March 31, 2005

Saxonville Studios Artists Open House

We may not be getting a new library (yes, I'm still very, very bitter about that), but there's still a thriving and growing cultural/arts community here in Saxonville. See part of it for yourself the weekend of April 9-10, noon to 5 pm both days, when more than a dozen artists at the Saxonville mills.

See more information at the Saxonville Studios Web site.

In other exciting local cultural news, the Amazing Things Arts Center appears close to opening in the Pinefield shopping center, just across the street from the mill complex.

Minuteman Bike Path’s Appeal

"The Minuteman Bikeway offers far more than just a place to work up a sweat," notes this Associated Press piece on the bike path. "The 11-mile route through Boston's northwestern suburbs also provides quiet refuge, natural beauty, a commuting alternative and a chance to see where blood was first spilled in the American Revolution."

And it's very heavily used -- one of the busiest in the U.S., with an estimated 2 million users each year. It helps that the trail goes through populated areas yet still has a "bucolic feel;" and that people can use it to get to the Alewife T station, where they can pick up the Red Line to head to Cambridge.

"Initially there was a fear of having people riding adjacent to your back lot. But I think those fears have been dispelled," according to Richard Warrington, Bedford's public works director.

Hopefully, the Cochituate Rail Trail will soon join Minuteman as a recreational and transportation path in the western suburbs. It will be great if the path can connect to shopping centers and the commuter rail.

How Wal-Mart Gets Around Anti-Sprawl Zoning

"Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is employing a new tactic to get around a Maryland town ordinance that limits store sizes — build two outlets right next to each other," Associated Press reports. "Wal-Mart will build adjacent stores in Dunkirk, Md. with one outlet being constructed so that it will be just under the 75,000 square-foot limit."

Well isn't that special.

In a way, it almost reminds me of developers who build one mall right next to another one, in order to skirt terms of their leases with existing anchor stores - regardless of whether this makes for an unpleasant pedestrian ambiance that makes no sense. Like in Natick.

Thanks to Timothy Lee for passing along that nugget.

March 29, 2005

Workshop on the Community Preservation Act

Several regional planning groups are sponsoring a workshop on the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act after five years, with local leaders from Sudbury, Ashland, Bedford, Acton, Wayland, Hopkinton and elsewhere talking about how they got resident support for the act and then used Act funding to improve their communities.

Ironically, although Framingham voters turned down participating in the program, the workshop will be held at Framingham town hall "to accommodate communities all along the I-495 corridor." Ah yes, even as I'm still bitterly disappointed over the loss of a new branch library building and Framingham losing 25% state funding for what would have been a fabulous new building to anchor the Saxonville business district, now I can remember how we lost out on another important program that could have renovated buildings, improved parks, etc. It just gets better and better!

Anyway, for those who are interested, the workshop, sponsored by the MetroWest Growth Management Committee (MWGMC) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) , among others, is this Thursday, March 31 at 7 pm.

March 28, 2005

Questions A Successful Planner Asks

"Peter Armato has been credited with resurrecting historic Savannah's beloved Broughton Street, a once-lifeless business district that currently thrives. He got people out of their cars in 1940s-era Bellevue, Wash., and created a downtown where folks can stroll from bookstore to gallery," notes the Sun Sentinel in describing the man now charged with revitalizing West Palm Beach's declining business center.

According to the paper, he will judge his success by answering questions such as, "Is downtown safer? Cleaner? Do more people live there? How many more visitors does it have than when he started? How many shops have located there? What kind of shops are they?"

He attracts shoppers to a downtown business district in part by creating a pedestrian-appealing environment. "In Bellevue, near Seattle, he brought pedestrian-friendly events to a city built for automobiles." He also seeks full support from communitiy leaders. "Two years ago, he was the top choice to direct the Downtown Development Authority in Shreveport, La., but withdrew because there wasn't unanimous support from local officials," the article says.

It's also important to note that he's not simply interested in attracting "stores" to a downtown area, but is very concerned about achieving the proper mix of retail. That's as true in downtown Framingham as it is in downtown West Palm Beach, by the way. If you want to make downtown a destination, where people linger and don't merely drive through, there has to be an appealing streetscape and a good and attractive mix of stores and services. Shopping malls plan their retail mix and store placement very carefully. If downtowns want to compete, they need to pay more attention to this, too.

March 27, 2005

‘Cities Get Stuck Paying Bills Run Up By People Who Live In The Exurbs’

As some people continue moving farther from urban centers looking for large lots and affordable McMansions, the cost per resident for providing things like public works, public safety and schools often climbs compared to older, more established communities, according to a CNN report. And more importantly for residents of inner-ring cities and towns, the exurbanites often still work and shop in other communities -- adding to traffic congestion and pollution problems.

"In effect, cities get stuck paying bills run up by people who live in the exurbs," the story notes.

"If growth was good for society, if it cut taxes, then Los Angeles would be the cheapest place to live in the world. It's not. It's among the most expensive," former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm told CNN. "So I think that growth is subsidized by everyday taxpayers in a way that most of them don't fully realize."


That's us here in Framingham, Natick and further east.

Is the huge increase in rush-hour traffic clogging Framingham roads really due solely to growth in Framingham? Of course not. A huge chunk of that is because of booming growth along the Rte. 495 corridor and beyond. Those communities get the increased tax revenues, but don't provide a self-sustaining community where those new residents can work and shop as well as live. So, cities and towns closer in are increasingly burdened.

The implied social contract among regional communities -- some provided substantial jobs and shopping, some didn't -- worked reasonably well when our road network and other infrastructure could handle the load. But it's breaking down now that more of our roads are becoming unreasonably clogged. When I commuted from Framingham to Newton in the early '90s, I could pretty much reliably expect my trip to last 25 minutes at most if I left after 9 a.m., barring unusual circumstances (bad weather, an accident, etc.) Now, that trip can easily take 50% longer or more, well after 9 a.m.

Our transportation network based on private vehicles can't really take much more volume if we want to maintain our quality of life and not spend 3 hours a day in our cars. We've reached the point where the model doesn't scale up anymore. Something has to give, whether it's more public transit, or more jobs closer to where people are moving to live, or more telecommuters.

Harvard Mass. To Move Ahead On Pedestrian/Bike Path

The Harvard, Mass. April 2 Town Meeting will be asked to approve a "no-cost, low-impact pedestrian and bicycle path [using] existing routes and rights of way," according to

But that modest proposal is "part of a larger, long-term goal to create a non-vehicle trail system that will link critical points around town, including the town center, Harvard Park and playing fields. ...

"Sketching a conceptual history, [Park and Rec Commissioner James] Lee pointed to other studies, including plans for the town center and open space plans that indicate interest in a pedestrian and bicycle path as more than a recreational option. Residents have said they want a way to walk, bike and get to key areas without cars. ...

"One of the overall goals of the plan is to allow kids, senior citizens and others to bicycle or walk directly to conservation lands rather than drive there in vehicles and 'walk in circles,' Lee said."

Yes, thank you! It's time the suburbs and exurbs start looking at ways for people to incorporate exercise back into our everyday lives, instead of driving in traffic to park at the gym and then run nowhere on a mechanized treadmill.

March 26, 2005

Revitalizing Belmont’s Trapelo Road Corridor

What today's Boston Globe real estate section describes as "a strip of Trapelo Road long a tattered edge ... once a center of automobile dealers, mechanic shops and parking garages" is in the process of rejuvenation.

Yes, here in Framingham people gnash their teeth and rip their hair out at the thought of spending less than $5 million in public funds for what would have been a fabulous new library. The building would have provided desperately needed and wanted community services as well as revitalizing a key neighborhood business district. However, leaders other communities are forward-thinking enough to make much larger investments in business areas outside their main downtowns.

Belmont recently spent about $15 million sprucing up that Trapelo Road corridor, not only on roadwork, but installing new sidewalks and benches. It also rezoned to allow restaurants to serve beer and wine. Results: a new 20,000-square-foot retail building has already been constructed, and more development is likely.

"This area has been the poor stepsister that we're going to rebuild for cars, pedestrians, and reidentify as a commercial square," town planner Jeffrey Wheeler told the Globe. "The new housing [on former hospital land] will drastically impact the whole road, now traveled by 40,000 cars a day." The town is also building a new fire station in the area and hopes to sell the old building to private developers.

Is everyone paying attention here? An area of Belmont outside the town center is bracing for many new units of housing. How does Belmont respond? By making a multi-million-dollar investment in the neighborhood, including rebuilding sidewalks and building a new fire station with plans to sell the old one. And it's already paying off, with new commercial development coming onto the tax rolls (a CVS has moved into the new building).

Here in Saxonville, also away from the main town center, we're bracing for hundreds of new units of housing at the Danforth Farms project. How does our town respond? Despite unanimous support from selectmen and approval from the Finance Committee and Capital Budget Committee, a Town Meeting minority successfully blocks the two-thirds vote needed to invest less than $5 million in a new library, which would have allowed selling the old library building for development and also sparked more activity in the business district. Nice work, people.

March 25, 2005

More Bad Planning: Framingham Centre

Here we have a community business center with a lot residences around. What a great chance to have an appealing, walkable neighborhood! Framingham Centre has the added attraction of actually having several blocks of shops up at the sidewalk -- already making a more walkable streetscape -- with only some of the buildings (foolishly) set back from the sidewalk surrounded by a sea of asphalt.

So, while I was running an errand in Framingham Centre at lunchtime, I took a walk behind the business district to River's Edge Greenhouse today on Auburn Street (parallel to Rte. 9). There are a number of three-story apartment buildings back there, including the Sovereign Apartments. And no sidewalk between most of the apartments and the local shops!

ARGH! What a missed opportunity! The few apartment buildings that are actually facing some businesses look at an unattractive side building with a parking lot in front. Most of the apartments are screened off from the business area, with no pedestrian cut-through and no sidewalk for people to use the Auburn Street back road to walk to the stores.

Imagine how nice it would be for those apartment dwellers to have a safe and appealing walking environment from their buildings to the local stores. And imagine how much better it would be for local businesses. Because once those residents get in their cars, they're much more likely to drive right by the locally owned shops to head to a big-box chain store.

March 24, 2005

The Ultimate In Car-Centric Planning

Here's a truly scary thought:

"[A] colossal $184-billion project would interlace [Texas] state with 4,000 miles of tolls roads - up to a quarter mile wide in some places - a Trans-Texas Corridor built entirely with private money," the Christian Science Monitor reports.

Besides steamrolling over "countless" family farms, the project also has the potential to kill off local communities on a scale never dreamed off by "urban renewal" projects like the demolition of Boston's Scollay Square.

"Though the routes are not yet finalized, a dozen counties have already publicly opposed the corridor because it diverts revenue from their communities. The Trans-Texas Corridor has no provisions for off-ramps, and it gives developers exclusive rights to build gas stations, restaurants, and hotels to service the toll roads. Communities worry that a significant source of their revenue will dry up," the article notes.

Unless carefully planned, large highways that carve through cities and towns tend to destroy neighborhoods. Certainly the immediate areas around most multi-lane highways becomes less walkable -- does anyone like to stroll in the underpass under a massive 16-lane highway? Not really.

But this highway won't even let people drive off the road to visit local strip malls. It's yet another level up in choking off local communities in favor of those who want to roar through in their motorized vehicles.

March 21, 2005

America’s Most Walkable Cities

The American Podiatric Medical Association has ranked 200 major U.S. metro areas for walkability, with Boston coming in at number 5 and Worcester at 34 (see PDF file for complete list).

The rankings are based on "healthy lifestyles, modes of transportation to and from work and involvement in fitness and sport activities," according to a statement from the APMA.

Tops on the list: Arlington, Virginia, where 23% of the city's workforce uses public transit to get to work (many of them, no doubt, using a transit system paid for by federal tax dollars so they can commute to government jobs. Ironic that the federal government then wants to slash funding for so many other forms of public transportation, like Amtrak). San Francisco, Seattle and Portland (Oregon) round out the cities ranked more walkable than Boston. (Washington, D.C. was 6th; New York ranked 7th).

45% of Bostonians either walk to work or take the T, the APMA said.

Unfortunately, the study doesn't go into what makes a walkable community. However, as I've said before, appealing streetscape as well as safe sidewalks and crossings are key. I live within walking distance of my office, but don't walk to work as nearly as often as I should. It's tecnically feasible, but not a pleasant experience. If I had to cover the same distance in a streetscape like Boston's Back Bay, I'd probably be walking to work almost every day it wasn't raining or snowing. But who wants to walk in an area where there's no buffer between sidewalk and speeding cars, where you're walking by big blank concrete walls or asphalt parking lots or dumpsters instead of storefronts or residences with windows facing the street, and so on.

March 20, 2005

Livable Public Space And … Cell Phones

Just why is it so annoying when someone whips out a cell phone in public and starts yammering -- even if they're not talking loud enough to drown out a jackhammer? This is one of the best explanations I've seen so far (from today's Sunday N.Y. Times magazine):

As the sociologist Erving Goffman observed in another context, there is something deeply disturbing about people who are ''out of contact'' in social situations because they are blatantly refusing to adhere to the norms of their immediate environment. Placing a cellphone call in public instantly transforms the strangers around you into unwilling listeners who must cede to your use of the public space, a decidedly undemocratic effect for so democratic a technology. Listeners don't always passively accept this situation: in recent years, people have been pepper-sprayed in movie theaters, ejected from concert halls and deliberately rammed with cars as a result of rude behavior on their cellphones.

I still remember a celljerk at an outdoor summer concert on the Esplanade in Boston -- not the Fourth of July, but still fairly crowded, even toward the back. The musicians were playing, and this idiot was yelling on and on into his phone. It was pretty easy to tell from his side of the conversation that this was not an emergency - no surgeon being called for a serious case, no family crises. Just yammering. I did finally tell the guy, You know, if you're yelling loud enough to be heard over the music, you're yelling loud enough to be disturbing the people around you who came to hear the music. Not surprisingly, he didn't care. But it's annoying even when not interrupting live entertainment.

It can also be deadly. If you missed it last month, check out What Call Is Worth A Life? Says automotive writer Dan Carney in this Washington Post opinion piece:

March 17, 2005

Will 1st-Floor Apartments Harm Framingham’s Downtown Business District?

That's the debate right now as the developer for a proposed mixed-used retail/commercial/residential project seeks to change some details.

Originally, the 400,000-square-foot project was supposed to have commercial, retail and an extended-stay hotel on the first floor, with apartments on upper floors. Town Meeting approved new mixed-use residential zoning for the project on that basis.

Now, though, the developer of the so-called Arcade project says he needs to have some apartments on the first floor after all, because he can't get financing based on a long-term hotel plan.

Incredibly, planning officials are balking because this might go against the will of Town Meeting -- even though the Zoning Board of Appeals has every legal right to issue variances, and even though they'd be replacing what in essence could be a boarding house with residents who will have stronger ties to the community.

Now it's a legitimate question whether residences on the first floor in a downtown business district are appropriate. I'd much prefer to see retail, followed by commercial/office. But I truly fail to see how apartments are worse than a long-term residence.

March 15, 2005

Framingham’s New Library Is Dead

While gathering a strong majority of Town Meeting members, the proposal to build a new McAuliffe branch library in Saxonville once again fell just short of the necessary two-thirds vote. We needed 100 votes, but got 95. After five years and tens of thousands of dollars already spent, the project is dead.

The short-sightedness of this decision is simply breathtaking.

Framingham has officially lost a $1.6 million grant -- money that many other communities will be more than happy to use for THEIR library projects. We've guaranteed that a large portion of our community will have dramatically inadequate and inferior library service. We've lost a chance to create a wonderful anchor destination for a neighborhood on a place that's now just a sea of asphalt. For just 6% of our capital budget, we've blown the chance for a facility where people could sit and read, attend programs, do research, use the Internet ... and instead, we have our aging, tiny, trailer-like building, not much more than a stationary bookmobile, handling 30% of the town's circulation demand (despite its comparatively pathetic collection) with just 10% of the space.

If I hadn't been there myself to see it, I wouldn't have believed the town would end up doing something so foolish.

March 13, 2005

Jackson Square Plans Look Promising

So says the Boston Globe, which notes that "For years, neighbors have wanted something better for the six-plus acres of scruffy public land surrounding the Jackson Square T station: affordable housing, a recreation and youth center, an ice rink, and a pedestrian-friendly business district at Columbus Avenue and Centre Street.

"Now, their visions are taking shape, with a committee of state, city, MBTA, and community members considering two development proposals to completely revamp the square."

In Texas, Another Pedestrian-Friendly Development

"[Arlington] Planning and Zoning commissioners unanimously approved zoning that would allow a 75-acre upscale shopping, dining and entertainment development east of Matlock Road and north of Interstate 20," the Star-Telegram reports. "The heart of the development, Arlington Highlands, would include storefront shops along a landscaped pedestrian-friendly mall, anchored by a movie theater."

We've got shops, a movie theater and a mall in the Golden Triangle, but it's all pedestrian-hostile. Ever try to walk to the movie theater from either the Natick Mall or Shoppers World? And, sadly, the Natick Mall expansion is likely to make much of the complex even more unattractive for walkers, with some storeowners complaining that the development will be dangerous for pedestrians to go from the old to proposed new mall areas. Sigh.

March 11, 2005

Changing The Grocery Shopping Experience

Whole Foods, the grocery chain that's all about healthy eating and an appealing shopping experience, is about to take its stores to a new level: shopping as entertainment.

"[Company] executives believe that the ideas in the store — which is broken up into enticing, food-centric lands, à la Disney — could have the kind of industry-shaking impact on grocery shopping that Starbucks has had on coffee drinking," USA Today reports. "Whole Foods could help transform grocery shopping into interactive theater.

" 'Americans love to eat. And Americans love to shop. But we don't like to shop for food. It's a chore, like doing laundry,' laments John Mackey, 51, the sneaker-and-jeans-wearing founder of Whole Foods. 'Whole Foods thinks shopping should be fun. With this store, we're pioneering a new lifestyle that synthesizes health and pleasure. We don't see a contradiction.' "

At its new 80,000-square-foot flagship store in Austin, that means things like "Candy Island," where shoppers can dip fruit into a choclate fountain; "Lamar Street Greens, where you can sit among the organic produce and have a salad handmade for you to enjoy with a glass of Chardonnay; Fifth Street Seafood, a version of Seattle's Pike Place Market, where you can have any of 150 fresh seafood items cooked, sliced, smoked or fried for instant eating; and Whole Body, where a massage therapist will work the kinks out with a 25-minute deep-tissue massage for $50. "

People may laugh at that kind of upscale grocery concept, but the idea of trying to make shoppers enjoy food shopping the way they like going to the mall is an intriguing one. And when the company is averaging twice as many sales per square foot as the industry average, others in the food business take note.

A key question I have, though: As the company starts building what may be "big box" grocery stores, will it make sure to site its stores in a healthy-lifestyle sort of way -- walker-friendly and not just auto-centric?

Romney’s New Transit Plan

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney unveiled what he called a 20-year, $30 billion transportation plan, which focuses on infrastructure repairs neglected during the Big Dig years as well as investments in public transit.

However, with just a couple of years left in his current term and no guarantees he'll be around after that, as well as questionable expectations most of the money will come from the federal government, it's unclear how much of the plan will actually be carried out.

Along with significant sums for bridge and road repair/improvement, the plan includes some support for public transportation. "Under Romney's plan, the state is promising to fund all expansion projects with federal and local help while the T concentrates on repairing and maintaining its existing system, which the plan says will cost $9 billion over the next two decades. Those T expansion projects include $756 million for the third phase of the Silver Line bus service and $314 million to extend the Blue Line to Lynn.," according to the Boston Globe.

"But [the plan] drew immediate skepticism from some quarters. Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat leading the push to bring commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River, said the plan is unrealistic in the current political and economic environment. 'A 20-year plan sounds wonderful, and normally it is,' he said. ''I'm a fan of thinking long term. The problem is . . . governors often look long-term, claim due diligence, and then they move on to Neverland, and the thing never gets implemented. ' "

The plan is posted on the Executive Office of Transportation Web site.

March 5, 2005

Another Mall To Get Outdoor ‘Lifestyle Center’ Renovation

Here in the "Golden Triangle" west of Boston, the proposed Natick Mall expansion is planned as a more-of-the-same-old enclosed shopping mall experience, sited in a particularly pedestrian unappealing way surrounded, of course, by a vast sea of asphalt. Even existing retailers in the space are complaining that the plan to build a separate addition is pedestrian-hostile, offering a potentially dangerous and certainly off-putting way of getting from the new to old shopping areas.

Elsewhere in America, though, the big trend is away from enclosed malls in favor of so-called "lifestyle centers" -- an open-air shopping experience that tries to create a town-square-like "sense of place" and ambiance that encourages strolling and lingering.

Owners of Virginia's Spotsylvania Mall, for example, are mulling renovation plans that call for an open-air addition with "new shops, as well as restaurants, a hotel and an 18-screen movie theater," according to the Free Lance-Star. (There's a major movie theater right next to the Natick Mall, down Flutie Pass. It is within walking distance. NO ONE would walk there from the mall because of the dangerous road crossings and hideously unappealing route.)

Another new lifestyle center planned for Arkansas has already attracted Saks as an anchor tennant, says the Benton County Record. "Pleasant Crossing ... is being planned as an open-air village with pedestrian-friendly shops and restaurants surrounding a 7-acre lake."

Why are we still getting mid-20th-century plans here?

March 4, 2005

Audi, BMW Slammed For Pedestrian-Lethal Design

"If you're unlucky enough to be hit by a car, pray it wasn't made by Audi, BMW or Vauxhall. It's a disgrace that makers are ignoring pedestrian safety when, for the sake of spending a bit more, they could potentially help save hundreds of lives each year," says Malcolm Coles, editor of Which? magazine published by the U.K.-based consumer advocacy group of the same name.

"In recent EuroNCAP tests the Audi TT, Skoda Superb and Suzuki Grand Vitara were all found to be potential death threats to pedestrians despite the fact it's cheap and easy for manufacturers to make cars more pedestrian-friendly. The cars all scored zero points and show no sign of thought given to preventing pedestrian injury in a lower speed collision," according to a press statement from Which?. "Simple design improvements - costing an average of just £53 for each new car - could save 255 lives and 6,300 serious injuries in the UK each year. Which? is also naming and shaming other popular cars that did badly in the tests, putting pedestrians at too high a risk; they include the BMW 1-series, 5-series and X5, Jaguar X-Type, Range Rover and Vauxhall Astra. "

Tests gave relatively high marks to models from Citroen, Honda, Seat and Volkswagen.

March 2, 2005

Denver Suburbs Move To More Walkability, Denser Development

"In a historic change, [Denver] suburbs have broken with the development pattern of the past 50 years and embraced density," the Rocky Mountain News reports. The rising cost of land, congested freeways, a burgeoning light-rail network and a growing consumer preference for more compact housing in walkable neighborhoods are all changing the look and feel of suburbia. ...

"Not only do cities like Phoenix and Houston sprawl far more than Denver, the suburbs of eastern cities such as Boston and Philadelphia are much more spread out."

Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer told the News: "What's happening today is that we're looking for focal points, a place that is a destination with intense uses and more intense housing. It's planning your community so people have to drive less."

Sense of place. Designing a destination instead of strings of soul-less strip malls. Allowing people to park once and then enjoy strolling to multiple destinations. It's the 21st century trend in development, and one that an increasing number of Americans say they want (see my post on how 90% of respondents to a Better Homes & Gardens survey said walkable neighborhoods were important to them -- more than cited spacious rooms or large lots). Why can't we do that here?