January 30, 2007

"Kids Create Natick Center"

Natick middle and high school students will have a chance to share their visions for what downtown should look like, under a new Kids Create Natick Center program meeting Wednesdays from Feb. 28 to March 28, 5:30 to 7:30 pm at Kids-Connect (43 Main St.)

Working with two architects, they'll be given "real-world maps and plans and the space to create collages, drawings and models," according to a press release announcing the program. "At the end of the 5-week session, students will present their work to the public Monday, April 9 at the Morse Institute Library as part of a Natick Center Associates' planning forum."

The program is funded in part through a grant from the Boston Foundation for Architecture (there's also a $15 materials fee per student). For more info head to kids-connect.org.

January 29, 2007

Is New York City Losing Its Pedestrian Edge?

Is New York City - the only city in America where more than half its residents don't take private cars to work - losing its pedestrian edge?

Author Robert Sullivan thinks so. In a thoughtful N.Y. Times op-ed piece, he worries that "as far as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of America, and the rest of America is acting more like the once-inspiring New York."

Why? "We have lost our golden pedestrian touch in New York mostly because we still think about traffic as though it were 1950, and we needed Robert Moses to plow a few giant freeways through town to get the cars moving again. But the fact is that more roads equal more traffic." (something streetscape-improvement advocates have argued repeatedly).

After citing the many positive steps other cities are taking to make more pedestrian-friendly environments, he notes that "the city is the new suburb. Families have returned to the New York that was abandoned years ago for lawns and better public schools. They’ve brought with them a love of cars."

Uh oh.

How to fix things? "The simple and elegant cure for the loss of New York’s inner pedestrian is to open up car-clogged streets and public spaces." Worry less about taking over yet more public and private space for funneling and parking motor vehicles, and more about quality of life.
"With a million more New Yorkers scheduled to arrive by 2030, true sustainability requires the city — or at least its residents — to make a bold move. Some neighborhoods are already working on it. The Ninth Avenue Renaissance Project, sponsored by a coalition of residents and businesses, has held community workshops on converting Ninth Avenue from Lincoln Tunnel access ramp to boulevard.

"The now chic Meatpacking District plans to bring back a space that, since the area was a Native American village, has been a natural gathering place for people without combustion engines: wider sidewalks, public seating and a piazza in the restaurant-surrounded open field of paving stones could be more like Campo dei Fiori in Rome and less a spot for crazed U-turns. . . .

" 'Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places,' wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape historian. We've already lost a lot of New York to traffic. If New Yorkers don’t get out of their cars soon, the city’s future residents won't have a reason to."

January 28, 2007

The New Mall’s Impact on Natick, cont. Um, What About Framingham?


The Boston Globe's West edition has written yet another article about the Natick mall expansion in the works, including breathless marketing-like phrases such as "Developers aren't just adding size. They are adding swank and high style to the staid indoor mall of decades past." Swank and high style? Because of "a rolling gold sign that is inspired, designers say, by the folds of a women's skirt"? "A mezzanine 'floating' above a water fountain"? It all may indeed be as spectacular as advertised, but shouldn't we leave the PR-like accolades until after the new mall actually opens, and we can see with our own eyes whether it's glitz or kitsch?

That aside, though, I'm getting a little tired of all the coverage focusing solely on the mall's impact on the town of Natick, considering that you can walk from the mall to the Framingham town line. (Well, you could on a very low-traffic day. Christmas Day when all the stores are closed, maybe. But it's close enough that one could walk, with proper pedestrian-friendly design.) Traffic will obviously affect Framingham roads, unless all the SUVs and other vehicles coming from points west are helicoptered in. Residents and workers getting on and off Mass Pike exit 13 will deal with the extra traffic as much as those in Natick. If there is an impact on local merchants, it will be felt in downtown Framingham and Framingham Center as well as Natick. The retail "Golden Triangle" encompassing the mall in Natick also clearly includes Shoppers World and other retailers in Framingham. Yet the Globe West Weekly story reports only that "The [Natick] Planning Board's overriding concern has been making sure Natick is compensated for the impact the expansion will have on the town."

So, Natick gets $15 million in mitigation for things like road improvement. Lucky them! The mall is planning a potentially more pedestrian-friendly storefront facade on the Natick Rte. 9 side. Nice improvement for the Natick stretch of Rte. 9, but I've heard nothing about improving the pedestrian streetscape on the Speen St. or Rte. 30 sides close to Framingham office workers like me.

It's good that the mall and the town could solve the dispute over using the name "Natick" (I come down squarely on the side of the town over that one. Natick is the name of the town; if a retailer wants to use it, it should be as an adjective, not stand-alone). Now could the media please move on and also consider the impact of this major project on surrounding areas outside of the Natick town line as well as in the town itself?

Not Keeping Us Safe On Our Highways

Tens of thousands of Americans die in motor vehicle accidents every year, yet the U.S. government is falling down on the job of determining what engineering advances such as vehicle designs are most likely to save our lives (let alone mandating such things). An American's odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident is substantially greater than 1 in a 100 (1 of 84, according to the National Safety Council, based on 2003 data), yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration consumer-information testing program is "woefully inadequate, out-of-date and underfinanced," Joan Claybrok writes in today's New York Times. Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Carter administration.

"[I]t still does not test to evaluate survivability in rollovers; it doesn't measure the effects of size differential when a passenger car collides with, say, a light truck; it doesn't test vehicle structure in frontal, off-center crashes; it doesn’t test fuel tank vulnerability in rear-end collisions; finally, it fails to test how badly pedestrians are injured when hit by vehicles. Most of these consumer information tests are performed, or are being developed, in Europe, Australia and Japan.

"What's more, the tests that are done are simply too weak. Cars are not tested at high enough speeds; sport utility vehicles are tested against insubstantial barriers. Take all this together, and consumers are ill served."

Remind me again why we pay federal taxes?

January 25, 2007

Final Update on the Radio Interference: WBIX Calls At Last

I finally got a call today from an engineer at WBIX. So I'm happy to say they were responsive at last, if belatedly. The engineer was prepared to try to help me deal with the problem, but the more prompt and responsive folks at Verizon have already taken care of it for me. He said they've been running 40,000 watts at the same location for the past seven years and there's been no recent increase in power. So who knows why this suddenly became such a bad problem. He did say that the calls from people experiencing interference were supposed to go to him, not an endlessly ringing phone with no voicemail, and that he'd look into that.

Hopefully, this is my last post on the subject and I can go back to interesting community planning issues, such as the newly expanded Natick Mall, and what it means to the surrounding community (hope to comment on the Globe West story about town and mall later today or tomorrow).

January 24, 2007

Verizon Solves My WBIX Radio Woes

It looks like a happy ending to my WBIX interference problem - no thanks to the radio station. Verizon sent two techs to our house this morning and put a great filter on the line coming into the house. That seems to have solved our problem! I made a couple of calls this morning, and could barely hear the WBIX signal anymore. I've got daytime phone service again!

Interestingly, though, one of the techs told me that they've been getting calls from all over town recently about the same problem. I'm not alone in having this issue.

I don't know whether the interference problems are being caused by a specific issue with the WBIX signal, or simply unshielded equipment on the part of us unfortunate homeowners getting WBIX in our phones. Now that my own problem has been solved, though, I'm still concerned that we may have a station in town running major-station power yet is unresponsive to its neighbors. I never heard back from anyone at the station. I never even got to leave voice mail after choosing the option "if you're experiencing interference" after calling the local number on their Web site.

According to one Internet site, WBIX recently increased their signal to 40,000 watts of power. If that's true, that's a significant amount of power in the midst of a residential area, and the station should be prepared to deal with neighbors who are affected. To have an automated phone answering system that instructs people to press 8 if they're having interference problems, and then sends the caller to an endlessly ringing phone (no one to answer it, not even voice mail), is not acceptable. Anyone in the broadcasting business should know that after you boost power, there are likely to be interference issues no matter how clean your signal. Even if your station is not at fault, you have a good-corporate-citizen obligation to talk to the people you're affecting and educate them, helping them solve the problem.

As an amateur radio operator, I happen to know there are things that can be done on my end to deal with what's called "RFI," regardless of whether the problem is improper shielding in my home or a bad signal that's causing the interference. But not everyone knows that. I'm also fortunate that Verizon was so responsive to my situation. But there's still an important issue here: If you're a radio station running major-station power in our community, be a good citizen and give us the courtesy of having someone locally on site to respond to our concerns. Update: A WBIX engineer did call me Thursday, four days after my initial call to the station. He did seem willing to try to help fix the problem, although thankfully Verizon has already solved it.

Saxonville Summit on Feb. 5

Friends of Saxonville is organizing a summit to discuss their local initiatives, as well as explore other ideas for neighborhood activities and ways of enhancing the area. They invite people, whether members or not, to come and share their interests and ideas, and of course volunteer assistance! All who are interested in the environmental, cultural, recreational and economic health of the Saxonville area are encouraged to attend. That's Monday, Feb. 5, 7 pm at the Stapleton Elementary School Auditorium.

January 22, 2007

WBIX Radio Signal So Loud on My Phones That I Can’t Use My Landline During Daylight Hours

I'd sure love to know who decided WBIX could broadcast at 40,000 watts of power from the WKOX transmitters. Whoever it was likely doesn't live within 3 miles of said transmitter. I do, and their signal is so loud on all the landline telephones in my house that I no longer can use my home phone during daylight hours.

It's so bad that people I've tried calling during the day complain about it. It's so bad that I cannot hear people I'm trying to talk to over the noise of the radio signal. It's so bad that the signal comes in louder on my speaker phone than it does on my radio.

I'm generally a fan or broadcast radio -- in fact, I'm an amateur radio operator and have made numerous transmissions from my own home station. But I'm responsible enough not to blast maximum power at all times (and have been off the air for the most part from home for several years now).

These kinds of problems are often caused by unshielded outlets or equipment. However, I've been at this location (with the same phone equipment) for many years, and there are several other radio stations in the area, yet I haven't had any problems with them like I've got now with WBIX. And I know I'm not alone. The recorded message at the station when I called offered an automated transfer for callers who were experiencing interference problems. (Of course, the resulting transfer led to an endlessly ringing phone, not even voice mail so you can leave a message. I'll try again tomorrow....)

Update: Just to be clear, when I said these problems are "often caused by unshielded outlets or equipment," I meant in the unfortunate RFI victim's home, not necessarily the radio station transmitter. They could be running a perfectly clean signal, and perhaps it's just my tough luck.

But before I go spending $100 or more on RF filters to try to get my daytime phone service back throughout our various phone jacks, I was hoping they'd have some information/advice for me, or even work with me to help solve the problem here (as a good amateur radio operator would do). What's really ticked me off is that there's a station in the middle of town that's recently started running quite a high amount of power, obviously causing interference issues, without anyone even answering the phone at their local office. There was no answer or voice mail for the "press 8 if you're having interference option" today during business hours either.

January 20, 2007

Natick Mall Condos an "Urban Lifestyle?" I Don’t Think So

In theory, I like the concept of urban-style living in the suburbs. It's what developers of Cronin's Landing pulled off in downtown Waltham, where residents can walk out their doors to enjoy a stroll along the Charles river or down Moody Street and its abundant offerings of restaurants or movies. And it's what I hope can be achieved in downtown Framingham someday, if the streetscape is ever improved enough so that people living in the planned new residences can and will want to walk out their doors and have dining, shopping and entertainment options within a 5- or 10-minute walk.

But the vision of "Nouvelle at Natick," the condos being built at the expanded Natick Mall, is something quite different, despite marketing literature promising "all the amenities and conveniences of urban living in the more pastoral settings of Boston's MetroWest suburbs." This is not urban living in the traditional American sense - where one of the key attractions is fabulous shared public space, integrated into the larger community. The appeal of living on Beacon Hill or Back Bay in Boston or in Manhattan includes not only stores and restaurants, but also cultural attractions like symphony, opera, ballet and museums, as well as the architecture, parks and public streetscapes. It's being able to walk out the door and experience all the excitement that a city has to offer.

"Nouvelle," however, offers only the most materialistic of these components -- stores and restaurants -- in what could be considered "public" space, the privately owned enclosed mall where non-residents are allowed to enter. But other aspects are decidedly private, such as the residents-only rooftop garden. Now, there's nothing wrong with private amenities in an urban setting; the issue I have here is that except for the high-capitalism ones, all the other amenities appear to be private. And the kind of cultural offerings that truly make great urban living remain unmentioned. When the only nearby entertainment is a multiplex cinema showing mainstream Hollywood movies - a theater that's less than a mile away but you have to drive to it because there's no way to walk from here to there - that's not my idea of city living.

"Nouvelle at Natick" may be a lifestyle that many will find appealing because of the luxury touches and proximity to high-end retail. But unless there are changes to the designs that I've seen to make it less physically isolated from the community surrounding it and offer more than numerous ways to spend your money shopping and eating, it's still very much a suburban design.

January 14, 2007

Northborough Committee Mulls Pedestrian-Friendly Zoning

A town subcommittee examining zoning regulations is considering changes that would favor a more walkable downtown, according to the Northborough-Southborough Villager.

"One way of making shopping areas easier for pedestrians to navigate is to move parking areas in back or to the side of buildings and have buildings close to the street," the article notes. "The idea of pedestrian friendly business areas came from a Community Development Plan done in Northborough a few years ago, said Rick Leif, chairman of the Planning Board and a member of the zoning subcommittee. He would like to see a move in that direction. Right now the town's business areas are dominated by Rte. 20, Leif said."

The point is to create a sense of place, one that would make a local business district more like a traditional New England small town "and less like a highway," Leif told the Villager.

January 7, 2007

Another Local Pedestrian Killed, This Time in Hudson

A man was hit by a minivan while trying to cross Rte. 85 in Hudson, the MetroWest Daily News reports. Kenneth White, 65, was crossing near Giasson Street by Brooks Pharmacy. There is a crosswalk in the area, although Hudson police said they didn't know if White was in the crosswalk when he was struck and killed.

Update: Police now say that White was in the crosswalk - where vehicles are required by law to stop for pedestrians - when he was fatally struck, according to the News.

A woman living near the intersection told the News that drivers regularly speed through. "Why isn't there a blinking light above the crosswalk so people know it's there?" she asked.

Good question.

I don't know the specifics of this tragedy; but in general, whenever there's not a large volume of pedestrians crossing, too many drivers assume they have exclusive rights to the roadways and speed through "thickly settled" areas, not looking for people on foot. This is becoming increasingly dangerous to those of us who either need or want to occasionally go someplace without using a motorized vehicle.

In fact, even when there are a large number of expected pedestrians, cars often whiz through well-marked crosswalks in broad daylight, such as on First Night in Boston near the Public Garden. Our intersections need to be better designed with pedestrians, not only cars, in mind; and our crosswalks need to be better marked. And there needs to be some enforcement when drivers barrel through crosswalks without regard for pedestrians.

Hingham Seeks to Beautify Downtown Streetscape

As the Greenbush commuter rail line is slated to come to the South Shore, Hingham officials are seeking to "restore the historic appearance of downtown," including "better lighting and sidewalk improvements to make it more user-friendly in the 21st century," Development and Industrial Commission Chairman Bruce Rabuffo told the Hingham Journal.

"The improvements are a cooperative effort involving the HDIC, Selectmen, the Hingham Downtown Association, and others to beautify the downtown area, improve parking, and to make Hingham Square and the surrounding area safer and more appealing for pedestrians," the Journal notes.

The town started back in 2003 with a working group "to find ways to improve the physical and business environment of the Square and surrounding area. The focus was on creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment."

It is, of course, a focus that downtown Framingham needs as well, if it hopes that transit-oriented development and new residential units will bring more economic vitality to the area. Pedestrian-appealing streetscapes have been all but ignored in most town development plans - a single walkway on the side of Lowe's is the lone exception that springs to mind, even as the front of the building remains as pedestrian-hostile as the rest of the Golden Triangle. We're still waiting to see if the Saxonville Walgreen's expansion plan will ruin one of the few walkable neighborhoods that exist in town, as current plans include a drive-through window (major mistake in a densely developed historic business district), three-lane-wide curb cut and complete screening between sidewalk and stores except for the vehicle driveways - i.e. no pedestrian path from sidewalk to stores, discouraging local foot traffic. Fortunately, Planning Board members seemed to acknowledge that pedestrian issues are an issue there.

Other communities in general seem to understand that current trends call for more than strip malls and big-box retailers; and things like filling in "holes" in your downtown streetscape and creating enticing walking environments are critical in order to make people want to spend time in an area. We ignore these trends at our peril.