February 28, 2006

“One Fifth of America: America’s First Suburbs”

"Suburbia" can mean a lot of different things. And there's a major difference between older, more densely populated "inner ring" suburbs and newer, more spread out outer-ring suburbs and exurbs - one that some believe hasn't been adequately studied, since inner-ring communities are often lumped together with the urban areas they surround.

In a new report, One Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America's First Suburbs, authors Robert Puentes and David Warren at the Brooking Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program conclude that "although first suburbs are indeed beginning to look more and more like cities in some respects and some places, this is by no means ubiquitous. In reality, this work makes it clear that America’s first suburbs are beginning to actually become more separate from the center cities they sometimes surround, and the newer suburbs that sometimes surround them.

"While they are distinctive from the nation, they are also often quite distinctive from each other. This analysis finds that there are clear differences between first suburbs that began developing over a century ago such as places in New England and other parts of the Northeast and Midwest. These first suburbs look very different from those that suburbanized around World War II. ...

"First suburbs were once far less diverse than the nation, now they are more so. Homeownership used to be far more common in first suburbs than in the nation as a whole, now the rates are nearly identical. And while first suburbs still lead the nation in terms of housing value, educational attainment, and income, the gaps are indeed closing."

Interestingly, while in the U.S. as a whole about 19% of the population lives in a "first suburb," in Massachusetts that number is more than twice that: 46% -- just behind Maryland for second-highest percentage in the nation (Connecticut is first at a whopping 64%).

Also notable: "The percent of the elderly in first suburbs is increasing faster than the national rate. The percent of
children is growing slower."

I'd agree that older, inner-ring suburbs are definitely evolving in a different way from both nearby cities and exurbs. And as this unfolds, it's critical for such communities to take advantage of their natural strengths. One is sense of place - many newer communities fail at that. Another is being able to offer the best of "human-scale" advantages to both suburbia -- some privacy and space and greenery -- mixed with some advantages of more urban living -- walkability and retail/commercial/entertainment offerings. That's what appealed to me about living in my Framingham neighborhood: I can have a single-family home with a decent-sized yard, while I'm still able to walk to the library, post office and hardware store (alas, the neighborhood grocery store has closed, but I don't have to drive 10 miles round trip to get to one).

For numbers junkies, there are lots more suburban stats here.

February 26, 2006

One Framingham Or Two?

There's been a discussion thread on the frambors Framingham e-mail list recently about "secession" brought up by one poster, who said that perhaps, if there really are two different Framinghams (north and south), it might make sense for them to actually split. Each "half" would still be larger than many neighboring towns. As you might imagine, there was a lot of opposition to that idea.

My response (not yet posted to the list): Framingham would be best off if we all acknowledged that our community is a collection of neighborhoods as well as a single town, and agree on a Newton/Boston-type model of multiple neighborhood business districts along with a primary, central downtown. Many people don't understand this -- especially some South Side hardliners who equate any improvements north of Rte. 9 as a direct threat, class warfare and/or diabolical attack on downtown. I asked:

Can we all acknowledge a few basic facts?

1. Framingham is a large as well as diverse community.

2. Framingham is physically FULLY HALF THE SIZE OF BOSTON and LARGER IN SIZE THAN NEWTON. Here are the stats.

Framingham: 26 square miles
Newton: 18 square miles
Boston: 48 square miles

3. While well-located in terms of being at a high population-density area, downtown Framingham is not physically located in the center of town. This is not a criticism, but simply a fact. There had to be a choice as to whether to locate downtown where the highest concentration of people is (one good decision) or physically where it's most convenient to the most areas of town (another potentially good decision). But the fact is, downtown Framingham is not equally convenient to all outer areas of the community. Instead, it is located on one side of town.

4. Traffic in town has increased over the past few decades, making it less convenient and more time consuming to get from one side of town to another. (Note: I don't have numbers on this right now, but simply my own experience. But I do believe traffic numbers would back this up.)

OK then.

Hudson’s Revival

Globe West Weekly takes a look at Hudson's downtown revitalization, noting that "a newcomer with fresh ideas helped spark a revival in Hudson."

"Walk along Main Street and you'll find gourmet French-inspired food at Chloe's American Bistro, local artwork and one-of-a-kind gifts at Lottie Ta-dah, handmade crafts and jewelry at Serendipity, back-to-basics toys at Toy Boat (''Our motto is no batteries required"), and live jazz and folk music at Harvest Café.

The four-story Esplanade, a condo complex for people ages 55 and over, has replaced the crumbling foundations of mill buildings at the edge of downtown. Its 140 units feature granite counters and Bosch washers and sell for up to $300,000."

The piece also notes an increase in foot traffic -- almost always a good sign of how well a neighborhood business district is doing.

There's been more than $5 million in public and private money poured into Hudson's relatively small downtown. Government projects include a "canal walk."

The renaissance started in part when a town employee, Michelle Ciccolo, thought it would be a good idea to get better landscaping and street lights -- in other words, an improved pedestrian streetscape -- as part of a Rte. 62/Main Street upgrade project. Executive assistant Paul Blazar agreed, and put the idea on a Town Meeting warrant. Residents approved it. Ciccolo then began seeking -- and winning -- state grants to help improve the downtown. Hudson is in the last stages of a two-year state-sponsored program to renovate the exteriors of five downtown businesses," the article notes. "Soon businesses were adopting areas of town to beautify, leading to a landscaped alley that guides shoppers to South Street."

Framingham still keeps talking about how to improve the downtown business district. Meanwhile, other communities from Waltham to Hudson are way farther along in actually revamping their downtowns into pedestrian-appealing neighborhoods with businesses that draw people both within and beyond walking distance. No matter what community you read about, you'll find that streetscape improvements are a critical part of the mix. Things like better sidewalks, trees, improved building fronts aren't simply frills; they're vital components into turning around any neighborhood business center.

February 25, 2006

Durham to Spend Millions on Pedestrian Improvements

"Durham [N.C.] will spend nearly $5 million on pedestrian improvements in the next few years, including adding crosswalks and signals where needed," WRAL reports. "A new plan maps out how to make Durham more pedestrian-friendly. Right now, there are 450 miles of sidewalk and nearly 1,500 miles of streets."

February 19, 2006

MIT Student Eyes Framingham Downtown Revitalization Plans

"For MIT graduate student Jonathan Leit, Framingham is a fascinating case study for downtown revitalization," the MetroWest Daily News reports today about the Department of Urban Studies and Planning student's examination of Framingham for his thesis.

Leit finds Framingham an intriguing choice in part because suburban revitalization plans typically receive less academic attention than those of major urban areas or smaller cities, according to the Daily News. "Leit’s interest in Framingham grew out of a study he co-wrote with two other students in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning on the impact of the Arcade project on the immigrant businesses housed in the Concord Street building," the article notes. "The study’s other authors were Sara Nafici and Brian Cheigh at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

Their study of the Arcade redevelopment project is available online.

While the issue of where current business owners fit into the Arcade project is certainly an important one, and the point of that first study, I hope Leit is going to look at some other important issues understandably not mentioned in this particular study's conclusions, such as:

* Is downtown Framingham going to be designed to draw people from all across Framingham and beyond, or primarily residents of nearby precincts? This is an important question, because it affects the kind of businesses you want to attract and streetscape you want to create. I'm not sure Leit grasps that Framingham is physically half the size (in square miles) of Boston. He talks about business districts downtown and on Rte. 9, but completely ignores Saxonville and Nobscot. Downtown, which is not centrally located, is simply too physically far away from some areas of town to be a primary neighborhood commercial center for every area of Framingham. However, it could be more of a "regional" magnet - if it's designed that way. If it's designed primarily for locals, though, some more municipal attention needs to be paid to business districts north of Rte. 9.

* Who is envisioned to live in the new residential units? What kind of people are these new units trying to attract, and what sorts of businesses and streetscape need to be in downtown Framingham in order to appeal to them? Urban professionals, who typically like a lot of shopping, eating and entertainment within walking distance in a pedestrian-friendly streetscape but are being priced out of Boston and Cambridge, could be an attractive target, but they won't want to move downtown without certain additions. The Amazing Things Art Center's plans to move to the Hollis St. firehouse, if the town approves their bid, could be one important factor in appealing to that demographic. Personally, I think those who like a walkable neighborhood with a lot of commercial amenities nearby are a more likely audience for new residences downtown than suburban dwellers who are being priced out of single-family homes in towns close to Boston but still want single-family homes somewhere. Those people are more likely to move out to more affordable exurbs, or condos in less densely populated neighborhoods.

I also fervently hope Leit looks at creating a pedestrian-friendly streetscape in the downtown business district, including a 100%-pedestrian-appealing walking environment between the T station and downtown businesses, and between all the new residential units and downtown businesses.

February 15, 2006

Crocker Park: Ohio Suburb Creates Large-Scale Mixed-Use Development

The Cleveland Plain Dealer takes an in-depth look at Crocker Park in Westlake, Ohio, "a sprawling, $480 million development that combines retail, residential and office spaces"12 miles from Cleveland.

"I call it My Complex," said a 26-year-old Cleveland native who recently returned from living in Washington, D.C. "I can walk to Trader Joe's, there's a dry cleaning service, and there's a gym that's open to residents 24 hours a day, so I can get a good one-hour workout in even if I don't get home until 8. . . . It's like a little mini-Georgetown outside my window."

Another in the community said he can attract his friends to visit, since theyall can easily head out on foot to a choice of restaurants or bars. "There's a lot going on, and I can be close to everything," a 31-year-old internal medicine resident told the Plain Dealer.

This sort of lifestyle holds great appeal to young professionals who like some aspects of smaller communities (such as affordability and better chance of knowing your neighbors) but not car-dependent, no-nightlife, subdivision living.

These are the types of people a rejuvenated downtown Framingham could appeal to -- IF the downtown could be transformed to include pedestrian-friendly streetscapes throughout, and walkable shopping and entertainment destinations.

February 12, 2006

New York City Street Renaissance

Here's a brilliant, common-sense and often-overlooked concept: "Streets are more than just car corridors; they are valuable civic spaces and resources that need to be wisely allocated."

Yes! The New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign says it's "building the movement to re-imagine our streets as lively public places" because "New York City's streets are the soul of its neighborhoods and the pathways to some of the world's most in-demand destinations. . . . If we continue planning our streets for cars and traffic we will get more cars and traffic; conversely, if we start planning our cities for people and places, we will get more people and places."

The campaign's Web site includes a gallery of images of NYC streets as they are now, and as they could be redesigned to be more pedestrian-friendly. These photos can give ideas to planners and citizens anywhere who are trying to build pedestrian-friendly, human-scaled design into local developments.

Thanks to Aaron Naparstek for the original link.

Globe Magazine Discovers Smart Growth

Today's Globe Magazine has a fairly flattering story on smart growth, discovering that a lot of people actually want to live in neighborhoods where you don't need a car for every single task in life. In fact, plenty of people find it appealing to live in a suburb but still be able to walk to pick up food, dry cleaning or public transit.

Well, duh. Anyone who looks at the price per square foot in desirable, walkable urban neighborhoods like Boston's Back Bay, Beacon Hill or the North End could figure out that the market has priced residences in those places substantially higher than most "pricey" new exurban McMansions. It's always been a myth that "American consumers" want to live in suburban sprawl. In fact, many do; but many others do not. The problem is that until recently, the vast majority of non-urban zoning has prohibited pedestrian-friendly development.

As Douglas Foy, secretary of Commonwealth Development, told the Globe: "The irony is that Concord, this paradigmatic town, is illegal under a lot of current zoning laws. You couldn’t build a new Concord."

Smart-growth advocates have argued that for years; in fact, I recently highlighted an entire book on this issue called Zoned Out (see Dec. '05 post). It's not market demand that's causing developers to build sprawling subdivisions where it's impossible to walk anywhere. Many are doing so because it's the only thing that suburban zoning allows.

February 9, 2006

Porches, and Community

"Porches are very valuable to building community. If you're out on your front porch sitting, you're seeing neighbors pass by. They say 'Hello' to you and you say 'Hi' to them, and over time you get to know them, rather than staying in your car, pushing a button, and going into the garage and never seeing each other."
--John Buchino, a professor of pediatrics and pathology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, quoted in the Orlando Sentinel. Buchino "prescribes ["porching"] in liberal doses," the Sentinel article says.

So true. If you're in a neighborhood where homes are up near the sidewalk, and the major feature fronting the streetscape is a porch and not a garage door, it's a whole different feel from an area where homes are set way back from the street, or screened off, or showing big garage doors as the primary streetscape feature.

I've sat on the porch at my parents' house several times last year, reading the paper but still able to look up on watch who was passing by. On Halloween, I sat there and gave out candy, able to chat with parents hovering on the sidewalk as well as to the kids. Last summer, I was sitting out and parents of a childhood friend drove by, saw me and pulled over to stop and say hello. Darn right porches help build a sense of community.

February 6, 2006

Developers Spending ‘Billions’ on Walkable N.J. Neighborhoods

"Thousands of commuters and empty nesters will soon be able to buy into [a] pedestrian-friendly lifestyle as builders spend billions on massive mixed-use projects from the Hudson River Gold Coast to the Meadowlands and beyond," according to NorthJersey.com.

"Most people don't want to drive to the store for milk or travel 20 minutes for a newspaper. People want life around them," said Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development, which is backing a 2,500-resident plan in Wood-Ridge, told the site. "The basic concept of a walkable community, and having friends and neighbors and needs and services around you, is coming back because it's logical."

Many of the communities are being designed so residents can walk to shops, recreation and mass transit. "At the Jersey Shore, for example, developers are putting final touches on the 15-acre Pier Village in Long Branch. The project includes 420 apartments along the ocean, 100,000 square feet of commercial space and an upscale business area, which has boutiques, restaurants and a small outdoor skating rink."

February 5, 2006

Business Week: New Urbanism is ‘Changing the Landscape and American Lifestyle”

Even in Atlanta, one of the most sprawl-infested cities along the Eastern Seaboard, pedestrian-friendly development is taking hold, reports this week's issue of Business Week.

"Atlantic Station [in the middle of Atlanta] is the latest example of 'new urbanism,' a trendy antidote to the suburban and exurban sprawl that has defined the American way of life for the past five decades," the article notes. "It's a shiny new town, complete with city blocks, sidewalks, street parking, a train station, parks, schools, offices, town houses, and even loft residences right above the retail stores."

"I don't have a car, and I walk for groceries -- I love it," one resident told the magazine.

[M]ini-towns like Atlanta Station and Main Streets are sprouting up all over America. Sometimes even located in the middle of a suburban sprawl, these developments give residents an identity -- and a place to go for entertainment, shopping, and people watching -- whether it's at Santana Row in San Jose, Calif.; Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio; Centerpoint on Mill in Tempe, Ariz.; or the revival of Crossroads in downtown Kansas City, Mo. ...

Such town centers are truly picking up steam and will soon change the landscape of America. Nowhere is the trend more visible than with mall developers: Out of 147 new retail developments that started construction last year, only two were the big-box, enclosed malls of yesterday.

Meanwhile, here in Framingham and along Rtes. 9 & 30 in Natick, it's still the auto-centric developments of yesteryear. The article includes mention of the Natick Mall expansion's condominiums; but based on the designs I've seen, that project bears no resemblance to true pedestrian-friendly new urbanism. Yes, residents will be able to walk to the traditional enclosed mall, but that's it. There's nowhere else to walk to (unless the spur of the Cochituate Rail Trail finally happens, and that won't be a community streetscape), no pleasant outdoor shared space, no integration with the surrounding community and not much sense of place.

Parking, Traffic and Other Downtown Revitalization Issues

I received some private comments back after a posting about the need for Framingham to decide what it wants its downtown to become, before expecting an effective "revitalization." Along with the need to reduce crime and the perception of crime, a lot of talk had to do with traffic and parking. I agree completely with comments that parking lots themselves to feel not only safe but welcoming, and that the walk from the parking lot to main commercial areas must be attractive, appealing and inviting. That is critically important for drawing people to a central business district. However, I don't think slow traffic flow is the show-stopper many others do.

February 3, 2006

Major News For Downtown Framingham: Performing Arts Center Planned

Michael Moran, executive director of the Amazing Things Arts Center, e-mailed the exciting news early this morning that the organization plans to lease the Hollis Street Firehouse in downtown Framingham, if the town approves their bid. The group hopes to raise $600,000 for inside and outside renovations.

"I and the Amazing Board are convinced that we could do a lot of good for the downtown - attracting restaurants, and new businesses to the area and helping already existing businesses. The location is perfect - two blocks from the train station and right on Rt 126. Parking? There's a lot directly behind the building that will accommodate an estimated 50 cars (which will be enough for most of our shows. Additional parking is a mere block away). The space will give us upwards of 180 seats, there's an upstairs all ready to host our small mid-week events, and - yes - there's a fire pole!," he wrote.

"Although the Firehouse will be our flagship operation, we are planning to keep our Saxonville location alive and active.

"Downtown Framingham has a tremendous amount of potential. It has a neat international flavor and there are at least four major projects in the works there - The big Dennison Condominium project (upwards to 200 units), the The Arcade at Downtown Framingham Mixed Use project (including 260 residential units), the Kendall Building restoration as well as the Downtown Cultural Triangle Partnership project could contribute mightily to the downtown renaissance. Amazing Things - an active (300 performance events a year) performance oriented art center within walking distance will be a major benefit to these project and to people living in the area."

While I'm happy for downtown Framingham, I must admit I'm a little disappointed for my own Saxonville neighborhood. Amazing Things was a great addition to our area, and I had high hopes for a flourishing and expanding neighborhood business district with the planned new branch library. But we missed out on that fabulous new building by just a few Town Meeting votes, and now Amazing Things will be de-emphasizing Saxonville as well. Oh well, we still have Amazing Things here in Saxonville for now, and our highly inadequate but functioning library branch. That's a lot better than nothing.

As for downtown, Amazing Things would be a critically important destination "anchor." It's urgent that the town now do work to make sure there's an attractive streetscape so that those attending the center are encouraged to walk around and patronize nearby businesses; and that commuters are encouraged to walk from the station and parking to the center.

February 2, 2006

Downtown Framingham Revitalization: Plan Urgently Needed

I'm in the midst of a discussion on the local "frambors" e-mail list about downtown revitalization efforts. I'm concerned that in decades of talking about trying to improve the downtown Framingham business district; not only has there been very little progress compared to many other surrounding communities, but I've yet to hear of a coherent vision for what officials and residents would like the downtown to become.

A few pictures are worth well over a thousand words. I urge anyone interested in downtown improvement efforts to take a minute to click through this five-slide presentation from Urban advantage.

It shows the benefits of creating a pedestrian-welcome environment, and what that can do to help a neighborhood business district. Of course, there's a lot more to it than the sidewalk look and feel, but that IS a critical component. If there's money to be had for downtown improvements, along with police presence, we definitely need a streetscape makeover.

Framingham has an urgent need to first decide what exactly we want downtown to be, before trying to go out and make something happen.

Let's try thinking like businesspeople for a moment. What is our niche? And who is our market? I've heard a ton about what people DON'T want to see happen downtown, but what DO you want to see?