August 29, 2006

"College Towns" Boost College Appeal - Thoughts on Framingham

The University of Connecticut is the latest institution of higher learning to realize the importance of "town/gown" physical integration. UConn is launching "a sweeping project at its main campus in this hamlet in the still-rural town of Mansfield. Working with local officials, it plans to demolish the meager downtown, which looks more like a makeshift set for a Hollywood western than a New England college center, and build a town from scratch," the New York Times reported earlier this month (thanks to Cool Town Studios for the link).

"Colleges have traditionally tempted top students with ivy-covered campuses, towering Gothic buildings and up-to-date student centers. But nowadays, there is a sense that a beautiful campus is not enough. An alluring college town is seen as necessary as well," the Times notes. Ohio State and the University of Pennsylvania are other colleges investing in the community around them.

Framingham, of course, already has a town - both a neighborhood business district right near campus (Framingham Centre) and a downtown just a mile or two away. But as I've complained before, there is no appealing streetscape at all between Framingham State and local retailers. The Rte. 9/Union Ave./Edgell Road intersection where the campus sits is a pedestrian abomination, despite the footbridge across Route 9. There is no aesthetic attraction for anyone to walk off the campus, because the sidewalks are totally unlandscaped, with no screening between walkers and the multiple lanes of traffic whizzing by within inches. It feels unsafe and unpleasant to walk in that area. And thus are multiple opportunities lost: creaton of a more vibrant commercial area, more revenue from the college community and a more appealing and integrated business area.

The presence of "traffic needs" and major roadways are not an excuse for creating a pedestrian wasteland. Bridges can be made attractive. Major intersections can be made pedestrian-appealing (ever been to Harvard Square?) And it wouldn't be that tough to make Union Avenue directly adjacent to the campus a more attractive streetscape to entice the college community to walk around and patronize local businesses. But you don't do it with strip-mall zoning and unlandscaped sidewalks.

August 27, 2006

Framingham Arcade Project Financing Still Up in the Air

More than two years after the Framingham Planning Board approved a revamp of the old Arcade building to include 260 apartments, 40 hotel room sand 50K of comercial space, "developers still don't have the money to pay for the project, which is expected to cost $58 million," reports the MetroWest Daily News. Amazing but true: After all these years, the project still isn't a certainty.

MassHousing is taking a "conceptual vote" on the project Sept. 12, which would then allow final financing negotiations. As the project has dragged on interminably, the local real estate market softened, which can't do much to help the financing situation.

And, because the project has dragged on for so long, developers need to reapply for a variance allowing first-floor apartments, the News notes.

Meanwhile, as local officials talk about the project's potential to revitalize downtown, I don't hear many people talking about the need to improve the rest of the downtown streetscape. If you don't make the whole area walker-appealing, even if people are living right downtown, the streets will remain largely barren, and most people living in new housing downtown will simply climb into their cars and drive to Route 9 or other destinations.

The presence of residents is important but not sufficient to create a dynamic neighborhood. Downtown must not only feel safe, but offer a compelling retail district on foot. People have got to want to walk from their homes to stores & restaurants and sometimes the train station, and that means improving all the storefronts in the area, as well as offering substantially better screening/landscaping when there still businesses set back from the sidewalk.

August 22, 2006

International Commuting Conference in Boston

The Association for Commuting Transportation, comprised of people who oversee non-private-vehicle commuting alternatives including ride-sharing, van pools and telecommuting programs, will hold a conference Aug. 27-30 in Boston. Public transit, improved use of parking resource, and emergency preparedness will also be on the agenda at the meeting, to be held at the Copley Plaza.

August 20, 2006

Nobscot Rail Trail Before Framingham Selectmen

A report about the feasibility of the Framingham portion of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail (sometimes called the Nobscot Rail Trail locally) is slated to be presented at Tuesday's Board of Selectman meeting, which begins at 7:30 pm in the Memorial Building.

Plans call for the Freeman trail to run 25 miles, passing through Sudbury, Concord, Acton and Westford, ending in Lowell. There's some thought of trying to connect the Cochituate Rail Trail to the Freeman trail using one of the MWRA aqueducts north of Saxonville.

The Aug. 22 presentation in Framingham is a "required ‘First Step’ in what will be a multi year journey of fact-finding, negotiation, fund raising, and problem solving, which if successful will lead to a landscaped and finished recreational walking and bicycle path north from Pleasant St. to Rte 20 by Friendly’s Ice Cream in Sudbury and beyond," according to an e-mail sent out by trail supporters. "Construction of the Trail from Lowell south to Rte 225 in Westford begins this spring. Acton is in the State budget following Lowell-Westford; Concord has completed a favorable study, and Sudbury has an engineering study underway."

After Tuesday's presentation, selectmen will be asked to support a letter of intent to begin negotiations with CSX for possible purchase of a right of way for the trail. The letter wouldn't commit the town to purchasing such a right of way, but merely express "interest."

Both trail supporters and concerned abutters are likely to attend Tuesday. Issues I expect to arise at the meeting: Cost, liability, potential increases in crime, safety issues when the trail crosses busy roadways, and concern about reduced property values for property owners abutting the proposed trail. Issues that should come up but may not: Who will clear trash off the trail? (As an abutter to MWRA property I can tell you this isn't a trivial point). Is it necessary to blacktop over the trail in order to get a usable trail? (It'd be a bummer to lose a natural trail in the woods to blacktop. If I wanted to take a walk on pavement, I could use the street.)

August 17, 2006

Amazing (Things’) Downtown Plans

The fledgling Amazing Things arts center, currently headquartered in Saxonville, still plans to move to the Hollis Street firehouse -- good news for downtown, but kind of a bummer for those of us living near the current location.

You can see an artist's rendition of what the renovated firehouse would look like here.

The Saxonville site will still allegedly stay open, although it sounds like most of the performances would be downtown. The center's board of directors is meeting with Framingham officials next week to discuss details of the Amazing bid to lease and renovate the old station.

August 14, 2006

Area Towns Can Join New Regional Transit Groups

Framingham officials are "examining" new state transit rules that allow Boston-area communities to join regional transit groups in addition to the MBTA, the MetroWest Daily News reports, noting: Some officials and public transit advocates have long called for a MetroWest RTA."

"There’s definitely significant interest," Framingham Town Manager Julian Suso told the News. "Certainly Selectman John Stasik (who is also vice president of the MetroWest Growth Management Committee) has been working with great dedication on the RTA concept."

With the new condos coming into the Natick Mall, maybe it would finally be feasible to have convenient public transit options to and from the mall, such as between the mall and a commuter rail station. For that matter, it would be nice to see express bus service into Boston from the mall, running on a frequency schedule similar to the popular Logan Express during peak demand.

Austin May Zone Major Thoroughfares for Pedestrian Appeal

"Stores and eateries along those transit corridors will now have to hug the street (instead of having seas of parking up front) and have wide sidewalks with room for benches and trees. The rules will also require more awnings and front windows to create livelier, shaded spaces," the Austin American-Statesman reports.

"Those are components that make the street level pedestrian-friendly and functional," design commission member Girard Kinney told the Statesman.

The design standards received preliminary approval last week, although a final vote is still needed later this month.

Some up-front parking will be allowed at new retailers, but new zoning requires shorter blocks, more sidewalks and shading. "Loading docks and garbage areas will have to be hidden from view" - ah, how I wish that could be enforced at the mill buildings in Saxonville, where loading docks and trash bins face the heart of the neighborhood business district. That and the self-storage place design are the two major problems I see in terms of walkability around Saxonville. (The acres of parking in front of the Pinefield shopping center could be improved, but at least that's off the main roads.)

Also in the new Austin zoning: "Large lots must have plazas, patios, playgrounds or other open spaces. ... To tame sprawl and pack more density along well-traveled roads, the city would, for the first time, offer incentives for vertical mixed-use projects, known as VMU. Urban planners say those projects cut traffic and create neighborhood hubs where residents mingle as they live, work and shop."

Obviously, you can't turn miles of Rte. 9-like strip malls into pedestrian-pleasing environments overnight. But such streetscape rquirements are definitely a first step, even if it takes years for the new rules to have a significant impact. Had Framingham officials taken similar steps in the 1980s, nothing would have happened immediately either -- but when Shoppers World, the Lechmere mall, Caldor's and other areas along the Golden Triangle were rebuild, we could have ended up with an attractive, strollable retail boulevard along Rte. 30 instead of the typical car-centric sprawl there now.

August 12, 2006

Arizona County Endorses Mixed Use

Pima County in southern Arizona has adopted zoning that mixes "residential, commercial and office space, next to each other and even vertically in the same multi-story buildings," Inside Tuscon Business reports -- "the first step toward what Arlen Colton, Pima County’s director of planning, foresees as broad-based policy of moving away from the traditional suburban community model."

The new ordinance, which goes into effect later this month, allows up to half of any commercial developments to be used for residences, waiving buffer and screening requirements.

"We want to follow the more enlightened communities that want to move away from single-use zoning that forces people to get into their cars for anything at all," Colton told Inside Tuscon Business. "The saying is that retail follows rooftops, but available land for retail is moving farther and farther away from the rooftops they’re supposed to serve. This makes for bad growth by creating problems with traffic, emission and time wasted."

The city of Tucson will consider its own mixed-use zoning proposal, "introducing mixed-use projects to neighborhoods and arterial streets," the article noted.

August 11, 2006

Welcome Framingham Tab Readers

I was happy that this site was included in the Tab's report about local blogs, along with sites like This is Framingham - and even happier that my photograph wasn't the ones in the story :-) (I do wish they had clickable hot links to all the blogs the online version of the piece, Bloggers offer their likes, their dislikes, and they try to make it personal, though).

If you're new here, this blog focuses on many different issues relating to how to create better communities. While I'm especially interested in issues surrounding more walkable communities, I cover a lot of other things, ranging from how to better integrate ethnic minorities into Framingham's downtown to my love of outdoor cafes. Posts cover both local-specific and more general issues. If you're interested in local things only, you can look at a list of locally focused posts only at the Planning Livable Communities Local section.

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August 9, 2006

Hudson TM Likely to Consider ‘Smart Growth’ Zoning

Town officials are likely to ask Hudson voters to rezone 13 properties for housing or mixed use, adding up to 551 new housing units in both old mill buildings and open space, the MetroWest Daily News reports.

The rezoning would follow the state's smart-growth initiative, which offers funding to towns that are willing to zone for denser development in downtowns near public transit. Michelle Ciccolo, community development director, told the News that one mill owner is ready to convert some of 34 Tower St. into housing if the plan is approved.

Mixed-use development can bring more vitality to a downtown, especially if it's accompanied by streetscape improvements that make residents want to walk around, as well as retail and commercial destinations people would want to walk to. The question facing voters is how dense the developments will be, and whether town services like water, sewer, roadways and schools can support the new units without spending more than state funding and taxes would bring in.

There is also the likely issue of whether residents want a more densely populated downtown, which brings advantages of vibrancy and critical mass to support more businesses, but also can change the character of a small-town downtown. In the case of existing buildings, though, it seems a good option for old mill buildings to include some housing -- the buildings are already there, and adding residential usage would bring more life to the business district, as long as that housing is designed well enough so people actually want to live there.

I see this issue as a curve, and each community's downtown has one. For part of the curve, denser development is better than sprawl, because it creates that critical mass which will support local businesses and a walkable retail area for nearby residents. This isn't just for urban areas; business districts in Concord and Wellesley manage this effectively.

At some point on the curve, though, development gets to be too much for a community. This point differs from place to place, of course -- midtown Manhattan has a different scale than downtown Framingham. Knee-jerk opposition to denser development doesn't make any more sense than blind support to all dense development. Good planning understands the overall goals of a neighborhood and how best to achieve them. Without understanding and agreement on those broad objectives, though, it becomes all but impossible to come to useful conclusions about individual projects or zoning requests. That appears to be the issue surrounding the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, N.Y., which might be a great stand-alone project on its own merits, but will have an enormous impact on a residential brownstown neighborhood (see Atlantic Yards: Through the Looking Glass in the Gotham Gazette). The Hudson zoning idea, however, seems at first glance like it will have a much lighter impact on downtown.

August 6, 2006

Pedestrian Streets: A Couple of Examples From Europe

In a few European cities, there aren't separate spaces for pedestrians and cars at all, but instead they all share one large space -- the idea being to calm traffic and make it clear that the public space belongs to all. While I didn't quite run into that while in Reykjavik last month, it was interesting to see a number of city streets where sidewalk and roadway weren't separated as much as we expect.

I'm not talking about a design for automobiles where walkers are clearly an afterthought, such as the ludicrous "walkway" painted onto the roadway next to BJ's in Framingham. That's a place where few would feel safe actually trying to walk. I mean a thoughtful design where the roadway isn't so obviously a so-called traffic sewer, but instead is part of streetscape -- material is more decorative than blacktop, and is narrow enough and surrounded enough by walking areas that drivers naturally slow down. Such as this:

Reykjavik street scene

It worked well. In fact, when we first got to the city, we weren't even sure some of those streets were for cars at all, until we saw others driving there. (There are actually a reasonable number of cars on the streets there; I just waited for traffic to pass so I could get a good shot of the street material).

Note the lack of a curb. Walkway and roadway are on the same leve, but landscaping barriers and deocrative work demark driving and walking areas. Also see how wide the pedestrian areas are compared to the driving area, which makes for a very pleasant pedestrian experience.

Likely even more enjoyable for people on foot: Montpellier, France, where cars are banned from the city center altogether, although there are motorized trams for transport. "Montpellier's hidden squares and busy narrow streets are a delight for the pedestrian on the prowl," writes John Allemang in the Toronto Globe & Mail, in a travel article headlined A Utopia Sans Automobile. "For a visitor, the virtual absence of cars is paradise . . . an unstoppable delight in this bar-filled biosphere where tables crowd into every square, flute solos seep out of the upstairs windows of the pale golden buildings and the sweet sound of conversation reverberates along the quieted winding lanes. . . .

"Released from the usual pedestrian preoccupation with personal survival, I ambled along in aimless innocence, pleased by pretty well everything I saw — gold-painted mimes cranking a donation-fed antique movie camera, a whirling carousel, the 19th-century opera house that seems straight out of Paris (minus the honking horns), an esplanade of chestnut trees and flower vendors, a space full of happy people who know that cities should be made for them and not the other way around."

One of Summer’s Greatest Pleasures: Outdoor Dining and Drinking

The heat's finally broken, temperatures are tolerable, and outdoor dining once again emerges as one of the greatest pleasures of summer. Not only sitting on my patio having breakfast; but eating outside in a public space, enjoying the view.

Yesterday we were at Nantasket Beach in Hull with some European-American friends. While enjoying the day and our stroll, we were lamenting the lack of nice cafes along the water, as you see in so many coastal areas along the Adriadic. Somehow a snack stand isn't quite the same. And then we saw the new Ocean Club, where much to our pleasant surprise, they did allow us to stop in for some cold drinks and sit at a table with decent view outdoors (if not the best tables, reserved for meal service). That short break sipping a chilled soda at a table overlooking the ocean was such an enjoyable addition to the afternoon. It's great to see places like that cropping up locally at the beach.

Of course, Newbury Street in Boston is one of the best urban spots for outdoor eating and drinking. My husband and I managed to snag a table at the Piattini Wine Cafe after work for a very enjoyable dinner. Good food, outstanding streetscape, lots of people-watching -- those are the things that attract people to a city in good weather, along with cultural events (such as free Shakespeare in the park nearby) and, for some, shopping.

August 1, 2006

Brazilians in Framingham: Community Opportunities

In a lengthy editorial titled Boa Vinda (welcome) Framingham, the Boston Globe discusses immigration issues in town and the transformation of downtown Framingham from what it claimed was once a "ghost town" (well, um, not exactly. Although I agree that Brazilians have moved into some empty storefronts and generally helped spiff up and vitalize downtown) into "Little Brazil." While much of the piece focuses on immigration policies, this part of editorial particularly caught my eye:
We have to break the wall between the Brazilian community and the rest of the community," says Ilma Paixao, president of the Brazilian American Association, which is located downtown. Paixao would like to see longtime Brazilian residents help newcomers engage in civic affairs.

"Learn English!" is a phrase that gets tossed at immigrants like a slur. Ironically, many immigrants concur. They want to learn English. They want more American-born English speakers to patronize their businesses.

I've long felt that making an effort to get more U.S.-born residents to patronize Brazilian-owned businesses downtown would be great for the community all around. It wouldn't only help the businesses by expanding their customer base; it would help longer time town residents feel like newcomers aren't purposely excluding them.

Here are my ideas:

Get some kind of common window logo designed that Framingham businesses could put up indicating that information is available in Portuguese, another one for English, another one for Spanish, one for Russian, and so on. This would be an immediate signal to people not fluent in multiple languages, so they would know where they could feel comfortable when patronizing a shop for the first time. It can feel intimidating and unwelcoming to people if, for example, they walk into a food store and don't know what any of the foods are, and the staff behind the counter doesn't speak their language.

I know that a Brazilian bakery or cafe may not hire counter staff who speak four languages (or even two). But it's certainly possible to print up flyers in each language explaining what the popular pastries are, with pictures and a guide to pronouncing them, so people who don't speak Portuguese and aren't familiar with the products can feel welcome and comfortable walking in for the first time. Same for restaurants and other businesses that logically could expand their customer base beyond a single ethnic group. How hard would that be?

We could even design a walking-tour map of ethnic downtown, giving people a guide to experiencing various restaurants and other shops they'd be likely to enjoy. Maybe there could be a guided walking tour of Brazilian Framingham sometime (perhaps when Carnival in Rio is in the news?). The special Italian flavor brings people to Boston's North End; the Asian flavor attracts outsiders to visit Chinatown. Why not capitalize on something downtown Framingham has that you can't find in every strip mall in America?

$11M Project Will Make Scottish City More Pedestrian Friendly

The Inverness city council has OK'd a two-year, £6 million ($11 million) project designed to make the Highland capital more pedestrian friendly, the Scotsman reports. "The plan includes measures to improve traffic flows and transport, upgrade pavements, introduce new civic areas, improve street furniture and lighting, and install new artworks," the Scotsman says.

Reader comments on the Scotsman Web site called for things like good transit links and more accommodations for bicycles.