November 30, 2006

Mixed Reviews for Walgreen’s Hamilton Street Plaza Expansion Plans

I'm just back from a public hearing on the proposed renovation of the Walgreen's plaza in Saxonville (north Framingham), which call for a pharmacy drive-through of all things, as well as spiffing up the exterior of the building, a slight expansion of the building (around 5' x 12' if I can read my writing correctly) and a significant expansion of Walgreen's into some space now occupied from other tenants (likely to include the florist and Sovereign Bank ATM).

That's the wrong place for a drive-through, period. And I said so during the public comment period of the hearing. Despite some aesthetic issues for the streetscape and occasionally scary street crossings, that's one of the most walkable neighborhoods in town, with many buildings up at the sidewalk instead of set back in suburban-sprawl design. It's got a real village feel, and the last thing we should be encouraging there is drive-through. As I said at the hearing, people can get out of their cars.

The developer presentation of the project included a lot of discussion of traffic flow and not one word about pedestrians. Very disappointing if not surprising. Although happily, several Planning Board members brought it up and so did several members of the public (not just me!).

The plan currently includes no walking path from the sidewalk to the stores - it's clearly a design solely for cars, even though a lot of people walk there: school kids, churchgoers, nearby residents, nearby office workers. In fact, the proposed landscaping makes it harder to get to the stores from the sidewalk, since the only break in the landscaping I saw was for the vehicle driveways. In other words, it funnels the pedestrians in through the busy car driveways, for stores in the heart of a compact residential neighborhood. Argh!

The curb cut at the corner of Hamilton and School streets would be taken away, leaving only two ways to get in and out of the shopping center, on either end. The plan on Hamilton Street, next to the apartments, is for a three-lane driveway and 36-foot curb cut, allowing two lanes out and one turning in. I spoke strongly against that, complaining that it's a Rte. 9- or Rte. 30-style curb cut in a residential neighborhood, and would have a strong negative impact on the sidewalk and pedestrian activity there.

My final point: You currently can't even walk on a contiguous sidewalk from one side of the plaza (Walgreens) around the corner to the other (Pizza Wagon). The sidewalk is narrow and not contiguous, and even where there is a sliver of walkway, often cars park so the front ends are over the walkway and block the sidewalk. That really needs to be fixed.

I am happy about the planned investment in the neighborhood, and glad that Walgreens will be improved there. Town Meeting member Norma Shulman was sorry about some of the other businesses that may have to leave for the Walgreens expansion - she rightly pointed out that the area currently has a village center feel, and losing the variety of small businesses that offer residents many different services would indeed be a loss. I see the point, but on the other side, having a pharmacy there is a definite plus, and these days, it's tough to get such stores to stay in too small a space. Losing the anchor tenant wouldn't be a particularly great thing right now, with an anchor pennant spot already vacant in nearby Nobscot.

In any case, Planning Board Chair Ann Victoria Welles said she came away with two impressions from the public comment portion of the hearing: concern about the presence of children on the site and their safety, and issues surrounding pedestrians in general on the site. So that's a start. There will be outside consultants reviewing the project, and the next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4.

November 28, 2006

‘Suburbs Don’t Have to be Boring’

Modern-era suburbs typically aren't praised for architecture, ambiance or excitement. But, says freelancer writer Lawrence Cheek in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, they often are attractive places to live despite often-dull surroundings. But isn't it possible, he asks, "to create suburbs that are good places to live at the same time that they're interesting places to explore?"

Yes, he concludes, if you: Discourage repetition, encourage eccentricity, "rethink the whole idea of community" and learn from walkable cities like Seattle.

I've mentioned the public vs. private space debate before. Almost all but the super-wealthy who choose to live in Manhattan do so at a great sacrifice of private space - few can afford spacious living quarters. In return, though, people get some of the world's most amazing public spaces just steps from their doorways.

"American suburbs were founded on the exaltation of private property over communal resources. This was understandable in 1900, when most big cities were indisputably crowded, smelly, unpleasant places," Cheek notes. "But in the movement to reform and enhance those same urban environments, cities developed far better parks and communal gathering places than the suburbs, where the energy was concentrated on private homes."

Urban historian Joel Kotkin told Cheek that many "downshifting" Baby Boomers would like to stay in the suburbs, craving neighborhoods that are "funky, but safe."

"What this sounds like is that suburbanites want semi-urban places that offer the diversity and energy of city life without the real or imagined negatives," he concludes. In other words, someplace between the densely populated frenetic pace of a major urban center and the bland car-oriented lifestyle of a typical exurb. That's exactly the kind of environment that downtown Waltham created, and downtown Framingham could create - with the proper vision and leadership.

November 25, 2006

Metro Areas Fight to Attract 25- to 34-year-olds

Cities are trying to attract college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds, "a demographic group increasingly viewed as the key to an economic future," the New York Times says today.

"Mobile but not flighty, fresh but technologically savvy, 'the young and restless,' as demographers call them, are at their most desirable age, particularly because their chances of relocating drop precipitously when they turn 35. Cities that do not attract them now will be hurting in a decade. . . .

"They are people who, demographers say, are likely to choose a location before finding a job. They like downtown living, public transportation and plenty of entertainment options. They view diversity and tolerance as marks of sophistication."

As a 40-something, I typically greet such youth-obsessed marketing with an eye roll. TV, movies, retail ... they all battle for the young 'uns, even though in many cases, older consumers have significantly more money to spend on the actual products these companies are pitching. A lot of times this demographic snobbishness is self-defeating.

But in the case of cities, it makes a certain amount of sense. If people do tend to move around less at 35+, it's important to snare them just before they're ready to set down roots, if you want to replenish your workforce as Baby Boomers retire, and bring a new infusion of creativity, energy and entrepreneurship. By 2010, the Times story notes, "the work force will be losing more than two workers for every one it gains."

Locally, Framingham has a state college, and an urban-type downtown that, if rejuvenated, could appeal to college graduates not either interested or yet ready to settle down in a typical suburban setting. But I haven't seen much attempt to integrate Framingham State physically into the larger community, by offering an attractive and appealing streetscape from campus to downtown. Nor have I heard much discussion about downtown revitalization trying to attract this critical demographic - or what specific demographic the town is hoping to attract at all, other than the old refrains about tax-paying businesses, tamping down the expanion of tax-exempt social services, and immigration issues.

November 24, 2006

Another Pedestrian Killed While Crossing Old Connecticut Path

A very tragic story: 13-year-old John Martin was struck and killed while trying to cross Old Connecticut Path near Wayland High School early yesterday evening, the MetroWest Daily News reports. This marks the second pedestrian fatality on Old Connecticut Path in less than a year.

Last December, a woman was killed during afternoon rush hour while trying to cross the same road not far from there, near Hamilton Street in Framingham.

As I noted then, thanks to communities designed for vehicular traffic and not pedestrian safety, “walkers are far more likely to be killed in street accidents than are motorists, according to a report on pedestrian safety released yesterday,” the Washington Post reported.

That “Mean Streets” report looked at the most recent available data, from 2001, and discovered a 20.1 fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled for walkers, vs. 1.3 for those travelling by auto or truck.

Clearly something needs to be done about the situation on Old Connecticut Path. It's only going to get more dangerous - and deadly - for people walking in the area when traffic levels rise from the hundreds of new residences planned for the old New England Sand and Gravel site.

My deepest sympathies to John Martin's family and friends.

November 23, 2006

Should Route 30 Be More Pedestrian Friendly?

To me, the obvious answer is Yes! Of course! There are hundreds of office workers within walking distance of Rte. 30 retail, along with residences and even nearby hotels. It's insane that people need to take their cars for trips of less than half a mile because it's too unappealing or dangerous to walk. That's especially true considering all the foot traffic on nearby Leggat-McCall Way, which is an appealing pedestrian streetscape and entices lots of people working there to get out on foot.

Yet there's been a discussion on a local Framingham e-mail newsletter list, prompting comments from several people that vehicular traffic should always take precedence in such areas since that accounts for 90%+ of it. Yikes, talk about ignoring the obvious. Um, every single shopper in the area, regardless of how they get there, becomes someone on foot. Of course there's little walking around now because the entire area was designed solely for the automobile with no thought as to what would make an attractive and safe environment on foot. But a different design could have created a "park once, walk-to-many destinations" environment that would have generated a ton of pedestrian traffic between different retail destinations, in addition to people walking from nearby homes and offices.

November 22, 2006

The ‘Real’ America

Steven Johnson has a great blog post at this week talking about urban vs. rural America. In fact, it has long galled me that some of our more conservative politicians talk like rural America is the only "real" America, while urban America is some kind of decadent invader of America's true culture.

"It’s one thing to celebrate the values of the American farmer and small-town civility. It’s another thing for city dwellers to be lectured about urban depravity and the 'heartland' way of life, when cities are partially subsidizing that way of life," Johnson writes, noting that "Blue states consistently pay more in taxes than they receive in federal assistance; the opposite is true for the red states. Why? Because cities like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, despite their welfare queens, are tremendous engines of wealth creation."

Whether it's the Boston area for medical science; New York for fashion, media, entertainment and finance; or Silicon Valley for technology, densely populated areas can offer a critical mass of people, institutions and infrastructure that promote innovation and entrepreneurship. It's a fair question: Why do some politicians denigrate these vibrant national centers? But the political results at the ballot box are clear:

"Consider the breakdown of the past election: rural areas voted Republican by a small margin. The suburbs were evenly divided between the two parties. But 70 percent of Americans living in cities with more than 500,000 people voted for Democrats. . . . One of the reasons the Republicans have so thoroughly lost the urban vote is that they have spent the last 30 years demonizing the culture of big cities – from Reagan’s welfare queens to the recent scaremongering about San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the House. City dwellers, we’re told, are not part of 'real America.'"

I'd take that one step further, because "suburb" is a sweeping term that encompasses both upscale, wealthy, 2+-acre-zoning communities and more economically and ethnically diverse places. I'd bet that more densely populated "inner ring" suburbs were bluer than the newer, more spread-out exurbs.

In any case, only one in five Americans lives in a rural community. It's about time political leaders of both parties woke up to the fact that urban, coastal America is very much a key part of our country.

There are many wonderful things about small-town America. But there are lots of great things about urban America, too. We're all part of the fabric of the nation and our national heritage that we celebrate tomorrow.

Framingham’s Great Thanksgiving Tradition: Interfaith Service

I went to the Framingham Interfaith Thanksgiving service last night, and it really made me proud of this community. While the service was a wee bit too long (especially for those of us who needed to start cooking for the holiday meal afterwards!), it was so wonderful to see representatives of our diverse community get together to be thankful for our blessings, and to focus on the things we agree on instead of harping on the things we disagree on.

There were readings from the Muslim, Christian Science, Jewish, Christian and Baha'i faiths. Religious leaders talked about how members of their congregations are helping the greater community, through projects such as literacy tutoring in local schools and quilt-making for children going into foster care. Blessings were said in English, Portuguese and Hebrew. Songs/hymns were sung, including America the Beautiful. A collection was taken for the Newcomers and Neighbors Information Center. It was a lovely moment to reflect on lessons from the original Thanksgiving, which included people of different cultures getting together to be grateful for a season of plenty.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

November 19, 2006

Good News: Possible Framingham Park Upgrade, Courtesy of Rotary Club

The Rotary Club may fund a major upgrade of Butterworth Park, in a project that could cost up to half a million dollars. "For now, plans include a covered pavilion with benches, a new playground, and a half-court basketball court to replace the full-court surface at the park today," the MetroWest Daily News reports. "Also included is a walking path, additional off-street parking and several improvements to the area’s appearance."

It's great to see that kind of partnership in town to spruce up public space. Kudos to the Rotary Club!

However, I can't help thinking it would also be nice if the town was able to fund more of such needed infrastructure improvements that boost quality of life for so many residents.

November 18, 2006

Does Everything Really Have to be Open All the Time?

So, "the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston have decided to open their health and fitness facilities during the hours traditionally reserved for prayer in observance of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath," the Boston Globe reported earlier this month. It's an interesting debate: Many members who work all week want to go work out on Saturdays, but doing so violates millenia of Jewish law and custom.

As a practical matter, a majority of 21st century American Jews don't observe a traditional sundown-to-sundown day of rest, and the JCCs are acknowledging current reality.

"The centers have gone in the direction of survival," a Reform rabbi told the Globe, asking that his/her name not be published. "They have to respond to the demands of secular Jewish families, or those families are going to go elsewhere."


But I find it sad that now even Jewish organizations can't seem to hold the line and promote observance of the Sabbath.

I'm NOT in favor of "blue laws" requiring stores to close on a certain day. The government has no business legislating observance of a particular religion's belief. But I think religious organizations should try to promote spiritual growth by making it easier, not more difficult, to follow some core beliefs. 

November 12, 2006

Video Tour & Critique: Measuring Lowe’s Framingham on Pedestrian-Friendly Design

Be kind here, please. This is my first attempt at a vblog entry, I was using a pocket digital still camera with low resolution, no image stabilization and no ability to change zoom while videoing; someone volunteered to compress the file for me and the sound is really flakey; finally, if I wait until I figure out my video editing software to get this in better shape, it'll never get posted.


If you still want to see it, here's a video tour of around 7 minutes pointing out what I see as the drawbacks and pluses of the new Lowe's design for pedestrians. View the video (Windows Media format).

November 8, 2006

Framingham Lowe’s a Mixed Bag for Pedestrian Friendliness

I did a walk-around of the yet-to-be-opened Framingham Lowe's over the weekend, including some photos and a video that turns out to be too big to post on YouTube. Sorry I haven't had time yet to do editing and posting of the visuals yet, but meanwhile to summarize briefly what I found:

Deval Patrick’s Resounding Victory: A Vote for Community

Voters in Massachusetts have given our overwhelming support to a governor-elect who stresses sense of community and the need to care about each other's dreams and aspirations as well as our own. It's a message we've clearly been hungering for after the bitter, negative, partisan politics that Karl Rove and the Bush administration have brought to the national arena these past six years.

Deval Patrick has shown that it's possible to succeed without, as he so eloquently puts it, building himself up by tearing others down.

He resisted negative-sound-bite campaigning. He refused to try to pump up one slice of support by demonizing another. He was gracious, inclusive and inspiring in his victory speech - as he's been throughout the campaign. He talked about nurturing the "grass roots," about the importance of listening to people, and about putting our cynicism aside. And he talked about the need for citizens to actually make an effort and do work in order to have good government. Before he even takes office, Deval Patrick has changed our political landscape for the better by the tone he's set and the way he's conducted himself.

Leadership is more than a checklist of issues. It's also how you use your position to frame issues and conduct debate. It's whether and how you inspire people. I'm proud to have volunteered for Deval Patrick before the primary and again for the general election, and thrilled that Massachusetts voters gave him such a clear mandate. I'm looking forward to Governor Deval Patrick in January!

November 6, 2006

Another Little Slice of Framingham Open Space To Disappear

I saw a "public notice" sign up on a tree this morning on a piece of open land on Elm Street, across the street and a bit north of the Cameron Middle School. It said that a subdivision plan will be before the Planning Board. Another little slice of non-built-up open space seems likely to disappear.

It used to be that there was more sense of place, more history, and more open space in the suburbs west of Boston than in many of the Long Island towns around where I grew up. When I moved here 20+ years ago, every little sliver of land wasn't built out to its maximum zoning-permitted suburban sprawl possibility; but instead, there were still a lot of areas left as they'd been built many years ago, or as open space. Sadly, this seems to be changing in most of the affordable and median-priced-home areas of town.

It's only the wealthier northwest part of Framingham, and nearby high-priced communities, that seem to be preserving open space. It's a pity. You may not be able to draw a one-to-one correlation line between a few more open acres gobbled up by a subdivision and your quality of life. But as this happens more and more, the character of a community subtly changes, offering fewer delightful neighborhood surprises of beauty and peacefulness. Instead, each neighborhood starts looking like every other neighborhood, as indistinguishable in their suburban sprawl as one generic strip mall from another.

November 5, 2006

Study: Appealing Shopping Streetscape More Important Than Traffic, Crime in Whether People Walk

The availability of pleasant, shopping-friendly locales is more likely to influence whether or not people walk regularly than factors such as traffic or crime, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, analyzed questionnaires filled out by 351 people. They were asked about their attitudes toward walking; how much they walked; whether there were paths, trails, parks or recreational facilities near their homes; and their thoughts about local neighborhoods and walking areas.

The team found that neighborhood aesthetics and the mix of retail stores were more important that local crime levels or traffic in terms of motivating people to walk.

So reports HealthDay News via The study was published in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Thanks to Timothy Lee for the link.

November 3, 2006

Who Let the Fidelity/BofA Building Not Have a Sidewalk?

It was an outrageously planning decision to allow that building, now housing Fidelity and Bank of America, among others, to build on Rte. 30 without requiring a sidewalk. There are offices within walking distance right across the street. Did it not occur to anyone that among hundreds of office workers within less than half a mile of a bank might want to do some banking there? Did the thought not cross anyone's minds that a few people might want to run an errand less than half a mile of their office without having to get into their car? Or that people parked at REI and FedEx/Kinko's next door might actually also want to go to the bank less than 100 feet away without either driving or having to trod across the grass?

November 2, 2006

What a Car-Free City Looks Like: Venice

Is it possible to have a modern First-World city completely free of automobiles? If you've ever been to the beautiful, historic city of Venice, you know it is. Granted, not every city has a network of canals so "taxis" can be boats. But it's still worth looking at what works well in Venice to create such appealing streetscapes. posted some photos of Venice streets -- ones that work well and others that aren't quite as appealing. If you're interested in what makes an attractive walking environment, it's worth taking a look. Relative scale between street and buildings is critical; in fact, many streets that are too wide are less appealing for pedestrians than the narrow walkways filled with residents and tourists. In addition, there are some pictures of street life on a separate page.