June 30, 2006

Half a Million Dollars for Downtown Framingham Revitalization

The state legislature and Gov. Romney have approved $500,000 for the Framingham Downtown Renaissance economic revitalization group and the development of a capital plan for Framingham, the MetroWest Daily News reports. I'm not sure yet what specifically the money will be spent on (although I hope some streetscape improvements!)

Framingham Planner to Speak on Pedestrian, Bicycle Issues

The Planning Department has gained additional staff and will be able to dedicate more resources to bicycle, pedestrian, and trail projects, William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, reports. Planner Lily Pollans will attend the committee's next meeting, July 11, 7:30 pm at Town Hall, to discuss current projects and goals for improving Framingham's accommodation of cyclists and pedestrians.

He also notes that Moving Together 2006, the statewide bicycle and pedestrian conference, will be held on October 18, 2006 at the Marriott Boston Courtyard Hotel. For registration information, see the UMASS Baystate Roads Web site. To get on the pre-conference e-mail list, send your e-mail address to baystate_roads@hotmail.com.

June 28, 2006

Study: Middle-income urban neighborhoods disappearing even faster than the middle class

It's not just Manhattan that's turning into an urban enclave for either the rich or poor. As the American middle class shrinks, urban middle-class neighborhoods are disappearing even faster, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 1970-2000 U.S. census data.

"Middle-income neighborhoods as a proportion of all metropolitan neighborhoods declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000," the analysis notes. "This dramatic decline far outpaced the corresponding drop in the proportion of metropolitan families earning middle incomes, from 28 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2000."

The Boston/NH "PMSA" (primary metropolitan statistical area) had just 21.9% of residents in the middle-income category, according to the Brookings Institution analysis. That includes much of eastern Massachusetts as well as some of southern New Hampshire.

June 25, 2006

Pedestrian Friendly: Absolutely Opaque on the Concept

Talk about unclear on the concept of what pedestrian friendly development should be! In yesterday's Boston Globe article about an outdoor "lifestyle center" shopping center coming to Burlington was this gem of a quote from Steve Rice at Patriot Partners , Wayside Commons' developer:

"It's pedestrian friendly. You can pull your car up right to the front of a store."

Is this what our auto-centric couch-potato society has come to? "Pedestrian-friendly" is now a definition of a drive-up window? Argh! "Pedestian-friendly" does NOT mean creating an environment where you don't actually have to do any walking! "Pedestrian-friendly" means creating an environment that is attractive and welcoming to people on foot.

Got that, Mr. Rice? Newbury Street is pedestrian-friendly, even though you usually can't pull your car right up to a store. The Burger King drive-through window is not pedestrian-friendly, even though you can pull your car right up.

Amazingly, the Globe article continued on Rice's theme:
The Burlington Mall has the traditional ocean of spaces -- 5,700 of them -- with the stores forming an island in the middle. It's a hike from the space farthest away. Stores in Wayside Commons form a horseshoe, with most of the center's 800 spaces in the center, making for a much shorter walk.

The problem with traditional mall parking is not that you have to walk; it's that you have to walk in a particularly unappealing ocean of asphalt. Shoppers happily walk much longer down Newbury Street or in Quincy Market, without feeling the need to have a car drive them from one end to the other.

It's not about distance. It's about ambiance, and streetscape, and good design.

June 18, 2006

‘Is this a pedestrian-friendly city or a vehicle-friendly city?’

There's an interesting debate going on in downtown Dallas over a stretch of Browder Street, which is supposed to be pedestrian-only. But now cars are already using it, and there's some talk of allowing vehicles back.

"We give up so much to our cars and give so little to our pedestrians," Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt told the Dallas Morning News. "Allowing vehicles on a pedestrian way – you know what that's called? It's called a street."

"The city needs to decide whether this is a pedestrian-friendly city or a vehicle-friendly city," resident Brittny Garrett told the paper, after she was almost struck by a car while walking her dog on the supposed pedestrian-only stretch.

Some businesses are complaining about the lack of vehicular access. But frankly it's hard for me to work up too much sympathy over people who can't get their valet-parked cars delivered right to them without having to walk. Especially since it's pedestrians who apparently brought the street back to life.

"Two years ago, Browder Street languished, mostly abandoned by people and cars," the Morning News notes. "Then last year, the Urban Market grocery and cafe opened on the southern stretch of Browder Street's two blocks. Hundreds of people began populating the adjacent Dallas Power & Light and Interurban buildings, newly transformed from empty, decaying hulks into sparkling apartment complexes. Fuse restaurant and Crimson in the City clothier opened near Browder Street as well.

"They provided enough critical mass for pedestrians. Browder Street now teems with life throughout the day – businesspeople during lunchtime, grocery shoppers and dog walkers during evenings.

"But as a pedestrian mall, at least, it's falling victim to downtown's success."

Kind of like the artists who renovate lofts in marginal neighborhoods, eventually making them so attractive that they get priced out for their efforts. Looks like something similar may be happening in Dallas, where residents of the area want to keep the pedestrian area but others feel deprived if they can't drive every single block of the city (it's not like vehicles don't have access pretty much everywhere else). Said Councilor Hunt: "Browder is such a small thing for cars to give up, and it's such a big thing for pedestrians to give up."

June 14, 2006

Congress for New Urbanism Gives Design Award to … the Army?

Yup. "Since the Department of Defense began privatizing its housing in 1996 (more than 128,000 units to date), replacing and upgrading an antiquated stock through partnerships with the private sector, the armed services have started running in some surprising architectural circles," the New York Times reports in New Urbanism: It's in the Army Now. "On June 3 the Army was given a Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism."

What does award-winning Army housing look like? For example, "Herryford Village was occupied last year: 171 town houses and houses designed in a local Georgian Colonial style. It has a Main Street with shops and a clock tower, playgrounds, and village greens with open-air pavilions and centralized mailboxes where residents can socialize informally."

"I've met a lot of people because I have to walk to the mailbox, and that's a great thing," resident Jenny Lainhart told the Times.

June 11, 2006

City Hall Plaza Update

The fountain that never worked, at the public space that never worked, has been paved over at Boston's City Hall Plaza, but I don't share city officials' enthusiasm that the concrete has improved the plaza's appeal at all. You can see some before and after photos at Boston.com. I took an "after" photo this afternoon, and it's not impressive.

What's especially noteworthy is that nearby spaces like Quincy Market and Boston Common were teeming with people, while the plaza felt barren and sparsely populated. The fun "cows on parade" attracted swarms of people in the area around Faneuil Hall, while the cows at the plaza drew much less attention (hopefully they get their eyeballs during the workweek when commuters walk by). Photos on the next page...

June 7, 2006

‘MetroFuture’ Greater Boston Planning Workshop June 27

The MetroFuture project is holding a workshop at the Sheraton Tara in Framingham Tuesday, June 27, from 5 to 9 pm (as well as Wednesday, June 28 at Northeastern University in Boston) to discuss alternative growth strategies for the region.

From their Web site:

June 4, 2006

Battleground Cul de Sac

Are cul-de-sacs a suburban utopia or the cause of many traffic woes? The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) looked at the issue earlier this week with a piece that notes "In Charlotte, where the suburbs have emerged as a leading cul-de-sac battleground, a recent study by transportation planners found that almost all of the city's heavily congested intersections were located near residential developments from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which are filled with cul-de-sac neighborhoods. The biggest traffic problems aren't in the old central cities these days, says Orlando, Fla.-based traffic engineer Walter Kulash, 'but rather in the suburban periphery. ' "

In fact, it makes complete sense that if you add population density without adding road networks to help handle that traffic density, you're going to worsen traffic tieups. Because residents of cul-de-sacs add traffic to everyone else's roadways while not making up for it by helping to take anyone else's through traffic. As I mentioned in a post last year, "People who live on cul-de-sacs may like them, but they hardly improve things for everyone else in a community. In fact, they end up adding more traffic to neighboring roads while not offloading any of the burden."

I'm not alone. "Because most of the roads in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs are dead ends, some traffic experts say the only way to navigate around the neighborhood is to take peripheral roads that are already cluttered with traffic," the Journal says. "And because most cul-de-sacs aren't connected by sidewalks, the only way for people who live there to run errands is to get in their cars and join the traffic."

Thanks to William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee, for the citation.

The Journal also counters that the "free market" shows support for cul-de-sacs, because homebuyers are often willing to pay a premium to live on them. But this gets to the heart of my problem with claims about the "free market" -- if individuals just pay for the benefits of something, while shunting the costs of their choice onto society as a whole instead of bearing the full costs themselves, of course a choice is going to look attractive. But that's because the market is being skewed. If cul-de-sac residents paid the true costs of their choice, by having to pay additional property taxes, say, in return for dumping more traffic onto everyone else's roads while not helping to ease everyone else's burdens, you might see truer cost/benefit "free market" actions.

Take one of my biggest "free market" pet peeves, the private automobile driver, who by driving more still no longer comes close to paying more of the full cost of road construction and repair (let alone issues like driving up the cost of heating oil for everyone else, causing pollution that everyone has to pay for, and so on). "The money from gasoline taxes no longer comes close to meeting needs," Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels admitted in the New York Times last month. "Nationally, the gap between road-building needs and projected tax revenue is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and growing. Almost every governor I talk to faces a seemingly intractable shortfall."

Hmmmm. Sounds like someone's subsidizing automobile traffic in this country, doesn't it? When everyone collectively has to pay a share of your driving costs whether you drive 3 miles to work each day or 30, can we really say that the "free market" is choosing private autos over public transportation? Of course not. Yet that's the claim by people who oppose "subsidizing" decent rail and other public transit in this country while refusing to acknowledge how much all taxpayers subsidize our individual automobile driving as well. If the choice is that we'd rather more heavily subsidize the private car than public transit, that's one thing. But to claim that consumers in the "free market" are opting for automobiles instead of subsidies for public transit is disingenuous to say the least, if you don't mention how much we're already subsidizing private vehicles.

June 3, 2006

Tampa Seeks Walkability, Sense of Place in Medeira Way District

Plans to revitalize Tampa Bay's Medeira Way pay careful attention to pedestrian-friendly ambiance. "Streetscaping, which involves parking, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and medians as well as traffic flow, is the first phase in a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the city’s downtown retail and commercial district," according to the Beach Beacon.

All three proposals presented at a public meeting include "reducing traffic flow along the thoroughfare from four lanes to two. Sidewalk space is increased, creating a pedestrian environment that could accommodate amenities such as sidewalk cafes, plantings, benches and gathering places, said HTBN urban design principal Craig Watson."

The idea is to offer a sense of place where shoppers want to stroll and linger.

Residents and business owners attending a presentation "appeared to be favorably impressed" with the concepts, the newspaper said.

June 2, 2006

Atlanta Developer Plans Major Open-Air Shopping Center

Cousins Properties, "responsible for some of the Atlanta skyline's most visible buildings," is currently building a 394,000-square-foot retail/restaurant/office project along both sides of a major roadway in Gwinnett, Georgia, the Gwinnett Business Journal reports.

"Joel Murphy, president of Cousin Properties' retail division hopes that the open air, pedestrian-friendly shopping venue will re-define shopping in Gwinnett," the paper notes. " 'There's nothing like it in the area,' Murphy says." The first phase is slated to open this summer.

The project is part of a trend away from conventional enclosed malls of the past, in favor of "lifestyle centers" that seek to create an appealing sense of place and not simply a could-be-anywhere-USA collection of stores. Upscale demographics were a likely a prime attraction in siting the center, since average household income is more than $90,000 in a 3-mile radius around the new center. You can see a site plan for The Avenue Webb Gin here (PDF).