May 29, 2006

‘Paris on the Charles’

Well, um, not exactly. But three cheers to Cambridge still, for agreeing to allow restaurants to serve food and alcohol at outdoor sidewalk seating on public rights of way, according to a Boston Globe article Coming to Cambridge: Paris on the Charles. The decision is a triumph for enhanced quality of life in public spaces over the often knee-jerk hysteria in our society about alcohol consumption in public view.

The Cambridge rules use common sense to balance creation of neighborhood-enhancing sidewalk cafes with legitimate concerns about public noise and rowdiness, especially in a community swarming with college students. "Alcohol" is not a problem when consumed responsibly; in limited quantities with meals, alcohol is actually healthy. Abuse and overconsumption of alcohol is a problem.

"If it's summertime, you want to sit outside," Elizabeth Lint, executive officer of the Cambridge License Commission, told the Globe. "You're paying for a lovely meal, and you want to have a glass of wine or whatever you choose to accompany it. They do it all over Boston and the South End, then why not here?"

It's a question worth asking about the revitalization of downtown Framingham as well.

"The change dovetails with a $3.5 million renovation project to improve roads and sidewalks and jumpstart the street life in [Harvard] square, which draws 8 million visitors a year. Winthrop and Palmer streets, for instance, will be transformed into pedestrian malls," the Globe notes.

Street life, foot traffic and pedestrian appeal are critical components for a successful 21st century downtown business district. "Sense of place" is the most potent weapon places like Harvard Square have in their competition with big-box retailers and suburban malls. It's something Framingham would be wise to consider trying to cultivate, as Waltham's Moody Street has done even without sidewalk seating (they, however, are fortunate enough to have the Charles River as a draw).

Cambridge restaurants pay a $750 fee to use the public sidwalk for a season of outdoor dining, and may not exceed the total seats allowed by their liquor licenses. "Waiters can serve alcohol only along with food, must stop by 11 p.m., and cannot allow smoking on the patios. The commission is requiring designs that include cordoned-off areas and planters and not 'rinky-dink furniture,' Lint said," according to the Globe. " 'The mayor thinks it should be like Paris,' she said. 'We want a cosmopolitan kind of feel. '"

Such seemingly small touches will also help burnish the allure of the streetscape, attracting visitors who will likely spend more time strolling and ultimately spend more money with local businesses.

May 28, 2006

Public vs. Private Space

I've written about the balance between private vs. public space before. Outside of urban America, the emphasis is generally so strongly on private space that our public spaces become poor cousins. It's why exurbs have lots of McMansions but little pedestrian appeal, and our transportation policies favor the private car over public transit. (In places like Manhattan, on the other hand, people pay dearly for minimal private living space in return for the fabulous public spaces right out their doors. New York is the only city in America where a majority of people take mass transit to work).

But I have to say I really enjoyed this quote from James Howard Kunstler for putting the issue in perspective: "a luxurious private realm, with more bathrooms per inhabitant than any other society, will not compensate for a public realm that has been reduced and impoverished into a universal automobile slum."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: There's nothing wrong with automobiles, but there's something very wrong about designing communities solely for the needs of motorized private vehicles, caring little about the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transit.

Kunstler thinks that if the high cost of gasoline prompts more people to stay closer to home this summer, "The failures and disconnections of the living arrangement most Americans have been induced to choose will at last become manifest." Certainly the lack of public transit alternatives and the need to use automobiles for every imaginable errand should become more obvious among those whose lifestyles assumed they could buy endless supplies of gas at less than $2/gallon and who can't shrug off $3+/gallon gasoline.

May 26, 2006

Filling the GAP: Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza

"Today, Brooklyn's plaza rivals the grandeur of European plazas like the Parisian Etoile where the Arc de Triomphe is located. There is, however, one notable difference: Unlike the great European plazas, Grand Army Plaza is, for the most part, disconnected from the city around it and devoid of human life and activity," says the New York Street Renaissance in its most recent mailing.
Over the years, this great civic space has evolved into a gigantic traffic rotary. With minimal pedestrian connectivity, no accommodation for Prospect Park's countless cyclists, and six full lanes of one-way traffic whizzing around the plaza's grand arch and newly renovated $1.5 million Bailey Fountain, the message Grand Army Plaza sends to the public is, 'Look but don't touch.' It doesn't feel safe to cross the street to get to Grand Army Plaza so people simply don't go there, even on beautiful weekend afternoons with a bustling, crowded greenmarket, less than 100-feet away at the entrance to Prospect Park.

In recent months a diverse group of community stakeholders have come together to begin to re-envision Grand Army Plaza. What has emerged is one of the most exciting New York City Streets Renaissance projects. The Grand Army Plaza Coalition includes a rapidly expanding list of neighborhood groups, advocacy organizations and important local institutions like the Prospect Park Alliance, The Brooklyn Public Library and The Heart of Brooklyn which represents all of the cultural institutions around Grand Army Plaza, as well as neighborhood groups like the Park Slope Civic Council and the Prospect Heights Parents Association.

'Our mission is to fill the GAP,' says Coalition organizer Aaron Naparstek. 'We envision Grand Army Plaza as a great place for people, a place where Brooklyn's diverse communities can come together for concerts, festivals and simple relaxation and recreation. We believe that Grand Army Plaza is one of New York City's most valuable, yet under-utilized, assets.'

What a great idea. Public space best adds to a neighborhood's quality of life when it's integrated into the streetscape.

May 24, 2006

Stopping Wal-Mart via Eminent Domain?

The town of Hercules, Calif. is considering using eminent domain to take 17.27 acres away from Wal-Mart, which is planning a store "near an upscale new residential neighborhood next to San Pablo Bay," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

It's an interesting twist on the recent Supreme Court decision that allowed eminent domain takings for private development, if such development would improve the public good. What about the argument that stopping a particular development would serve the public good?

Many residents "fear that a giant discount store would wreak havoc on a half-decade of planning for a bayside village of high-end shops and homes designed to be friendly toward pedestrians," the paper reports.

I'm not sure I approve of seizing private land to stop big-box, pedestrian-hostile development -- I'm not a fan of that decision altogether. I do strongly favor zoning that keeps such developments away from neighborhoods where walkable streetscapes are important, though. I'm not clear why zoning in Hercules didn't mandate a maximum size and specific siting of businesses desired in the area and prevent big-box building in the first place. Yet another reason why wise zoning is important if you want a well-planned neighborhood business district.

May 23, 2006

Springfield Rezones to Encourage Pedestrian-Friendly Development

"The City Council has rezoned 55 properties in the Indian Orchard section that supporters hope will lead to the area becoming a shopper- and pedestrian-friendly village," according to the Springfield (Mass.)  Republican.

The idea of changing the business zone is to prevent certain operations "such as an automobile transmission workshop, while promoting less intensive uses like restaurants and shops, supporters said."

There is, of course, a need for auto repair shops in a community; the problem is that if they're located smack in the middle of a retail/commercial center, they kill off a neighborhood business district's pedestrian appeal. Nobody enjoys strolling by used car lots, poorly designed strip malls and junkyards. If you want to create a "park once, walk to multiple destinations" center, the right mix of businesses on your main streets is important.

May 16, 2006

Canadian Town Backs Pedestrian-Centered Revitalization

Drayton Valley, Alberta officials and business people are backing a downtown remake that includes "pedestrian friendly streets, storefronts that invite shoppers to come in to browse and buy and a downtown that invites community events while encouraging a family atmosphere," according to the Western Review.

The plan, developed by McGill University Professor Avi Friedman and a team of architecture students, "offers both short-term objectives such as improving sidewalks, fixing storefront facades and adding decorative touches like awnings, trees and benches and long-term goals such as the construction of a civic square, the addition of affordable housing units to replace the current trailers and working to make the entry corridor into town an inviting avenue to tempt highway travellers."

The proposal calls for changing a narrow street with angle parking into a street lined with paving stones allowing "little or no parking to make it pedestrian friendly and a metal and glass canopy structure running down the centre that would make the street appealing for events like farmers’ markets, outdoor art exhibitions and any number of community activities."

Interestingly, unlike many American suburban planners, Friedman and his team understand that while parking is critically important somewhere convenient and nearby, having your public spaces look and feel too much like a huge parking lot will negatively affect the ability of a commercial district to become a destination.

May 13, 2006

$250M Mixed-Use, Pedestrian Friendly Development Planned Near K.C.

"Construction will start in June on the $250 million Park Place, an urban-style, mixed-use community in Leawood, complete with ice rink and luxury hotel," the Kansas City Star reports. "Several restaurant tenants have already signed, and more retail tenants are expected to be announced soon."

A focus on pedestrians and entertainment makes the project more than simply an outdoor "lifestyle center" mall, the paper concluded. Jeff Alpert, a partner in the firm developing the quarter-billion-dollar project, told the Star: "What we’re creating is totally different from any other suburban shopping center in our district or in Johnson County — the mixed use, the design, the sidewalk dining, the public spaces."

Ah, to have had sidewalk dining at the re-done Natick Mall....

Park Place will feature 20-foot-wide sidewalks with "heavy landscaping" and outdoor seating at all restaurants, the paper noted. "The developers hope to create a high-energy, pedestrian-friendly place where the residents, employees and tourists can interact." Plans call for an outdoor illage square to host "fairs, festivals and concerts" in good weather and ice skating in winter.

That's a lot more than adding condos to a conventional indoor mall.

May 9, 2006

Better, Not Bigger: What Today’s Homebuyers Really Want

While developers and policymakers continue to assume that the "American Dream" means ever bigger, more isolated homes in exurban sprawl, a new generation of real American homebuyers wants something else, the New York Times reports in Younger Buyers Want Better, not Bigger.

"Reach Advisors, a market-research firm in Boston, would argue ... that there is a disconnect between affluent 'Generation X' home buyers and the home builders and land developers who are supposed to be catering to them," the article says. "James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, said he believes there is a 'generational shift,' with buyers ages 25 to 39 demanding features that are different from what their parents, the baby boomers, have sought. 'Yet, most home builders are reluctant to change the formula that made them so profitable over the past 10 years,' Mr. Chung said."

So are most community planners, who are ignoring shifting market trends at their peril.

"Based on 6,800 interviews conducted for five different studies on 25- to 39-year-olds, Mr. Chung contends that affluent members of that generation, despite household incomes of $100,000 and up, are determined to spend thoughtfully rather than embrace living large. ... The younger buyers prefer layouts that emphasize family space rather than humongous master suites and are more attuned to the concept of neighborly interaction fostered by dog parks and sidewalks."

However, it's largely the "Baby Boom" generation, brought up to think that most people naturally want a huge home on an enormous lot in a neighborhood with nothing but other residences, who are doing the planning and developing. And many continue to assume that anyone who can afford one, lusts after a McMansion on an acre or two. Wrong! After a generation or two of cookie-cutter subdivisions, an increasing number of American homebuyers are longing for more traditional communities where a motorized vehicle isn't a necessity for every single errand (including mowing one's vast acreage of lawn).

"Such preferences make adults in the late 20's and 30's prime clients for the 'new urbanism,' Mr. Chung said. Defined as a return to traditional neighborhood design, these communities are built to resemble, in spirit, older, more varied and more connected residential areas and to seem less like suburban subdivisions."

That was what led one couple profiled in the article, Kathryn and Dan Drury, to sell their new 4,000-square-foot home and buy something smaller in a community with "a neighborhood feeling, hiking trails nearby and a diverse population with whom they could feel connected."

Older, more densely developed communities like downtown Framingham could benefit from this shift in real estate desires, if downtown Framingham could be redeveloped offering amenities such buyers want. But that means giving people walkable neighborhoods, appealing streetscapes and nearby amenities as well as the traditional necessities like good schools and safe communities.

May 3, 2006

Ahhh, Ahhhhhhts

I don't seem to be reading or hearing much about the Framingham I'm living in these days. The one that I'm enjoying, in the midst of the Spring Into Arts celebration.

This weekend, I took a walk down to Saxonville Center and enjoyed the Saxonville Studios open house. It was fun seeing the artists in their studios, as well as viewing some of the compelling paintings and photographs on display. The artists even thoughtfully had snacks out for visitors. Alas, I didn't - as I'd hoped - fall in love with anything specific that I needed to purchase to give some life to our bare white walls; but it was still fun to browse.

And then tonight, we went to the fusion Latin/Israeli jazz concert downtown at the Civic League to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. There was quite a nice turnout, which proves yet again that people absolutely will patronize events in downtown Framingham -- if there are events worth going to. It was an enjoyable evening listening to some talented musicians, making me thankful that Framingham has been able to enjoy some benefits from being close to Boston's Berklee College of Music. (Victor Mendoza is a Berklee professor; he performed with students from the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Israel who have also been studying at Berklee). There's just nothing like live performances, whether they're music or theater. Enough such live cultural offerings add immeasurably to community quality of life.

As people poured out of the Civic League building after the concert, I couldn't help wishing for a streetscape that would have kept them downtown -- pedestrian-friendly, well lit, with open cafes and restaurants where people could stroll by and stop for coffee and dessert afterwards (well, actually in this case it might not have worked, since dessert was being offered at the Civic League as well. But you get the idea).

However, step by step. If the Amazing Things Arts Center sets up shop downtown (even though I have to say I'd selfishly prefer them to stay in my neighborhood :-) ), we'll see if town planners can help create such a streetscape where businesses will want to invest and nearby residents will want to walk around.

You know, there's a lot more to this town than political bickering.

May 2, 2006

‘Building Great Neighborhoods is Profitable’

One of the things that often quickly separates a new development from an established neighborhood is the greenery. Typically, new subdivisions are built after bulldozing most if not all existing trees. Then the homes look bare, until a few decades go by and the area looks "established.

The new Vickery development, however, "appears to be brand-spanking-new, which is true. The community, which eventually will total 600 residences with office and retail space, began in 2003," writes columnist Maria Saporta at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "On the other hand, the development feels as though it's been there awhile, playing off many of the smart-growth principles that resemble a more historic community.

"But one major feature that gives the Vickery community a lived-in feeling is its trees and green space."

That's not simply good luck. Developer Pam Sessions said that plans for siting houses and roads were often readjusted to save existing trees. And, her company spent $20,000 transplanting 44 mature trees within the neighborhood, incuding oak, birch, cherry, magnolia, hemlock and maple.

"All the trees make such a big difference," she told the Journal-Constitution. "They make it feel like the community is established. . . . Building great neighborhoods is profitable. When more developers realize that, we all will be better off." Indeed.