August 26, 2007

‘Unlocking Downtown’s Potential’

That was the headline on a MetroWest Daily News article Friday, which I'll have to read in the library this week (I keep forgetting the McAuliffe branch isn't open Saturdays during the summer. I can't find the article online and I didn't by that day's paper.) But the brief bit I saw noted that revitalization is "more than talk," according to consultants working on the project. And one goal is to bring more eateries downtown.

I do hope things will finally start happening downtown, as I've been hearing about revitalization since I moved to Framingham (note: that was during the Reagan administration). Since then, other communities' downtowns have taken advantage of trends favoring attractive streetscape and sense of place, such as Waltham and Somerville, while Framingham's has lagged.

Framingham's downtown has a lot of potential, but someone needs a vision to dramatically improve the streetscape and mix of businesses, add residential so that residents WANT to walk from home to businesses. Planners must make sure there aren't huge gaps in the retail area streetscape, either physically (with unsightly setbacks and parking lots at the sidewalk) or commercially (with businesses that don't add to the necessary critical mass. If you want to draw people to an area to stroll, shop and eat, you don't want a lot of things like first-floor insurance companies and medical offices. There's nothing wrong with insurance companies and medical offices, but they don't add to the ambiance when people are out strolling. Upstairs or side streets work better in the heart of your retail area.) And you don't want it a ghost town after 6 pm.

August 19, 2007

The rebirth of Union Square, thanks to some specialization

Twenty or 30 years ago, "you took your life in your hands" going to the park in Manhattan's Union Square, city historian and author Joyce Mendelsohn told the New York Times. It was a magnet for drug use and prostitution; "Any middle-class people who lived in the neighborhood didn't feel comfortable using the park."

And today? "Union Square is becoming a one-stop destination for those who consider themselves health-conscious, eco-friendly and deserving of the kind of spiritual and bodily nurturing that in the past was mainly the province of spa vacations," says the Times in an intriguing neighborhood report, A Harmonic Convergence in Union Square.

This is yet another example of how an urban neighborhood rejuvenated by specializing in something. The area takes advantage of its density and offers a sense of place that attracts outsiders, because it has a critical mass of something that appeals to residents and visitors alike.

"With its high concentration of popular organic food suppliers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, plus gyms (a half-dozen major ones in a 10-block radius), yoga and Pilates studios, alternative health practitioners, spas and other peddlers of vitality, Union Square may be the city’s greenest neighborhood. . . . Over the last six years, there has been a proliferation of spas and other personal care businesses in the area."

People come from neighborhoods across New York to enjoy free yoga in the park, the farmer's market, healthy meals, and fitness classes. The main worry now is that the neighborhood, like so many others in the city, is getting too expensive. "This is a new face of new New York: an upscale, health-conscious district," Rutgers professor Robert Snyder told the Times.

"If the meatpacking district is where you go to party, Union Square is where you detoxify," the Times article notes. "We call it the wheatpacking district," said Lisa Blau, co-founder of the VitalJuiceDaily e-mail newsletter.

Whether it's restaurant row on Waltham's Moody Street or the Leather District in Boston, it's clear that a critical mass of certain types of business carries a much greater revitalizing whallop than a random, unfocused collection of residences and businesses.

In Union Square, it all started with the Greenmarket, the city's largest farmer's market, followed by a restaurant that offered a market-inspired menu. "The Greenmarket was able to fill a vacuum to give Union Square a citywide identity," Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, told the Times.

August 18, 2007

Bridges should be beautiful as well as safe

One of the things I missed when I moved to the Boston area was bridges that add drama to the urban vista.

Bridges into, out of and through New York City may be choked with horrible traffic jams, but many of them are beautiful as well as functional. Not only the well-known like the Brooklyn and Verrazano are postcard-worthy; others, such as the Throgs Neck and George Washington, are striking in their own right. As a high schooler, I even recall one of the bridges at sunset moving me to write poetry. But for the most part, the best I could say about bridges in the Boston area were that they were functional (until the Zakim bridge brought some style to local span structures). How many bridges around here are worthy of landmark status -- or even a snapshot? Besides the Zakim and Mass Ave., not many come to mind.

Safety must come first, of course, but there's no reason that "safe" and "cost-effective" must be synonymous with "ugly" and "boring," I was happy to see Princeton structural engineering professor David P. Billington writes in the New York Times today.

"Public bridges are all too often designed by anonymous teams, and the results can be seen on our highways," he says

"The goal of good bridge design is to integrate efficiency, economy and elegance in a single design. Few bridges built over the last century have achieved this. Most are efficient but strictly functional; a few that aspire to elegance have done so at the expense of efficiency and economy, like the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is estimated to cost more than four times its original budget."

Yet it doesn't have to be that way, he argues persuasively:

"[T]here are often opportunities to improve design even in the case of very ordinary bridges.

"For example, a few years ago, in a discussion with bridge engineers from a Midwestern state, I suggested an alternative to a conventional overpass they had built, only to be told it would have cost too much. Challenged, I redesigned the overpass myself, and sent the plan to a steel fabricator the state worked with. The fabricator did a cost analysis and, to everyone’s surprise, found that my version would have cost slightly less than the standard design. The revision was also, in my view, better looking.

"American bridge engineering largely overlooks that efficiency, economy and elegance can be mutually reinforcing ideals."

That's not the case elsewhere, he notes. But in order to get to a place where American engineers can "educate the public in the possibilities of turning our nation’s bridges into safe, economical and beautiful landmarks worth maintaining," we need to get our collective heads around the fact that aesthetics are important. Without visual and visceral appeal, streetscapes can wither and die, along with local business districts. Functional yet hideously Stalinesque public housing projects can turn into colossal failures. If we truly care about our communities, we need to value our public space, not only our own, privately owned space. And part of valuing a space is understanding that how it looks does matter.

August 12, 2007

What’s right about Boston’s Esplanade

My husband & I went to the free Beach Boys outdoor concert last night at the Hatch Shell along the Charles River. Since the weekend train schedules are so pathetic ( we wanted to go in for dinner and the concert. Saturday commuter rail either arrives in town at 4:22, a bit early for dinner, or 7:27, too late. Does it not occur to anyone that people might want to go into town for dinner??? Going home, we would have had to wait an hour and twenty minutes for a train back), we drove in. The garage under the Commons was filled, so we ended up parking on the street, well over a mile away, and then walking along the river to the Hatch Shell.

Ah, what a lovely walk! Unfortunately, Storrow Drive splits the Back Bay residential area from the river front. Given that unhappy bit of planning, though, the city does make the most of it. There are a number of footbridges over the parkway that are appealing enough for people to actually walk on. Many do, so the three-mile-long Esplanade park along the river is heavily used -- thanks in part to the walking/bicycle path. In some spots the path is pretty close to Storrow Drive traffic, but pedestrians generally feel "protected" enough from the whizzing cars nearby.

Instead of being one long, unbroken green space, the Esplanade park is a series of what planners call "outdoor rooms" -- semi-contained spaces that aren't completely "walled off" from the larger area but nevertheless feel smaller and more intimate, instead of one huge unbroken expanse of public space (such as the hideous City Hall Plaza). Smaller "outdoor rooms" in the context of a larger public space are a hallmark of many successful public parks, such as Boston Common and New York's Central Park (both designed by Frederick Law Olmsted). Even in the area around the Hatch Shell, along with the main audience area in front of the stage, there are smaller side areas. Man concert-goers ended up in those side areas last night, even though we couldn't see much, we could hear, and watched the boats along the river and sunset over Cambridge instead. All in all, a lovely night.

Friday night we had dinner in Waltham with friends, and strolled along the (much shorter) riverfront walk in Waltham, where there are now restaurants, apartments/condos, and even boat rides.

It all made me wonder why Framingham doesn't try to do more with its available "waterfronts," both river and lake/pond, to integrate them with the surrounding commercial and residential areas and improve the entire area's streetscape.

Every time I'm in Waltham, I'm struck by how that community has been able to revitalize its business district, which is filled with pedestrians on a nice summer evening, and contrast it with the current state of Framingham's downtown.

August 3, 2007

‘Children of the suburbs … want walkable communities’

Young professionals want "walkable, dense communities with brick buildings, trendy restaurants and no big-box stores, said Gene Krebs, state director of Greater Ohio, a Columbus-based organization dedicated to better land use in the state," Scripps Howard News Service reports.
"The children of the suburbs have rejected the suburbs," Krebs said. "They find the suburbs repellent and instead want walkable communities that have nice restaurants and soccer fields that are close by." . . . The only way suburbs are going to age well is if developers switch business models and ask young professionals what they want in a community.

August 2, 2007

How can America allow more than 1 in 10 bridges to be "structurally deficient"??

"Thirteen percent of bridges in the United States share the same 'structurally deficient' rating as the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis," ABC News reports, and more than 1 and 4 are "in need of repair or do not meet the highest safety standards." We boast of being the world's most powerful nation, the world's wealthiest  ... how did we let this happen?

Was it because we didn't want to pay attention? Were we too busy obsessing about terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists to focus on more mundane yet critical safety issues like bridges and highways?

Is it because too many of us bought into the claim that "government spending is bad" and "taxes are bad," instead of understanding that it's WASTEFUL government spending that's the problem, not responsible spending for the public good? What did we think was going to happen when we spent hundreds of billions of dollars for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while cutting taxes? How many of us were willing to admit that, um, perhaps some vital public needs would be underfunded?

"Government" is us, and we need to take responsibility as citizens for making tough decisions instead of being swayed by demagogues promising we can have everything we want without ever having to pay a price.

We still don't know why the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. It may have nothing to do with lack of money or poor government oversight. Completely separate from the cause of the tragedy in Minneapolis, though, I find it appalling that my country has allowed so many of our bridges to be "struturally deficient" and still carry traffic.  Our public, common infrastructure has deteriorated because we didn't feel like paying for upkeep.

Here in Massachusetts, "Proposition 2 1/2" arbitrarily limits how much revenues communities can raise, regardless of the rate of inflation -- and has for decades. There's only so much "fat" you can cut when gas prices are soaring, health care costs are exploding, and revenues don't keep up with basic cost of living increases. Town Meetings grapple with increasingly difficult and painful choices. Capital improvements and routine maintenance get put off, and are in danger of being stretched too thin.

"Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Have Worst Bridges," says a headline on That doesn't necessarily mean a tragedy is imminent, but it does mean that we've neglected our public infrastructure here for far too long.

"Community" involves the public good and common needs. We need leaders who understand that and build support for it. It's one of the reasons I backed Deval Patrick in the primary as well as the general election -- he was willing to speak out and say what needed to be said.

We should rely less on the property tax, which can unfairly penalize people like senior citizens living in neighborhoods where property values have soared, and rely more on fairer ways to raise revenue for common needs. Some people turned to Proposition 2 1/2 because they feared being taxed out of their homes. We shouldn't be taxing people out of their homes. But instead of cutting off money for crucial public needs, we need to be finding better, fairer ways of raising revenue that don't hurt people who can't afford it. Major tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are definitely not the answer.

"Only twice before over the last century has 5 percent of the national income gone to families in the upper one-one-hundredth of a percent of the income distribution -- currently, the almost 15,000 families with incomes of $9.5 million or more a year," the New York Times noted last month, citing an analysis of tax returns by two economists. In the 1970s, wealthy investors paid 39% on capital gains from their investments. Today? That's down to 15%.

"No new taxes" may be an appealing goal, but it's a dangerous pledge when you don't know what the future will bring. I'd prefer something along the lines of "no waste while funding what we need." Reasonable people can disagree on what a community "needs," but certain items would be acknowledged by the vast majority of us. Keeping our bridges from collapsing would be high on most people's list. It's certainly high on mine. We should do it in a cost-effective manner, and not bloated, mismanaged projects like the Big Dig. We need to do it well. But do it we must.