivity now exceeds that in the United States. . . .