December 28, 2005

Yes, Buyers Want Mixed-Use, Smart Growth Projects

So often you hear sprawl advocates say that American homebuyers want to buy homes in suburban sprawl communities, where it's impossible to walk anywhere and the main visible neighborhood feature is huge garage door after huge garage door. And in fact, some do. But many do not; and developers who are brave enough to buck default sprawl zoning can be amply rewarded. In San Jose, Calif., for example, "the mixed-use pedestrian-friendly Santana Row complex on a former strip-mall site some three miles southwest of downtown San Jose enjoys such demand among mostly young and wealthy home buyers that the Maryland-based builder, Federal Realty Investment Trust, is selling its 219 condos at record prices of up to $525,000 for 700 square feet, $1.45 million for 2,200 square feet, and $2.5 million for 3,800 square feet, with fewer than 60 units left," according to Smart Growth News, summarizing a report in the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal.

The project's success "has proven out that people want to live in a community where they don't have to get in their cars all of the time," Federal Realty's chief investment officer Jeff Berkes told the business journal.

The complex includes a 214-room hotel, cinema and more than half a million square feet of high-end stores and restaurants.

One major issue: Will the success of this project hurt San Jose's downtown core, where, the business journal notes politely, "the downtown experience overall is much grittier than Santana Row."

December 27, 2005

Big Box vs. Walkability

Toledo, Ohio is running into a major conflict between planners' vision of a pedestrian-friendly village for the Westgate section of the city and Costco's desire to build a store in the area.

"Mayor-elect Carty Finkbeiner ... urged Costco Corp. and the plaza's owner to look nearby for an alternative site for the big-box store," the Toledo Blade reports. "The store and accompanying smaller buildings run contrary to the 'shopping village' concept advanced two years ago by "Walk Westgate," a consultant's report that suggested reconfiguring streets and allowing denser development to support small businesses and a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere."

Note that Finkbeiner isn't trying to turn Costco away, but hoping they'll look for a site in the city that's better suited for such buildings. A representative of the plaza responded that the Costco will be built keeping Walk Westgate principals in mind.

Interesting how the debate there has shifted to what types of stores and development will best create a walker-friendly village atmosphere, instead of still arguing whether such pattersn are better than sprawl. I wonder if there's any chance planners will get to that stage when discussing development along Rtes. 30 and 9 in Framingham/Natick....

December 25, 2005

Open Space

What open space truly enhances its immediate surrounding community? In thinking about such space here in Framingham, the village green in Framingham Centre is at the top of my list. Easily accessible to nearby residences, stores and Framingham State College, it's often used for concerts and other events, as well as informally by people playing football or frisbee when the weather's nice. That's the best test for how well designed such spaces are -- how often are they used?

Even though it's surrounded by reasonably well-travelled roads, the green is an oasis that's well integrated into the community. And one reason it works so well is the architecture around it. Although several of the buildings are set back a bit from the road, they're not set back so much as to feel completely cut off from the green. Instead, the doorways and windows are quite visible from the green -- there are many "eyes" facing that public space. That's important for people to feel comfortable using the space for casual neighborhood activities (as opposed to a park's natural setting for specific nature recreation like hiking and bicycling).

If the same space was tucked away surrounded by fences, blank walls and huge parking lots, I don't think it would have the same inviting feeling.

"Open space" as part of the planning process is a great idea, but it's not simply the quantity of square footage left unbuilt upon that's important - it's also quality. There's a bit of "open space" around the redesigned Shoppers World, for instance -- I'm guessing it might be wetlands -- but that space doesn't really add much to the project. In fact, if anything, it just makes it more difficult for pedestrians to get there from anywhere else.

December 22, 2005

Town Green Planned For N.J. Mall

Preliminary plans for a new Bethlehem Township, N.J. shopping center will include an outdoor "town green" gathering place, according to the Express-Times. The cynic in me says 1) I guess towns without real public town centers need private industry to manufacture and simulate them, and 2) that sounds a bit like the old Shoppers World, and I wish we had something like that incorporated into the hideously pedestrian-hostile current Shoppers World.

Now that I got that off my chest, though, I do think it's encouraging that private developers are thinking about public space. Assuming the space really is developed with walker-appeal in mind, and not simply plopped amidst a network of traffic sewers where nobody would actually want to walk.

"Possibilities for the green include a venue for a farmers' market and a band shell for outdoor concerts. The developer plans to include a fountain or carousel in the space," the article notes. "Rather than a traditional shopping center, [developer spokesman Dehan] Glanz said the goal is a return to an 'old style,' with pedestrian-friendly streets and a 'downtown' feel."

Pity no one thought about the outdoor pedestrian streetscape in the Natick Mall redevelopment...

December 18, 2005

‘We Don’t Really See Our Neighbors So Much Anymore’

What happens when small towns on the fringes of a major metro area turn into exurbs, with new homes being built in sprawling car-centric subdivisions? In Frisco, Texas, "older residents note a subtle change in the pattern of life as subdivisions spread and people spend more time in the car," the New York Times reports in a feature on some Dallas exurbs.

"We don't really see our neighbors so much anymore," Richard Kinnunen, a resident since 1993, told the Times. "We all drive into our back alleys and into our garage, and that's that."

In addition, lengthy commuting times makes it more difficult for many working residents to get involved in community activities.

No surprise. Many residents move out to the edges looking for larger homes and lot sizes, as well as the ever popular "good schools."

You can't make these exurbs closer to cities. You can build them in ways that include enough retail and commercial activity so some residents can find jobs closer to home. You can also make sure that the new development patterns don't emphasize - no, require - the use of an automobile to get anywhere or do anything. There's no reason these communities can't be built in ways that allow SOME things to be done on foot. No, every kid won't be able to walk to school; but new schools tend to be built set back so far from other developments that NO ONE can walk to them. That leads to needless additional traffic, and a reduction in quality of life for everyone.

December 15, 2005

Suburban Dining

Globe West focuses on suburban dining today, with the rather silly premise that it's oh so surprising you can get a decent meal beyond the city limits. Duh. Apparently the author is unaware of how common it is for great restaurants of the world to be outside urban areas. In France, for example, there are 10 Michelin 3-star restaurants in Paris, 1 in Lyons, 18 elsewhere. In Germany, one in Dusseldorf, five elsewhere (none in Berlin or Frankfurt; one NEAR [but not in] Munich).

Anyway, while the article discusses city/MetroWest differences in pricing, interior ambiance and style of service, one thing that's missing is neighborhood atmosphere. Author Erica Noonan mentions Wellesley's "village-style" town center as a plus, but doesn't articulate the reverse problem of some suburban spots: pulling into a strip mall does take something away from major special occasion dining. I love Maxwell's 148 in Natick, one of the restaurants profiled in the piece -- its service is truly exceptional, and the food is excellent as well. But for a milestone birthday or anniversary, it's a letdown to walk in and out of a nondescript strip mall parking lot. Without question, walking down Newbury Street to the Public Garden before or after dinner makes an evening more special; but even going to Blue Ginger in Wellesley, a storefront on the "village-style" street, is better than a detached, set-back strip mall.

Some places can use a non-urban location to great advantage, like the Wayside Inn with its beautiful location and grounds. If you're not a diehard foodie, exterior ambiance does matter to an overall "special evening out" experience.

December 13, 2005

True Test: How Important Are Pedestrians in Your Community?

There's nothing like a snowstorm to highlight whether walking holds as important a place in your community as cars. Unfortunately, in most suburbs the results are painfully disappointing.

I'm pretty confident that sidewalks in Manhattan are clear enough to be passable a day or two after a snowfall. In a city where more than half of workers take public transportation to the office, it would be unthinkable to clear the roadways but leave walkways unusable. Likewise, I'd bet that sidewalks in front of Newbury Street stores in Boston are reasonably walkable.

Here in Framingham, though, it's pretty random. Some sidewalks are cleared off, but many others aren't. The ones assumed to be used by kids walking to school are often eventually cleared off after a storm. Around the Speen Street office buildings, you can usually get from your building parking lot to your office. But if you want to take a lunchtime walk, be prepared to walk in the snow-narrowed streets and risk being sideswiped.

As I ranted in a MetroWest Daily News op-ed piece last year, this is completely unacceptable. Nobody relies on property owners to clear the roads in front of their buildings in order to allow cars to pass. It's not right to do so for walkways. Taxpaying pedestrians should not be treated as so unimportant. Walking around in winter is NOT an optional activity. Local government should be providing the same snow-clearing services for pedestrians on public sidewalks as they do for drivers on roads.

December 11, 2005

‘Designing the Village’

Thanks to reader Josh Ostroff for pointing out this interesting project in Westport, Mass.: Designing the Village, an effort to "to promote a sense of community and safe pedestrian access in Central Village." While tactics such as installing "street furniture" and public art along with improving sidewalks, pathways and street lighting to boost walkability, what intrigues me is the organization behind the effort: the Westport Arts Council.

Clearly, simply adding outdoor art and some benches is not enough to turn a pedestrian-hostile environment into a walker-appealing one (as Boston's City Hall Plaza makes amply clear). But it's cool that an organization focused on aesthetics is looking at the full package to create a better sense of place for those on foot.

December 10, 2005

Fun of a Walkable Neighborhood

After yesterday's Worst Commute Ever, the last thing I wanted to do today is get in a motorized vehicle of any kind. So, my husband had to go to the grocery store -- I got stuck yesterday right by Stop & Shop, and don't really want to see that intersection again just yet (preferably not until spring). But I was able to walk to the Pinefield shopping center and pick up some wine to go with the dinner we're making tonight.

As I was walking, I saw some neighbors out clearing driveways. I saw kids playing in the snow. I saw geese flying overheard in V-formation -- something I couldn't have stopped to enjoy if I'd had to get in my car to run the errand.

And, I saw this:

Horse-drawn cart in the Pinefield neighborhood

How fun is that! Turns out the local Ace hardware store is running rides around the neighborhood. I walked by Hometowne Hotdogs, and it was mobbed inside because Santa was visiting. The Amazing Things Arts Center is readying for a jazz concert tonight.... all within a 15-minute walk of the house. I felt a lot better about my neighborhood than I did yesterday :-)

Ah, if we were building the new library in Saxonville.... if there could be a small grocery store in the shopping center again that I could walk to ... and a bakery in Pinefield where you could pick up fresh bread every morning....if there was a cafe up at the sidewalk, with landscaped outdoor seating so you could watch the passers-by, and a good buffer between the sidewalk and the traffic.... it would be close to perfect. For now, though, it feels a lot better to me than some sprawl-plagued subdivision where you can only walk for recreation or exercise, not to actually GET anywhere besides other houses.

Farewell Filene’s: The Homogenizing of America?

Globe columnist Robert Kuttner mourns the passing of Filene's as another symbol of the homogenization of America. I'm not so sure.

Like Kuttner, I'm unhappy that every shopping center in America is starting to look like every other one. Shopping areas in Florida, Kansas City or Alaska are becoming barely distinguishable from those of Massachusetts, and that's unfortunate. Travel is simply less interesting if you see too many of the things there are back home.

But Kuttner is awash in nostalgia in claiming "Filene's is in a special category" of retailer as a local institution. 21st century Filene's was part of the homogenization problem, not a solution.

Worst. Commute. Ever.

I know this is a tad off topic, but I feel an undeniable urge to vent about my drive home yesterday in our surprise miniblizzard-within-a-moderate-snowfall.

Hey, I live in New England. I know the roads get bad in winter (and late autumn. and early spring.) . I've skidded, slid and been trapped in gridlock way more times than I can count. My car's been stuck plenty of times in various parking lots and my own driveway. But in 25 or so years of winter driving in New England and upstate New York, I was never actually stuck in the middle of a road because of heavy snow...until yesterday.

It was just the little hill at the corner of Old Connecticut Path and Rte. 126. But many other cars got stuck there too. When it was my turn to try going through, I passed three other cars littered along the roadway ... and couldn't make it around the corner either.

After much effort, I finally did turn onto 126 and get my car over to the side, so at least the other cars backed up endlessly could make their own attempts. Then, I was only about 2 feet away from the passable part of the road -- but try as I might, I couldn't get there.

Step 1: Get out of car and and try clearing the snow around the wheels and under the vehicle. Step 2: Get back in, rock back and forth, move a little. Get stuck again. Step 3: Repeat steps 1&2. This went on for about an hour. I called the police to tell them it was a dangerous situation (with cars skidding by right and left, I'm very fortunate no one hit me). They said they could call me a tow truck. I said never mind, I'd call AAA - hahahahaha. Line endlessly busy.

Finally, an incredibly kind guy hopped out of a private truck and offered to help push. He tried valiantly, making some progress...eventually, three other Good Samaritans materialized and joined him, and got me back on the road. I was too afraid to stop the car and say thanks, fearing it wouldn't start again or I'd get hit by someone .... but I am deeply grateful to those gentlemen. ... and to my neighbor across the street with his new snowblower, who came over and cleared out our driveway since I couldn't get my car in to park and leave it. Extremely unpleasant experience, made a lot better by the kindness of friends and strangers.

December 8, 2005

Philadelphia: Neighbors Help Condo Tower Makeover

Here's an interesting response to the problem of government planners falling down on the important job of ensuring pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

It wasn't planning officials in Philadelphia who are responsible for revising a proposed condo tower that originally shaped up to be "500 feet tall ... hunkered like King Kong atop a nine-story garage podium that was so unpleasant, it would have sent pedestrians scurrying across the street. Those garage decks would have spewed exhaust into the apartments at the Penn Center House, a few feet away on JFK Boulevard," writes Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. "Fortunately, the design for 1919 Market Street was subjected to early intervention by neighborhood activists. ...

"Most of the parking will be tucked underground or heavily camouflaged. There will be bright shops facing both 20th and Market Streets. The tower has been pushed to the site's Market Street side so residents of Penn Center House will still see glimpses of sun."

How did those changes occur? Saffron notes that "the city Planning Commission played no role in the condo tower's makeover. All the design changes were pushed by volunteers from the Center City Residents Association and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association over several months. The story has a happy ending because the developer, Opus East, responded constructively to the criticisms."

But how could residents - even highly motivated residents - come up with practical ideas to improve a poor design? Partly because "they had already articulated clear urban-design values. They knew that above-ground parking podiums cast a pall over the pedestrian realm and divorce the tower's residents from the surrounding city. They agreed that Market Street between 19th Street and the Schuylkill River, where the city's sleek office corridor runs out of energy, needs lots of sidewalk activity.

"But the civic groups also had the benefit of professional advice from Kise Straw & Kolodner. The CCRA hired the design firm last year because it felt that city planners were unable to provide any meaningful help with the staggering amount of development being proposed for Center City."

Typically, neighborhood groups turn to professionals (usually attorneys) when they're trying to keep development out. Here, they paid professionals to help make development better.

December 5, 2005

‘Rating the Suburbs’ - Kansas City Star Gives it a Shot

The Kansas City Star has attempted to rate major suburban communities around K.C. for "quality of life," picking its winners and losers on issues such as crime, education, housing, lifestyle and sense of community. Not being familiar with any of those suburbs (although I have been to Kansas City itself), the specific ratings didn't interest me much; but I was quite intrigued by the scoring system they used. And I have a few disagreements.

December 4, 2005

‘Zoned Out’

I'm in the midst of reading a review copy of Zoned Out by University of Michigan associate professor Jonathan Levine. I agree with the premise: "Municipal regulation that zones out th ealternatives to [suburban] sprawl is neither a preordained state of nature nor the free market's invisible hand, but a governmental decision to constrain market processes. As such, it does not deserve the 'default' status it has attained in debates over transportation, land use, and metropolitan development."

The fact that people are buying McMansions in the suburbs doesn't mean that's all they'd buy. People are also buying condos in the cities -- in fact, per square foot, condos in desirable Manhattan and Boston neighborhoods are pricier by far than most suburban homes. And people are clearly buying single-family homes at a premium in more densely populated, traditional town centers in suburbs like Wellesley and Concord. When almost 9 in 10 people in a Better Homes and Gardens survey said they value walkable neighborhoods when buying a home, it's fallacy to say that pedestrian-hostile, auto-centric sprawl is in fact Americans' default desire. If it's a lot tougher for a builder to create pedestrian-friendly cluster neighborhoods than cookie-cutter subdivisions, of course they opt for the latter.

Likewise, of course people don't want to use public transportation if it's inconvenient, unreliable, infrequent and unpleasant. That doesn't mean people won't use it at all. When I worked in Newton Corner and needed to go to Boston, I took the express bus - less than 15 minutes door to door, it was usually faster and less of a hassle than driving. From north Framingham, though, I never want to use the train -- the drive to the train station is about one-third of the distance to simply drive to Boston, but it's not heading toward the city; there's then parking and waiting, and about an hour's trip with endless stops. And off rush hour, there might as well not be trains at all, if they're running every 3 hours. Why can't there be an express bus on the same convenient schedule as Logan Express, but going to downtown Boston? But I digress....

Levine argues that "pervasive government intervention" and not free market forces has "mold[ed] U.S. metropolitan areas to a sprawling development template."

In one survey of developers, half in Mid-Atlantic and more than one-third in the Northeast believe that at least a quarter of their market is interested in "alternative" development patterns to conventional sprawl. Yet more than 86% of developers in the Northeast said there was not an adequate supply of alternative development housing in existing and new construction. "Few respondents [except in the South Central U.S.] saw lack of market interest as an obstacle, but an overwhelming majority of respondents viewed local regulations as a significant obstacle.

It seems that zoning, not "market forces," help explain suburban sprawl.

December 3, 2005

Oh, the Irony…

"Japanese automaker Mazda Motor Corp. is recommending its employees walk to the office, rather than drive, to improve their health and protect the environment," AP reports.

Actually, good for them for understanding that just because they manufacture automobiles, they don't need to do everything in their power to make people HAVE to use autos for everything all the time. And that it's still important to get out of your car once in awhile. It's a pity that U.S. auto lobbyists don't seem to have the same outlook, and can't seem to understand that cars will still be important even if we make communities that are more attractive for walking, cycling and mass transit; and that it's OK to accept sharing the road and planning for all.