May 31, 2007

‘Flower Power’: How gardens can transform neighborhoods

Like many suburbanites, we spent part of the holiday weekend planting and tending to new flowers around our house. Afterwards, our house looked so much cheerier and welcoming with the front windowbox bursting with impatiens and pots of colorful flowers in front and back. In the aggregate, it's simply amazing what flowers and other landscaping can do for a neighborhood -- and not just suburbs.

In Geneva, colorful flowers in window boxes are so important to the public streetscape that residents on some streets are required to have them, a friend told me! I doubt we'd ever go for that here in the States; but if you want to improve a neighborhood, even a run-down urban neighborhood, it actually makes great a great deal sense to give gardening incentives.

Can it work? The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green program targeted one north Philly neighborhood that "had plummeted into a stunning cycle of failure, a cycle twirled by violent crack pushers and brazen whores, intermittent gunfights and wholesale urban flight," according to the PBS series Edens Lost & Found. "Tentatively, then firmly, [resident Iris] Brown was caught up in their ideas. She could learn to plant and tend trees. She could help make gardens bloom from trash piles. And: She could organize. . . .

"The people of West Kensington have reclaimed nature in half their derelict spaces. . . . Fifteen years ago, people called [Norris Square] Needle Park for obvious reasons and residents would not cross through, even to go to church on an early Sunday morning. Drug pushers and junkies owned the park, and a falling-down shack on its grounds was great for the sex trades. Trees were old and untended, and Brown remembers seeing large branches scattered after storms.

"Brown helped the horticultural society round up enough volunteers to learn tree planting and maintenance - 'the majority of people were afraid' to even consider the idea of wresting control over their large park and their treeless curbsides, she recalls."

"Soon neighbors were fixing up their houses, planting flowers in containers and window boxes, and cleaning up graffiti," according to a report by the National Gardening Association. "People started taking pride in their neighborhood. Gardening classes for kids replaced drug deals. New street trees replaced abandoned cars, and community festivals replaced street fights. 'This community went from being one of the most drug- and crime-plagued locations in the city where people were afraid to even leave their homes, to a beautiful, safe neighborhood filled with trees, gardens, playgrounds, cultural events, and pride,' says Eileen Gallagher, project manager for Philadelphia Green."

Streetscape and physical environment matter. Things that some people consider "frills," like trees and flowers, are actually critical to making an appealing community. When looking to revitalize lower income, more urban business districts and surrounding residential areas, it pays to remember that.

May 27, 2007

How downtown San Jose bounced back - despite a new mall

My favorite quote from last week:
"When I travel to another city, I'm not interested in seeing what their Gap looks like."
-- Brian Eder, who owns an art gallery in San Jose, Calif., in a New York Times in a story about that city's re-emergence from the dot-com bust.

One of San Jose's grittier urban districts is experiencing a renaissance, despite the presence of grand new mall just a few miles away. Hmmmm, anything here sound familiar?

Reports the Times:
"On a recent balmy evening, in the South First Street Area, throngs of moviegoers gathered at the California Theater, a renovated Art Deco building. Left for dead for decades, then brought back to life a few years ago with a computer mogul's millions, the theater is now the home of the local symphony and the opera. . . . A block away, salsa lessons kicked off at a corner dance club. Diners filled the booths of a retro-chic restaurant, where bow-tied waiters toted plates of veal piccata and eggplant Parmesan. . . .

"In a city that nurtures its art institutions, an underground art scene has also taken shape. Vacant buildings, which still blemish many downtown blocks, have been transformed into temporary exhibit space for local painters and sculptors, attractive place-holders until permanent tenants arrive. . . .

"Several years before the California Theater reopened and SoFA started showing a vital nighttime pulse, developers cut the ribbon on their own downtown, five minutes west of city hall by freeway. Santana Row, a large mall with high-end retail and residential space, was decried by critics as a kind of Stepford showpiece, a triumph of commerce over culture. Mr. Eder, co-owner of Anno Domini gallery, refers to it today as Satan's Row."

I'm not going to start bashing the "Natick Collection" mall revamp before I've even seen it -- although I'll be exceedingly disappointed if the walking environment between it and the rest of the community isn't any better than the original mall's. The point here is that plenty of people enjoy a more urban, unique experience than a mall can ever offer.

How? An anchor destination that draws people there evenings and weekends is crucial -- note the movie theater in San Jose's SoFA, and the cinema showing foreign and arts films as well as U.S. commercial offerings in downtown Waltham. You also need other destinations that people can walk to, which requires an appealing streetscape.

The Amazing Things Arts Center's plans for a downtown location is a start. Improving downtown Framingham's pedestrian ambiance is also vital if downtown revitalization is going to take hold.

May 25, 2007

Residents ‘inundating Acton officials with requests for more sidewalks’

"When town officials studied the commuter-rail station and its parking problems last year, [Selectwoman Lauren] Rosenzweig said, many residents expressed a desire to make the entire area more pedestrian-friendly for commuters, parents with strollers, teenagers unable to drive, and disabled residents," the Globe reports.

The Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization is holding a walkable communities workshop in Acton June 5. Framingham has also applied to have such a workshop held in town this year.

"Glenn Berger, owner of Exchange Hall in South Acton, said he would be thrilled if Acton improved pedestrian access. Exchange Hall is a historic building formerly used as a meeting hall and department store. Now it houses a variety of businesses, and Berger hopes to renovate it and turn it into a restaurant and function hall.

"Already he has plans to move the sidewalks near his property farther from the street so there is more of a buffer. Better sidewalks throughout the village would go a long way toward attracting more walkers, he said. 'Right now the feeling is this is more of a place to drive through and not a destination, which is the goal,' Berger said."

Being a walk-to destination requires an appealing streetscape, not just the presence of sidewalks (as I've said many times, there are sidewalks on Rte. 9, but few people use them because that whole environment is aesthetically hostile to pedestrians even if technically possible [as long as you don't try to cross the street].) A sense of place also helps.

Walkability makes a local retail district more appealing to visitors, residents, potential homebuyers and businesses.

Ann Sussman, an architect and member of the town's Design Review Board, said amenities such as sidewalks draws residents to a community. Real estate listings for communities such as Concord and Lexington tout the ability to "walk to town center," she noted.

"It never says, 'Walk to strip mall or walk to Kmart.' There is a ripple effect when you have a walkable community."

May 20, 2007

Online Survey: Help the Framingham Public Library Set Future Goals

I was on the library's Web site this morning, and see that today is the last day of an online survey to give input to the longrange planning committee as it works to set the library's goals and priorities.

I had a chance to share my opinions in one of the recent community focus groups. But whether you were involved in those goups or not, you also get to share your thoughts.

It only takes a few minutes. If you live or work in Framingham, please do take a couple of minutes and give your opinions.

May 16, 2007

Copley Place vs. the Natick "Collection"

I was in Boston's Back Bay last weekend, and it struck me again how fortunate we are that the Copley Place mall was built to integrate into the neighboring community, not moat itself off. While "skywalks" often kill off the streetscape below, the walkways of Copley Place help pedestrians bridge rivers of traffic, and get to neighborhood shopping areas nearby. And if you live or work over Copley Place, you can go by foot to many different destinations in surrounding neighborhoods, including Newbury and Boylston Streets. The mall didn't kill off the nearby neighborhood retail center, one of the best urban pedestrian streetscapes in America. The Huntington Avenue streetscape could be better, but it still attracts pedestrians as well.

The revamped Natick Mall isn't finished yet, and I'm still waiting to see whether there will be any effort to integrate it into the surrounding neighborhoods. The most promising area is where the new Nordstrom's store comes close to Speen Street. Will there be an attractive pedestrian entrance from the Speen Street sidewalk into the store, and thus the mall? Or will it be like the rest of the mall, surrounding by asphalt parking with no attempt to create an appealing way to enter the area on foot? Will there be an effort to make an attractive, safe walking environment from the nearby hotels to the mall, or will it remain a hideous example of suburban sprawl, requiring a car to drive distances that you could walk in 5 minutes given a properly designed environment?

And what of the promises to connect the planned Cochituate Rail Trail to the mall, so people elsewhere in the area have a safe and attractive way to walk there -- not to mention giving people who move into the new mall condos a way to walk someplace besides the indoor stores?

May 13, 2007

Building large homes without sacrificing communal space

We visited relatives this week outside of Philadelphia, in a new development of luxury homes that was interesting in its attempt to balance outstanding private space with quality common neighborhood space.

The homes were large on relatively small private lots, but clustered around a larger green open space that belonged to (and was maintained by) a neighborhood association. The homes and small common areas were adjacent to a large amount of open space, also jointly owned. Interestingly, this s an unusual case of "cluster zoning" where the overall density is less than a typical suburban development, not more. However, the seven-figure pricetag for homes in the development makes it clear that this kind of development pattern isn't going to be available to everyone

The development was built in one of the wealthiest communities in America, part of the "Main Line" outside of Philadelphia. The developers said they tried to keep a traditional feel for a Main Line community, where the physical environment encourages neighbors to know each other (instead of the more traditional exurban development patterns where everyone has their own multiple acres and nobody sees anyone else). I was surprised at the relative lack of privacy in the yards, considering the pricetag on the homes. Personally, I like a communal front-facing home with privacy in the back. On the other hand, I could see that the kids in the neighborhood knew each other, and were able to run back and forth to each other's houses themselves, without having to be driven by Mom or Dad.

As is typical these days, the couple of streets in the new development had only one outlet to a single street, instead of being integrated into a grid. This gives a somewhat isolated feel instead of being part of a larger community -- something a lot of people apparently like, but definitely counter to a smart-growth principle that I prefer in a neighborhood. And, being a more countrified suburb, there were no sidewalks on that street, making it tough to walk to the commercial area of town even though it wasn't that far away (there is a separate walking trail in the woods, I didn't find out if that lets out anywhere that would qualify as a destination -- school, store, restaurant, etc.) Overall, though, there are definitely far worse ways to develop luxury homes in traditional communities than this.

May 6, 2007

Driving Simulator: Could You Stop in Time (and Not Hit the Pedestrian)?

A new online simulator aims "to prove to drivers the dangers of being behind the wheel when travelling too fast, after drinking or when using a mobile phone," according to Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. " It shows how speed, weather and impairments dramatically affect stopping distances and result in crashes and pedestrian deaths. . . . But they can also see how using a mobile phone, alcohol or wet weather makes things more dangerous."

You can set your driving speed and various conditions and then see your results. To try it, head to:

May 3, 2007

Framingham Downtown Renaissance Plans Next Revitalization Phase

Framingham Downtown Renaissance has issued a 30-page "visualization project" looking at the existing downtown area, its existing  strengths and "areas of sensitivity." I haven't seen a copy of the report on the Web anywhere yet, but the Framingham Planning Department was kind enough to send me a copy. I've posted it, in PDF form (5.6 Mbytes), here, if you want to download it.

If you're interested in seeing improvements in downtown Framingham, this is definitely worth a read -- and a look, since there are a lot of photos in there.

The report sees the "cultural triangle" as a new anchor to bring residents and visitors downtown, including the Danforth Museum, Civic League, Performing Arts Center of MetroWest, main library, and 2,200-seat auditorium in the Memorial building. (The Amazing Things Arts Center would likely add to that).

The report envisions a "3-part process" to: create more mixed-use residential development that would"bring more nighttime and weekend activity," boost cultural triangle activity "to expand the customer base," and encourage more commercial activity.

The group is seeking grants for capital improvements, such as the "rehabilitation of the Pearl Street Parking Garage."

Happily, "improving the pedestrian experience in Downtown Framingham was a key focus of the Downtown Visualization Project." Yippee! Until something is done about the hideously unappealing pedestrian streetscape, it' s going to be tough to bring more visitors to downtown. I'd like to see a "park once, walk to many destinations" environment, not "park and leave."

The report takes a detailed look at various streets and other corridors, the existing streetscapes and improvements needed in each section. IT also calls for improving the waterfront resource that is Farm Pond, where rail yards currently dominate downtown and access to the waterfront is limited. One idea is a waterfront bicycle and pedestrian path with connections to downtown.

It's encouraging that there are people putting together a coherent vision for downtown Framingham. While that alone is no guarantee of success, without it success would be impossible.

May 2, 2007

Greater Boston Growth Plan Unveiled; Urges Smarter Growth

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council yesterday issued its recommended plan for the Greater Boston area, hoping to counteract current trends of "fastest growth rates ... in low-density areas, but far from existing transit lines, sewer systems, and town centers." The plan urges suburbs to "steer two-thirds of their growth to town centers and villages," with half of new suburban housing created through overhauling already developed areas in order to protect open space.

The "MetroFuture" report says by following its recommendations, there would be more starter housing built (96K units vs. 54K under current trends) while open space lost to development would be 36,000 acres instead of 152,000 acres.

"The aim is to have 80 percent of new housing and new jobs in cities and larger municipal centers such as Framingham, Peabody, Norwood, and Marlborough. That would enable more people to walk or use mass transit and thereby reduce traffic and pollution," according toa Boston Globe report on the plann.

I'm in favor of smart growth as a concept, and I'd like to see more of that kind of development in the Framingham-Natick area. My problem is with allowing neighboring, wealthier communities to keep their snob zoning -- unless they start doing their fair share to create moderate-income housing and provide needed social services, or funding of local government is radically changed.

In a posting on the blog Blue Mass. Group, "Charlie on the MTA" notes that Brookline has done remarkably well with high-density development, being desirable and family-friendly as well as offering smart growth.

But I say that you can't ask inner-ring suburbs to do high-cost (in terms of services such as schools) smart growth, allow exurbs and wealthier communities to keep their multi-acre zoning, AND keep financing municipal governments the same way.

Yes, that may work in upper-income communities like Brookline, where there will be enough money to fund local services anyway, but the model falls apart in middle-class and blue-collar towns. There needs to be a radical restructuring of the way state aid is apportioned and the way local government is funded.

In Framingham, for example, the problem is compounded by an exceptionally high regional concentration of state-funded social service agencies. These agencies take properities off the local tax rolls while adding state-mandated high expenses. For instance, it's my understanding that local government in Framingham has expenses in six figures to provide transportation for children of homeless families to their former school districts. I don't have any problem with homeless families finding shelter in Framingham, but I have a major problem with a state-funded social service agency bringing such families into Framingham and then sticking the local community with the school bus bill. Especially when that means cuts elsewhere in the school system because of Prop 2 1/2.

If you increase density of development in Framingham while allowing other, wealthier communities nearby to keep their snob zoning, this situation is just going to increase. Which is why a lot of people in town may not support smart growth. Brookline doesn't face the same sort of problem, because it's surrounded by other communities that also have dense development and proximity to public transportation. Smart growh policies have to be accompanied by equitable government funding. When there's just one community in an area with more urban development patterns, there are other consequences that need to be addressed.

Where are state-funded agencies likely to site regional social services? Is the state likely to send a lot of out-of-community homeless to a place like Lincoln, or a place with dense development near public transit? If you are looking to site a regional social service, are you more likely to site it in a community with minimum 2-acre lots and no way to get from a train station to the rest of town without a private automobile, or a place where there are apartments within easy walking distance of town?

Communities that are shouldering a disproportionate share of the region's burden in providing housing and services for low-income people need to get a disproportionately higher share of state aid from sales tax, income tax and other sources. Communities that are doing less than their fair share should get less funding. As a start, Framingham and other communities should be getting payments in lieu of taxes for every piece of property that state-financed social service agencies have taken off the property tax rolls, and that money can come from cherry-sheet aid to towns not hosting such services.

In the longer term, I agree absolutely with Governor Patrick that we need to shift the local funding model away from property taxes, an inherently regressive form of funding. The problem is exacerbated by Proposition 2 1/2, which gives communities incentive to approve development that's the opposite of smart growth.

"What's better for a town's bottom line: four 1,000-s.f. houses on an acre selling for $200k apiece or one 4,000-s.f. house selling for $600k? Property taxes from the 4 houses will be just 1/3 more than the one large home, but there could be 3-4 times the number of people living in the 4 houses," "NoPolitican" wrote on BlueMassGroup.

"What's better for a town's school system -- 1 house where the income is high enough so that only people earning $100k and up can afford it, or 4 houses where people earning $30-40k can afford it? Keep in mind that wealth tends to correlate with educational performance."

Let communities keep more of the income tax from residents in "smart growth" units, and the incentives would start changing to approve more dense development in some areas while keeping other areas as open space.