September 30, 2006

Doing some blog tweaking this weekend

I'm fiddling around with "themes" to update the look of this blog - it's been pretty much the same for 2.5 years now - and also with some plug-ins that might add functionality. Thanks for your patience this weekend if the site suddenly starts looking very different as you're browsing, or temporarily slows down.

If you notice something wrong here, please let me know.

September 28, 2006

Rutgers Design Competition Stresses Pedestrian Appeal, Community Integration

"Rutgers University on Tuesday unveiled five architectural concepts to remake the heart of its flagship campus on College Avenue in New Brunswick," the Record reports

"In inaugurating the design competition, the university said it was looking for ways to make the College Avenue campus more pedestrian friendly and to better connect it with the Raritan River. The campus is cut off from the river by Route 18."

These days, a pedestrian-friendly streetscape and town/gown integration are considered increasingly important in attracting students to college campuses, as I posted last month. And such integration pays dividends to the host community as well -- something that Framingham is sadly lacking despite the presence of a state college.

"Wellesley is [a] beautiful example where the college presence vitalizes downtown," reader Martin commented on this site. "Framingham State, on the other hand, is virtually invisible from the neighboring commercial area along route 9." His entire comment is worth reading (at the bottom of the post).

The entries in Rutgers design compeition, "created by five renowned architectural teams from around the globe, are, at this point, meant to spur discussion, not construction at the cash-strapped university," the article notes.

"Budgetary constraints or not, this university is not going to stop dreaming," President Richard McCormick told the Record.

You can see the concepts online here.

September 27, 2006

‘Boston’s love/hate for cars?’ Oh, please

Incredibly, author David Kruh compares the soul-less concrete wasteland of City Hall Plaza with the North End's pedestrian-packed Hanover Street. In today's Boston Globe, he writes: "As we look around the city at our experiments with auto-less streets (not just City Hall Plaza, but the mess that is Downtown Crossing) even the most anticar, pro-pedestrian advocate has to wonder if we are, once again, reacting with our gut instead of accepting how Boston actually lives, works, and plays."

Um, no.

Every streetscape,  as well as street, has its own characteristics that make it succeed or fail as a traffic route and pedestrian draw. Comparing poorly designed City Hall Plaza (where an existing neighborhood was razed and hideous "modern" architecture deposited where it didn't belong) with Hanover Street is like comparing Route 9 with Newbury Street and expecting the exact same outcome if cars were banned.

I doubt you could draw many pedestrians to the Golden Triangle even if cars were banned, unless building siting, architectures and facades were substantially changed. On Newbury Street, though, pedestrians would naturally fill in the added space. That's because Newbury Street is already a great walking environment.

Kruh, who has written two books about Scollay Square, is certainly correct that City Hall Plaza was an experiment gone awry. But that's not because it's a chunk of space where cars don't go; it's because of a terrible design. Nearby Boston Commons and the Public Garden work very well as spaces where cars can't drive through.

In fact, Hanover Street is already a major pedestrian draw. I doubt banning cars will make it less so; instead, it would give pedestrians more space to walk and sit outdoors. The idea here isn't to create another City Hall Plaza by wrecking the existing neighborhood!

Given the local climate, walkers probably don't need the extra space from, say, November through February or March, and it's certainly realistic to argue that during the worst New England weather, it might be more beneficial for suburbanites to be able to drive close to their destinations than it would be to keep the street empty for people who won't want to linger outdoors on foot. But once the weather gets nice, a pedestrian plaza on Hanover Street will improve an already great streetscape that's a proven pedestrian magnet.

Lost Opportunity

How can it be that a house once owned by refugees from the Salem Witch trials - people who helped found the town of Framingham - can appear as one of the state's "10 Most Endangered Historic Resources?" How was it allowed to fall into such disrepair that, as the MetroWest Daily News reports, the roof is about to cave in at places and "there are areas of the house where you don't want to walk?"

As Halloween approaches, Salem cheefully exploits its grizzly past of the witch trials. Yet relatively few people know that Framingham became a refuge for innocent people falsely accused of witchcraft - a small positive in an otherwise dark chapter of American history.

The Peter and Sarah Clayes House at 657 Salem End Road could be turned into a museum, and serve as a local place to educate visitors about that part of Massachusetts history. There could be some great events there around Halloween.

Some area residents want to help save the house, and have hired an attorney to help track down ownership of the currently abandoned property, the News notes. They deserve wider community support.

September 22, 2006

Arcade, cont.

The fate of the Arcade downtown revitalization project "will become a lot clearer in the next six months, or maybe even sooner," according to the MetroWest Daily News, following an extension of its special permit by the Framingham Planning Board until March 2007.

The board first approved the plan in spring 2004, but a variety of delays, including waiting for MassHousing to make a financing decision, have kept the proposal on the drawing board.

"Developers hope to be back before the Planning Board before the end of the year, asking for a demolition permit of 80 Kendall St., which would serve as the staging area for the $56-million building and renovation project," the News notes. "In the meantime, Arcade developers expect to soon ink a deal that will double the space occupied by CVS Pharmacy. That move will be made regardless of the progress on the mixed-use development that will include 290 apartments."

I'm sure many people will be happy at the news that CVS is not only staying in downtown Framingham, but expanding. It's a good sign of the company's faith in downtown revitalization plans. And, having ground-floor retail to serve the local community in the business district's prime commercial center is certainly a good thing - lots better than vacant storefronts or non-retail uses. However, I'm still wondering if the Arcade developers or town officials have a broader vision of what they want downtown Framingham to become and plan to work to make it happen, as opposed to being grateful for anyone who signs a lease.

A large chain drugstore is a useful neighborhood business, but NOT an anchor store for a regional business center. Local residents, commuters and workers will shop there, but it's not a draw that will bring people in from outside the immediate neighborhood (although once people are there, they'd certainly stop in). If people hope to turn downtown into a regional destination with appeal beyond the immediate precincts, there needs to be a lot more thought given to creating an attractive mix of retailers with an appealing sense of place -- one that more than makes up for the fact that a downtown can rarely compete with a strip mall for drive-up convenience. Because strip malls can rarely compete with downtowns for overall experience and ambiance, especially when there are unique local-owned stores and attractive pedestrian streetscapes.

More Local Outdoor Seating: Wellesley

I was pleasantly surprised to see the nationally known Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley now offering outdoor seating. That's another way to add life to a streetscape -- not to mention allow people to enjoy the beautiful late summer/early autumn weather.

Last Sunday in Provincetown, the last-weekend-of-summer weather was absolutely perfect, and we were able to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner al fresco at our inn (breakfast) and various local restaurants. Outdoor tables were packed, no doubt adding to the revenues of local businesses as well as to tourist appeal. It's such a shame to have to go indoors on a gorgeous day, instead of being able to enjoy a drink or a meal outside.

September 21, 2006

Provincetown: Sense of Place

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past couple of weeks! It's been an especially busy time. ... except for a long weekend down on the Cape, which was a delightfully restful time ... and where I noticed that downtown Provincetown was filled with pedestrians despite extremely narrow sidewalks, sometimes no sidewalks at all; and it was bustling even though it was one of the most difficult environments for driving you can find. Why is that?

One thing for sure is a special sense of place. Say what you will about P-town, it's definitely a different environment that a cookie-cutter suburban mall! Seriously, the stores are mostly locally owned, and they're interesting. I wandered into a number of galleries, but even the tacky T-shirt stores seemed to have character. And the few chain stores sprinkled in weren't so overwhelming that you felt like you could be Anywhere, USA.

Stores - and farther down Commercial Street, inns and homes - right up to the sidewalk create a feeling of safety for walkers, when you've got loads of windows nearby, what planners call "eyes on the street." It is instinctively comfortable when you feel that there's a neighborhood of people in their homes and shops who can be looking out -- much more so than when you're walking by a parking lot, a driveway, a big garage door or a blank wall.

The overall narrowness of the street creates the feeling of an "outdoor room," another thing pedestrians instinctively crave. While I would have preferred the sidewalks to be a tad wider in spots - in many areas it was tough walking even two abreast - in fact those narrow walkways and roads, creating very slow-moving one-way traffic generated a lot of foot traffic. Driving through the narrow streets and trying to find parking became less appealing than the interesting walks back and forth. While people sadly often drive from, say, Target to BJs only a quarter-mile apart, because the walking environment is so unappealing, I regularly walked the 25 minutes each way from the inn I stayed at to the business district while we were in Provincetown.

September 11, 2006

When Zoning Inhibits Walkability

A small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown," according to the Houston Chronicle.

"Much of what they are trying to achieve — a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene — is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. "

"Unfortunately," developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, told the Chronicle, "the Houston way is slow and painful."

Is Massachusetts any different? How hard is it to get appropriate zoning for a suburban business district to allow mixed use and buildings at the sidewalk? How likely is it that pedestrian needs for screening between sidewalk and traffic ever get consideration, or do planners think solely about the widest streets possible? Does anyone think about how to make appealing as well as safe crosswalks so someone wants to walk from one side of the street to the other, or are communities thinking solely about creating the best traffic sewers possible, that can carry maximum amount of cars as quickly as possible? Do local towns think about walker appeal, or just maximizing parking? 

September 10, 2006

Bicycle lockers coming to Framingham train station; bike-friendly LIFT buses on the way, too

New LIFT buses will be equipped with bicycle racks, so people who don't live near a bus stop could cycle to a stop, according to an article in today's MetroWest Daily News. Town planner Bryan Taberner also said that 10 bike lockers will be installed near the comuter rail station, which would allow people to cycle to the station.

Admittedly, there are many more automobile drivers than cyclists in the area; and tihs won't have an immediate impact on traffic woes. But factoring in bicyclists is smart planning, especially in a town where many areas are not quite densely populated enough to support truly convenient local mass transit, but are reasonably close to such areas.  We've got to start somewhere!

Aside: I'd still like to see express bus service to downtown Boston from the Logan Express or mall areas - ideally on a similar schedule to the airport bus, but any service would be better than nothing. The train simply isn't useful for most people off rush hour. And by the time some of us on the north side of town have driven downtown, we could be halfway to a T stop in Newton where there's MUCH more frequent service. 

September 4, 2006

Are There Lessons in Allston for Downtown Framingham?

A woman I work with recently moved from the Allston section of Boston to downtown Framingham. Cutting her commute wasn't the only reason; she thinks what happened in the student/immigrant neighborhood of Allston - turning into a desirable mixture of ecclectic retail & housing, could happen in Framingham as well, although she expects it might take a decade, and isn't put off by that at all. Ah, to have patience....

I happened to be in Allston today, and looked carefully at what they've got now, with an eye toward what lessons there might be for Framingham's downtown revitalization efforts.

Allston has very large student and immigrant populations. The ethnic restaurants and other businesses are all over the global map - Korean, Colombian, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Brazilian and lots more. Framingham doesn't have nearly the student population that Allston does, but if downtown Framingham had the same sort of appealing streetscape for the 18 to 30 crowd as Allston had, you'd get more Framingham State students down there. And with the proper vision, incentives, planning and investment, Framingham's key downtown streets could attract an ethnic mix like Allston's (or Waltham's) that attracts and encourages foot traffic.

Allston Village has matching grants for businesses that want to do facade/sign, lighting and awning improvements. Remembering what the area looked like a few decades ago when my husband was a student living in Brighton, I'd say there's been a decided improvement in aesthetics - while not going overboard on gentrification. You wouldn't mistake Allston for Brookline, but downtown Framingham could do a lot worse.

One thing I noticed: Allston doesn't have a ton of non-walk-in businesses in the midst of the key retail district on Harvard Avenue around Commonwealth Avenue. There aren't many ground-floor offices, for example -- there's a critical mass of consumer-oriented storefronts, so there are businesses to continually engage a casual shoppers' interest while walking.

This is important. You don't want endless amounts of insurance offices, medical offices, mortgage brokers and other such businesses on your prime retail street; it makes for a less compelling experience. Framingham really needs to think about a small stretch of key business district zoning that would encourage an uninterrupted stretch of restaurants and shops that entice someone to stroll around, not simply run an errand an dleave.

Downtown Framingham doesn't have the public transit that Allston does, but the two areas do share some serious traffic problems. Allston is fortunate that its train tracks are depressed and don't cross the main roads; but trying to drive down Harvard Avenue during business hours is, um, chancey. It wasn't bad today, except for the usual slow traffic, multiple lights, tons of pedestrians crossing in front of cars against the light and occasional double parked trucks on the narrow road. But I've been there during rush hour, and the delays, backups and traffic tie-ups would feel familiar to anyone driving through downtown Framingham. But that doesn't seem to have killed off Allston's business district, in part because a lot of people seem to be living, working and/or walking around anyway.

As you drive toward the end of Harvard Avenue and make a right onto Cambridge Street, heading toward the Mass Pike entrance, Allston's pedestrian activity comes to an abrupt halt. The streetscape changes, including a business with parking in front, instead of at the street, as well as sidewalks with no landscaping, no buffer between sidewalk and street. Once you get to the stark chain-link fences looking out at an overpass over train tracks, it's not a shock that lots of people don't feel like walking around there anymore.

September 2, 2006

Pedestrian Piazza for North End’s Hanover Street?

Boston City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina wants to turn Hanover Street "into an Italian piazza, with strolling violinists, artist stalls and waiters with Valpolicella and espressos scurrying to customers at tables in the middle of the street," the Boston Globe reported today. LaMattina wants to  test the concept next spring and summer on weekends, and if it works, to then "seal off the street permanently and convert it to a public gathering place."

WHAT a GREAT IDEA! Many European cities large and small have such open, pedestrian-only public squares, and they really add to the enjoyment of being in a neighborhood.

Mayor Manino reportedly supports the proposal. Some business owners worry about the logistics, including whether upscale customers would balk at the demise of valet parking and needing to walk a few blocks from their cars, but I don't see why valet parking couldn't be stationed at extremely nearby side streets.

"Longtime resident and business owner, Joanne Prevost-Anzalone, said she would welcome the European ambience, and if the delivery concerns were worked out, she would have coffee on the piazza every day," the Globe said.

"It should have been done years ago, what he is talking about," resident Pasquale Giliberti told the Globe. "Why should people have to go to a foreign country (for a piazza)?"

Why indeed. Pedestrian-centered, well-designed urban places are one of the joys of travelling to Europe. How nice it would be to not only stroll along Hanover Street next summer, but sit in the piazza enjoying a sunny afternoon.

September 1, 2006

Framingham Seeks $50K Grant for Pedestrian Improvements

Three cheers for that! The town will apply for a $50,000 transit-oriented development grant, which would go toward creating a better walking environment between train station parking and "several downtown destinations," according to the MetroWest Daily News.

Discussion of the grant is on the agenda at this month's Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 12 in conference room 1 of the Memorial Building (the meeting starts at 7:30 pm, although the grant isn't expected to come up until 8:45 or so).

Developing a more attractive and inviting pedestrian streetscape between the train station and downtown businesses is extremely important to revitalization efforts. It's such a waste that all the commuters driving to and parking in the area have absolutely no incentive to do anything else downtown except get in their cars and drive away.

A compelling walking corridor from the train station to local businesses, combined with an enticing pedestrian environment at those businesses, could bring more life (and dollars) to downtown. Such an environment is also important to make planned downtown housing more appealing -- and to make it more likely that residents of that housing will actually bring more vitality to the downtown. As I've said before, if you don't make an appealing walking environment and streetscape, all those people downtown won't do enough to help local businesses -- they'll be too likely to get in their cars and drive elsewhere.

Thanks to Michele at This is Framingham for the link.