April 30, 2006

Gentrification vs. Existing Small Business Owners

Globe West today looks at the impact downtown revitalization may have on some existing Framingham small-business owners, particularly those in the Brazilian community (see Shopkeepers Angry Over Development). A number of them believe the work they've done to improve parts of downtown helped make the downtown more attractive for investment -- and instead of benefitting, their rents are being raised and many will be forced out.

"We made this place attractive. We made this place a suitable place for business. Now they are saying we don't need you anymore," Vera Dias-Freitas, who owns Vera Jewelers, told the Globe.

I can't help thinking that the situation sounds similar to that of many urban artists, who move into "transitional" neighborhoods, spruce them up, make them more appealing, and end up being priced out of the very areas their presence makes more attractive.

It's a tough issue, because there are compelling arguments on both sides. Those who help turn a neighborhood around with hard work and "sweat equity" should get some of the rewards. But particularly in Massachusetts, where communities labor under the shadow of Proposition 2 1/2, it becomes ever more important for town officials to look to boost property values if they don't want to slash services, lay off town workers, or go through the painful, exhausting and risky process of trying to seek an override. Health care and energy costs are soaring at a lot more than 2.5%/year right now.

Then there's the very real question of what's overall best for the town. Gentrification would benefit large parts of the community but potentially hurt others.

Some additional thoughts:

* If it's true that numerous public hearings about the Arcade renovation project were poorly attended, some of those business owners who didn't show up earlier in the process have just gotten a very painful lesson in the importance of paying attention to local political issues and getting active earlier in the process. It's somewhat late in the process to be bringing up these issues a few months before construction is slated to begin.

* Ideally, if small-business owners need to relocate because of downtown revitalization, it would be great if they could get some help with that painful process -- including assistance on how to negotiate leases that would build in protection for business owners who rent space but make the effort to improve that space. It would actually help the town if those businesses filled other space in the area and spread their commercial vitality; but business owners who were penalized, not rewarded, for their efforts should get some assurances that such work wouldn't come to a similar unhappy conclusion for their enterprises a second time.

* Politically as well as economically, it would be wise for as many Brazilian-owned businesses as possible to make an effort to attract and serve the non-Brazilian community. Obviously places like money-transfer stores aren't going to appeal to non-Brazilians who have no interest in sending funds to people in Brazil. But I believe many other businesses could make more of an effort. Why, for example, can't the Brazilian bakery print up a bilingual menu/flyer explaining what the different pastries are, and making recommendations for the first-time customer? This would be a quick and easy way to solve the problem of some of the counter staff not speaking English, and make it clear that non-Brazilian customers are as welcome as Portuguese-speaking ones.

I've long thought that there should be a walking-tour map of ethnic downtown Framingham, highlighting various interesting immigrant-owned businesses (not only Brazilian). Participating stores could have a logo on their window specifically welcoming customers speaking multiple languages - English, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, etc.; and if their staff isn't multilingually equipped to serve those customers, they could have some sort of flier or brochure printed up explaining the things or services they sell (food particularly). This benefits the store-owners financially by expanding their potential customer base at relatively little cost. It also benefits them politically, because the more locals you have as loyal customers, the more voting residents are likely to come to your defense if your business is threatened.

Framingham Artist Studios Open House Today

This weekend, artists in two sets of working studios -- Saxonville Studios, in the old Saxonville mill buildings; and the Fountain Street Studios downtown -- have teamed up to hold a joint open house. The public is invited to come visit 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. For more information, see SaxonvilleStudios.com and FountainStreetStudios.com.

April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs’ Legacy

Urban planning pioneer Jane Jacobs died yesterday just before her 90th birthday, leaving a legacy of planners inspired by her beliefs that designing for people is critically important for the vibrancy of communities.

Her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written at a time -- the early '60s -- when American society was falling in love with both the automobile and the promise of grand "urban renewal" projects. For many politicians of the era, bigger was better; but the result was the destruction of human-scale environments. Replacement large-scale, bold projects often ended up making communities less successful, not moreso (such as Boston's City Hall Plaza).

Jacobs put into words what many people believed instinctively, but couldn't explain: Highways through the heart of cities are bad and kill off neighborhoods. Mixing commercial and residential use in human-scale, distinctive neighborhoods works better than suburban sprawl.

"In the '50s, American cities were generally considered messy, undesirable things. Suburban life was considered the ideal. Jane Jacobs fought valiantly in defense of plain, old-fashioned, urban life," New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger told the Los Angeles Times.

It was a radical notion in the post-war era, when emerging technologies and industrial prowess seemed to make everything possible, and spanking new suburban communities were seen to be vastly superior to older cities.

"At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble," the New York Times notes. "Indisputably, the book [Death and Life...] was as radically challenging to conventional thinking as Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring,' which helped engender the environmental movement, would be the next year, and Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique,' which deeply affected perceptions of relations between the sexes, would be in 1963."

Most of those who fight to save close-knit neighborhoods from big-box retailers, who work for pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, who battle for walkable communties, have been inspired by Jacobs' groundbreaking work.

April 23, 2006

What Killed a Phoenix Neighborhood Business District?

"The 1970s were cruel to the Melrose neighborhood's stretch of north Seventh Avenue: The street was widened," begins an article in the Arizona Republic about the area's renovation. "Seventh Avenue, Councilman Tom Simplot said, became a minifreeway."

It's a cautionary tale for what not to do when faced with traffic problems in a downtown business district. Improving through-traffic flow cannot be planners' sole focus when roads go through retail districts.

Today, though, Melrose is coming back, the Republic says -- in part because "over the past several years, federal funding has been used for streetscape improvements to create a pedestrian friendly feeling for the shopping district within the well-traveled thoroughfare."

That means things like "shade structures," benches, outdoor art, and planned outdoor patios for restaurants.

Designing solely for cars, without also ensuring an attractive, appealing pedestrian streetscape, is usually a recipe for disaster in a neighborhood business district.

April 19, 2006

Quality of Life Doesn’t Just Happen

"Quality of life doesn't happen as a byproduct of a free market," said Harriet Tregoning, executive director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington, according to an article in the Charlotte Observer. "You have to be deliberate. You can't just fix it afterward. I don't know of too many communities that have been able to turn a big-box space into a park."

While of course some people still want huge homes on enormous lots in car-mandatory exurban-sprawl communities, demographics are pointing to less, not more, demand for such housing. "In 30 years, proportionately fewer households will have kids, she said," the article notes. "More homeowners will want townhomes or homes on smaller lots located near downtown or other urban amenities. Young professionals and retirees alike will want access to mass transit." Thirty-five years from now, an estimated 30% of U.S. residential demand will be for large suburban houses.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal notes that mega-mall developer Mills Corp. is struggling. "While a typical large mall draws customers from a 10- to 20-mile radius, many Mills malls are so big they need to draw from a larger area to attract enough customers. As a result, Mills became more vulnerable to new competitors, including outlet centers, discount stores and the hot new model -- open-air 'lifestyle centers,' which adhere to a 'Main Street' approach, with stores opening onto a street, says Steven H. Gartner, president of Metro Commercial Real Estate Inc., a Conshohocken, Penn., retail consultant. And high gas prices made shoppers less willing to drive long distances for a deal on a pair of blue jeans," the Journal reports.

"In other words, downtown main streets are 'in' again," says CoolTown Studios. "Still, like anything, it's wise for main streets to understand what made these malls successful for so long, and that's largely attributable to combining retail with entertainment. What were food courts in malls can become dining piazzas in downtowns. Multiplex mall theaters can move to main street. Even indoor recreation like climbing walls and simulated-experience arcade games can find a welcome home in cities rather than in the megamalls."

It's something Framingham needs to remember as it looks to revitalize downtown. Quality of life doesn't just happen, and neither does a vibrant business district. You need planning, an appealing mix of retail and residences, and a pedestrian-attractive streetscape to tie it all together.

April 18, 2006

When Pedestrians Take Over the Streets

In many cities like New York and Montreal, streets are regularly closed for various festivals and parades. Things like Montreal's jazz and comedy festivals add significantly to quality of life (despite the annoyance for vehicular traffic) and also often attract tourists. It's much less frequent that suburban streets are closed off for events that revolve around foot traffic. But here, too, such events can attract tourists and add to a special sense of place that makes living in a neighborhood something special.

Yesterday's Boston Marathon showed us yet again that it is indeed possible to turn over our roads to pedestrians from time to time. The Hopkinton-to-Boston route was a 26.2-mile-long outdoor party. In Framingham, there was a multicultural festival after the race ran through. In towns all along the course, people were throwing private and public parties. This is what a slice of Commonwealth Avenue in Newton looked like during the race:

Commonwealth Ave, Newton during the Boston Marathon

Note all the spectators lined up along the grassy area at right. There were numerous lawn barbecues and parties, both in the public spaces and in peoples' front yards. A friend who lives in this neighborhood, far from complaining that her road was blocked and she couldn't drive anywhere for the afternoon, kept commenting how much she enjoyed the sea of humanity. Others were giving away water not only to runners, but fellow spectators who were thirsty.

Patriots Day is a joyous, special time all along the course. And it's no coincidence that the cars are temporarily removed from some public streets that day so pedestrians can reclaim our public space.

April 14, 2006

Where in the ‘Built Environment’ Can You Go to Enjoy a Nice Day Outside?

I don't mean finding a park or a trail to go hiking, cycling or running. My question is: As the weather (finally) gets nice out, where can you go to enjoy it by strolling around and/or sitting outdoors in a manmade environment? That question goes to the heart of whether a streetscape is truly pedestrian-appealing.

In Boston, Back Bay is an outstanding option -- extremely attractive streetscapes, sidewalks and buildings designed for maximum appeal when on foot, and plenty of outdoor cafes where you can stop and spend some time outside eating, drinking and people-watching. Parts of the waterfront near the North End are also nice for outdoor strolling amidst the buildings, with lots of benches where people actually do want to stop and sit.

Quincy Market is another place thronging with people when the weather gets nice, as is Harvard Square in Cambridge.

In MetroWest, though, options are somewhat limited for spending an afternoon outdoors in a manmade environment. Concord center is a top choice, with a truly appealing streetscape, and outdoor dining at the Concord Inn in nice weather. But even some of the other nice, revitalized downtowns aren't designed for enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon walking around, if you include "some sort of attractive place where you'd truly want to stop, sit and enjoy a nice day" as part of the equation.

That's a key issue I hope Framingham officials consider when someday there's serious work to revitalize downtown. Simply sticking more residences and stores down there won't itself create that kind of magnet environment to draw people. You need great storefront design, thoughtful placement of stop-in-the-nice-weather destinations, infills of businesses that were built far back from the sidewalk (few things kill your streetscape as effectively as too many parking lots fronting the sidewalk), landscaping between sidewalk and traffic, and so on. You also want your storefronts and sidewalks designed to encourage outdoor seating in nice weather, a great way to bring life to your streetscape.

In yesterday's Globe Calendar, there was a review of an outdoor cafe in Belmont: "Syrian-born Vivian Abkarian has had a hair salon in Belmont’s Cushing Square for almost seven years. Her Salon de Paris took up too much real estate, she decided one day, so she divided the place in half. One part still houses her salon, and the other has become Cafe D’Or, or 'golden cafe,' " the review starts off.

"Abkarian gave the place a French name because she pictured people eating at sidewalk tables in mild weather the way Parisians do at their neighborhood cafes. Since the cafe opened, she says, 'when I see people sitting outside on a sunny day, I feel like I’m sitting in Europe.' " We shouldn't have to cross the Atlantic in order to experience the joys of sitting at an outdoor cafe on a nice spring day.

April 10, 2006

Bill Would Investigate “Built Environment’s” Impact on Children’s Health

The Healthy Places Act of 2006 would help state and local governments conduct Health Impact Assessments -- voluntary studies that would help assess the effect of major policies on community health, according to the American Public Health Association. In addition, a new interagency working group would help various federal agencies coordinate efforts on environmental health issues.

The measure was introduced by U.S. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California.

A grant program would help local governments deal with environmental health hazards. And, "additional support for research on the relationship between the built environment and health, as recommended by two Institute of Medicine reports," APHA notes.

“Healthy communities for children are on the verge of being engineered out of existence, and we must take action to change these harmful built environments to ensure the well-being of our nation’s kids,” said APHA executive director Georges C. Benjamin, MD in a statement.

Without question, it's tougher to raise healthy kids if they can't spontaneously go out to play, if they don't get used to walking places and if they don't have safe and attractive outdoor spaces.
"Today’s cities ... coddle the automobile while denying children the opportunity to experience the wonder and joy of the natural world," according to Dr. Richard Joseph Jackson, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, and Dr. Susan Kay Cummins, the Center's senior health policy advisor, as reported by the Environment News Service. "What child can be allowed independent exploration in cities experienced as dangerous and lacking parks and sidewalks?"

April 7, 2006

The Loss of Streets As Neighborhoods

Ecology Action Centre's Maggy Burns decries the dramatic change in our view of public roads "away from seeing streets as neighbourhoods and towards seeing them as thoroughfares," she writes in the Chronicle Herald -- "the shift away from seeing our streets as part of our community. The kind of community where sidewalk cafes coexist with grandmothers walking, who coexist with cars and with children playing."

It's an interesting point, because all too rarely do we see, hear or read anything about roadway planning besides funneling traffic. Oh, sidewalks might be installed, but nobody thinks about whether there's a walker friendly streetscape, with things like proper landscaping buffers between the sidewalks and whizzing traffic, or buildings sited to encourage pedestrian streetlife, or realistic ways of crossing roads with any serious vehicle traffic.

"A collection of values gets lost when streets become simply a means of getting from one place to another as quickly as possible," she says. "We lose the right to play in public spaces; we lose the sense of community that comes from stopping for a chat with a neighbour while walking the dog or biking to work; we even lose the economic benefits of shopping at local stores where our money stays in the community."

Make no mistake: The thriving local business districts of the early 21st century will be those that create an attractive, appealing pedestrian environment -- good mix of retail and residential along with great streetscapes.

April 6, 2006

Atlanta Mulls Ways to Make ‘Peachtree Corridor’ World Class; Any Local Lessons?

"Some of Atlanta's top business executives and community leaders have been tapped to help retool the city's signature Peachtree corridor," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. "The group's mission is to help turn the Peachtree corridor into a world-class thoroughfare, with a unified pedestrian-friendly design that may include streetcars rolling down the spine."

The group is headed by two developers, who believe that parts of the district "lack density and urban sophistication, making the stretch pale in comparison to major thoroughfares in other cities."

This is an important point. Even though the neighborhood already boasts "some of the city's poshest homes, fanciest restaurants and hottest boutiques," the article notes, creating an overall experience is critical. The presence of nice homes, eateries and stores isn't enough; you've got to tie it all together in a way that makes an appealing, coherent and unbroken streetscape.

In other words, even if you add new residences and businesses as part of downtown revitalization, it's not enough as long as you also, say, still have a suburban-sprawl-designed wholesale business across from your transit station, or a stand-alone appliance store set way back from the roadway. Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with a wholesale plumbing business or an appliance store! I've gone to both myself, and they are fine enterprises with a lot of good merchandise. But the way they're designed creates big holes in the streetscape in the critical zone around the T station, if your goal is to entice people using the trains to stay and experience the business district. Those same stores sited up at the sidewalk with attractive window displays for retail passers-by would make a major difference.

The Atlanta group will "look at everything from landscaping and lighting to sidewalks and street-level retail," according to the newspaper report.

April 5, 2006

Framingham Election Results

Planning Board, incumbents Carol Spack and Tom Mahoney retained their seats yesterday, defeating challenger Stephen Meltzer in a three-way race for two seats. Both Spack and Mahoney responded favorably to the importance of pedestrian issues when asked about them at a candidates night event last month, which was good news.

While I was pleased with the outcome of yesterday's Planning Board election, it's still unclear to me how important the board as a whole views creating walker-appealing streetscapes -- not merely installing sidewalks -- compared to the many other demands of development projects. (I'm still disapointed that the board didn't try to get the new Lowe's to be sited up at the sidewalk, which could have made an attractive walking environment between there and the main post office, instead of allowing yet another surburban-sprawl entry along Rte. 30.)

In other races ...

April 4, 2006

Miami/Dade Residents Yearn For More Walkable Communities

"Imagine a world where big-box retail stores don't take up entire city blocks, rather they meld into town squares alongside buildings sporting old-country facades. Picture tree-lined, walkable streets, surrounding a bustling urban center, where residences, nightlife and commerce converge, like metropolises of yore," begins an article in the Miami Herald. Well, "that's what a group of Northwest Miami-Dade residents see for their corner of the county when they look toward the future."

How surprising that people prefer tree-lined, walker-appealing streets for their retail centers instead of an ugly series of strip malls designed solely for the automobile. Not.

'We see developers coming in every day that want to build exactly what the residents have planned,'' Shailendra Singh, urban design director for the county's department of planning and zoning, told the Herald. "This is the way to go."

In fact, "three areas -- Naranja, Princeton and Goulds -- that have had their own charrettes and code guidelines approved, are already seeing their visions put into action."

What about here? Will we ever get a vision like that for the Golden Triangle along Route 9? Will downtown Framingham ever become a pedestrian-appealing center with a truly compelling streetscape filled with people?

April 3, 2006

Framingham Town Elections Tuesday

There's a three-way race for two Planning Board seats, as well as contests for Board of Selectmen, School Committee and several other town-wide offices. Pitifully, only four of 18 precincts have contested races for Town Meeting, while more than half have more openings than candidates.

For Planning Board, incumbents Carol Spack and Tom Mahoney face a challenge by Stephen Meltzer. In addition to their Web sites, you can see the responses that Mahoney (see his site) and Meltzer (see his site) gave to questions I posed. Carol Spack said she tried to weave in answers to the issues I raised at a candidates' night event we both attended.

April 2, 2006

Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee Meets 4/11

The Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets Tuesday, April 11 at 7:30 pm in Conference Room 1 of town hall.

Chair William Hanson reports the following is Tuesday night's agenda:

Stupid Headline of the Day

It costs nearly $40,000, gets just 15 miles a gallon, weighs over two tons and is 89 inches across -- almost two feet wider than a Toyota Corolla. But according to the Boston Globe, the 2006 Jeep Commander is Hummer-like, Yet Practical. Excuse me? Practical?

Well, no doubt it's useful for an arrogant, self-absorbed driver who doesn't care about others on the road. "To small cars crawling beside us, we can say 'humbug,' " writes reviewer Royal Ford. "Humility is not a trait of the humongous."


No reason to worry that it'll cost over $2,000/year to fill up if you drive 13,000 miles/year.

Or, for that matter, that it blocks the view of those in passenger cars. Or that the U.S. is responsible for 25% of the world's energy use and 36% of all greenhouse gas emisisons despite having less than 5% of the world's population.

‘Bright Spot on a Wasteland’

"Unless you are in search of dark thoughts, there is little reason to go and experience the public realm that lurks along Lake Shore Boulevard East. What was imagined as a green boulevard has been transformed, seemingly overnight, into suburbia," laments Toronto columnist Lisa Rochon in the Globe & Mail. She decries the ugly stretches of big-box retailers and chain fast-food restaurants -- "Sprawling, lowest-common-denominator architecture and masses of parking" as she put it (sound familiar?) -- that have grown up in much of the city's waterfront. "Any promise of livability and delight has been traded away by the city in its determination to maintain what it calls 'employment lands.' "

And the bright spot?
West Don Lands has a map, capable captains and a bright future. A sustainable community with high energy efficiency and green roofs has been demanded by the local community and promised by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation. Six thousand new residences, including 1,200 units of affordable rental housing, will be built over the next decade. Some historic buildings, such as the Canary restaurant and the Dominion Foundry, will be saved and integrated into the plan.

A park design by Michael Van Valkenburgh, a distinguished American landscape architect and maker of bucolic, healing landscapes like Pittsburgh's Allegheny Riverfront Park, has been commissioned by the TWRC to design the eight-hectare Don River Park, which will roll over a berm and protect the neighbourhood against flooding of the Don. Van Valkenburgh, working together with Toronto urban designers Ken Greenberg and David Leinster, may also tackle other green spaces in the area. Given the city's abusive relationship with the waterfront, it's a hallelujah moment.

April 1, 2006

The Importance of Trees

Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson makes a good point about the critical role trees can play in building community. "[T]he value of urban trees has become clear in recent years," he writes in The Return of the Trees, which highlights Milwaukee's successful replacement of thousands of Dutch elms. "A 1997 study by the University of Illinois showed that crime in a housing project was significantly less and community bonds were stronger on tree-lined parts of the project than on barren parts."

He remembers how the majestic old elms created a shade canopy on streets during summers of his youth, enticing kids to play outside during the day and neighbors to chat on each other's porches at night.

After more than 125,000 elms had to be removed, however, the city's green umbrella was gone.

"Without the trees, summer heat reflected brutally off concrete. Children retreated from the congregational sidewalk to individual porches. Lightning bugs, deprived of the post-leaf raking debris they need to regenerate, dimmed into memory," Jackson recalls.

But Milwaukee invested a significant sum to plant new trees. It took awhile, but the canopy returned.

"In lots of cities, it's hard to argue for the support of trees with all the hue and cry for police and fire services," a Milwaukee environmental official told Jackson. ''But our electorate here is pretty savvy. We know we can't walk away from our 200,000 trees."

Trees - and landscaping in general - aren't frills. They help give a community heart, and soul.