March 28, 2007

Framingham Election Results: Sortable Charts

For fun, I coded sortable charts for two of the main contested races in Tuesday's local elections. You can sort to see
which candidates did best in which precincts, and also see a separate chart of turnout by precinct.

Board of Selectmen
School Committee
See turnout by precinct

Turnout was a rather embarrassing 14%. But what's really sad is that in the races for Town Meeting representative, two-thirds of the precincts didn't even have enough candidates for all the openings! How can a legislative body be "representative" under such conditions?

March 25, 2007

‘Vote’ for More Pedestrian-Friendly Communities!

The new Deval Patrick Web site lets registered users "vote" on issues of importance to us, and post issues of our own. Not surprisingly, I added "more pedestrian-friendly communities" as a key issue of mine, urging more technical help from the state to assist local governments in overhauling zoning codes to encourage more walkable neighborhoods. That doesn't necessarily mean denser development; it means attention to things like setback, frontage, usage, location of parking and so on.

If you would also like to see future development patterns designed to be enjoyed on foot and not only driven to/through, please vote for more pedestrian-friendly communities on! Thanks!

March 23, 2007

Framingham “Visioning Workshop” in the Works for April 17

The Planning Board will host a "Visioning Workshop" on April 17 where citizens can add comments to work on the town's master plan, focusing on long-range issues such as congestion and development, according to the MetroWest Daily News. There are no details yet about time or place.

While I like the concept, I'm hoping it's more useful than the last one of these I went to, where people were assigned to groups on one issue only, that lasted quite awhile, and then we had to hear everyone else's reports and vote with "dots" on the issues we thought most important.

I don't need to sit in a workshop for three hours to offer my input on what I think is important:

* Improved streetscape, designed for enjoyment by humans on foot and not merely for vehicles. For downtown, it's especially crucial to change the streetscape immediately around the train station and create a compelling corridor for people to go on foot from the train to nearby businesses; ditto for new housing being built.

* Walkability, so people can park once and then walk from place to place, instead of having to take their cars a quarter of a mile from one destination to another because it's too dangerous or off-putting to go on foot.

* Some vision of what downtown should be like. If we there to be a retail district, do something to attract specific types of retail/entertainment to certain blocks, creating a critical mass of a place you'd like to walk around, instead of being so happy that any business (insurance, medical, bank) would take space.

* Some care about neighborhoods besides downtown. Framingham is a physically large community -- half the square miles of Boston -- and downtown isn't even centrally located. Framingham needs a model like Newton's, with some care and feeding of its neighborhood centers as well as downtown. For example, we shouldn't give up on plans to rebuild the Saxonville branch library, since it had unanimous Board of Selectmen support and 60% approval from Town Meeting.

I'm quite sure a flood of others will be talking about things like crime, concentration of social services, and integrating the immigrant communities into our social fabric (on the latter, I still think it would be cool to create a walking tour map with explainers of ethnic Framingham). But without streetscape improvements, which few people seem to talk about, you really do reduce community livability.

March 18, 2007

Watertown Mall: ’70s-Concept Retail Struggles in the 21st Century

Changes in retail trends have taken their toll on the Watertown Mall, which is now only about half capacity, according to a story in today's Globe West Weekly:

"What people used to buy at the mall, they are now buying not only on the Internet but at new outdoor complexes known as 'lifestyle center.' The enclosed malls of the 1970s and '80s, consequently, are being torn down. Or they're being gutted and rebuilt as outdoor plazas, accompanied by big-box stores. The industry has even coined a term -- de-malled -- to describe the process."

The photo accompanying the story says a lot about a fundamental problem: It shows a huge, ugly expanse of unbroken asphalt. It's not human-scaled. It's not someplace that has a "stop for 5 minute" kind of feel; going there is more like an outing than quick stop, yet the experience and ambience are not appealing enough for an "outing."

And make no mistake: Well-heeled shoppers in the 21st century are not simply looking for bargains. They're also looking for an enjoyable experience. That's one reason why upscale urban districts are making a comeback, and why so many new shopping areas are trying to mimic the feel of traditional town centers.

There are reportedly some changes in the works at the mall in Watertown, such as possibly building a new atrium entrance and expanding Target. "It seems clear that the Watertown Mall - like many enclosed retail behemoths dating from the 1970s - is struggling to remake itself in a new retail era," the story notes. Paying more attention to streetscape and ambience, starting off in the parking area, would be a good place to start.

March 14, 2007

Former Wal-Mart Big Box to Become Pedestrian-Friendly, Mixed-Use Development

An old Wal-Mart big-box strip mall in Louisiana will be torn down and redeveloped as a an 11-acre combined retail/residential village, including 30 townhouses and 130,000 square feet of retail space, The Advocate (Baton Rouge) reports.

"The Acadian Village shopping center embraces many . . . pedestrian-friendly, smart-growth principles: a public plaza, landscaped parking lot and public transportation pavilion," the paper reports. "Much of what Commercial Properties recruits to Acadian Village will be shops that fit with residential neighborhoods and the eclectic mix of stores in the nearby Perkins Road overpass district."

You can see an artist's rendering of the project here.

March 13, 2007

Are You a Good Neighbor?

"Before you gripe about the guy next door and the kids across the street, what kind of neighbor are you?" asks (Cleveland) Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett. Livable communities require residents who understand that even though we may all have "individual rights," it's important to be considerate of others' rights to enjoy their homes in peace, quiet and reasonably esthetically pleasing surroundings.

Is your dog outside barking on and off during the day when others would like to sit outside or keep their windows open? Do you have a lawn mower loud enough to drown out a landing jet? A two- or four-wheel motorized vehicle loud enough to drown out a clap of thunder?

Do you leave your garbage out for days? Fail to maintain your front yard? Play music loud enough that people on the next block can hear it? Do you (or your visitors) park in a way that blocks the sidewalk for pedestrians?

I'm not sure I'd want to go as far as, say, Switzerland, where apartment buildings have rules about everything from what time of day you're allowed to use your shower to some blocks requiring everyone to display a window box. But I do wish more Americans would stop and wonder "Will this bother my neighbors?"

You can see an Ohio community group's "Winslow Road Residents' Bill of Rights & Responsibilities". here.

March 4, 2007

Pedestrian Plans for Downtown Crossing

I was happy to read last week that consultants working on revamping Downtown Crossing want to create "an oasis replete with sidewalk cafes, bicycle taxis, and a fresh-foods market similar to Harrods Food Hall in London," according to the Boston Globe.

The plan being drawn up by Urban Marketing Collaborative would expand the pedestrian zone to portions of Bromfield and Frnaklin streets, along with eliminating the curbs between "street" and "sidewalk" to make more of an overall inviting atmosphere for walkers.

"We want to open up the area as much as possible to pedestrians and create a meeting place for people to stop, shop, and spend their money in Downtown Crossing," Maureen C. Atkinson, a senior partner with the consultancy.

"Over time, the pedestrian aspect has been frittered away -- with delivery vehicles all times of the day and curbs everywhere," Chris Beynon, with another consultant working on the project, MIG, told Globe reporter Jenn Abelson.

Despite the area's heavy foot traffic -- it always seems jammed with people in nice weather -- the Globe notes that the district isn't doing as well with many other nearby retail centers.

These ideas are moving in the right direction. Simply closing an area off to traffic doesn't make an enticing retail district for walkers, any more than simply installing sidewalks makes an appealing walkway. In addition, there are few outdoor destinations in Downtown Crossing right now, encouraging people to walk through instead of stop. Sidewalk cafes along with more attractive streetscape could be a magnet in spring and summer.