December 31, 2008

Financial meltdown silver lining: Boston City Hall to stay put

I detest the appearance of Boston's City Hall as much as the next person. It's a hideous building that looks like a low-budget parking garage, in the midst of a plaza that seems ideally designed to be vacant with trash blowing through. That said, though, Mayor Menino's plan to move City Hall to the South Boston waterfront was a bad one.

There are many ways to bring life to a new area of the city that officials believe is prime for (re)development. However, moving critical government services to a place that is less accessible to the citizenry is not one of them.

The waterfront is tougher to get to from many areas of the city, is served by fewer mass transit routes and is not really walkable from other neighborhoods. City Hall belongs in the heart of the city.

So, I was glad to read the news that Mayor Menino is dropping plans to relocate Boston City Hall, citing the financial situation. "I could not get value out of the City Hall property right now with the real estate market down," he told the Boston Globe, denying the decision was due to criticism of the plan.

Separately, that's why I think it's too bad Framingham town services are clustered on one side of our community. While it may make sense from a population density standpoint to have town offices, the main library and the police station downtown, it makes the pulse of our community unnecessarily far removed from a number of neighborhoods and many residents.

Framingham is a physically large community (in square miles, half the size of Boston). Combine that with too many people who believe that investment and services should be centralized (such as those South Side Town Meeting members who voted against rebuilding the grossly inadequate branch library in Saxonville, believing all of us should drive downtown for our services), and you end up with a lot of Framingham residents who are significantly separated from  municipal services.

For example, I am closer to the public libraries in both Sudbury and Wayland than I am to Framingham's main library; I'm closer to Sudbury's and Wayland's police headquarters than I am to Framingham's.  If I want to take an adult education class, I'm closer to Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School than I am to Keefe Tech (while Framingham High School is convenient, there are no programs for adults there that I know of beyond a fitness center open to the community 10 hours/week for a fee). And there are plenty of people who live farther from downtown Framingham than I do. When the heart of a community is off to one geographic side, it's not a good recipe for making all neighborhoods feel like they have equal access, and thus an equal stake.

December 12, 2008

When David Brooks and I agree...

...the issue probably has some merit :) Since that occurs rather rarely. But he's correct (not just "right") when he says in "This Old House":

"If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.

People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds."

Of course, Brooks being Brooks, he couches this in a criticism of Democrat Barack Obama, who has yet to even take office. I disagree on that part (geez, Obama's inheriting multiple crises from the Bush administration, let the guy take office for a few days before you start complaining); but I do back Brooks' call that Obama's stimulus plan should
"... create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems."

One of the great things about New York City's mass transit system is that it's not just set up to get you to the core of Manhattan, but also move within multiple destinations throughout the five boroughs. And it's not accident that New York is the sole city in America where a majority of people use public transportation to get to work.
"Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares."

Faux town squares without attractive corridors in and out of them won't do as much as backers hope. Still, I agree with the premise that suburbs need  anchor districts where you can walk to multiple destinations instead of having to drive from strip mall to strip mall.

It's way too early for Brooks to declare that "Before the recession hit, we were enjoying a period of urban and suburban innovation. We could have been on the verge of a transportation revolution. It looks as if the Obama infrastructure plan may freeze that change, not fuel it." But the issue is worth pointing out, in hopes that Congress and the Obama administration will help fuel a change toward more community-centered planning -- which would be totally consistent with Obama's campaign themes.

Several letters published in response to Brooks' column  agree with his aim funding community-centered planning, although not necessarily with crticizing Obama.

"Mr. Obama has called for a refocus on urban issues like public transit, rebuilding inner-city schools, and revitalizing public parks and common ground in his public works package. He recognizes that cities are the nerve centers of our modern economy and must be restored to create a durable economic base," notes Jack Luft, former Miami planning director.

"Mr. Obama would get the long-term 'bang for the buck' he seeks by heeding Mr. Brooks’s advice and supporting the shovel-ready plans that metropolitan area mayors are offering," he advises.

Adds architect and urban designerJohn A. Dutton notes that the federal government encouraged a lot of suburban and exurban sprawl via "highway construction, building codes and mortgage tax credits. ...  We should retrofit our suburbs to make them livable communities with true civic centers, walkable neighborhoods, alternative transportation options and preserved open space, while using innovative sustainable development practices that could be a model for the world."

December 10, 2008

Walking isn't some kind of optional hobby

You'd never know it by the way suburban communities treat sidewalk and crosswalk maintenance, but there are actually a lot of people who need to walk places. Why don't our local governments understand this?

Kids walk to school - not everyone has bus service or an available parent to chauffeur them. People walk to nearby stores, or homes of family & friends. People walk between nearby office buildings during the workday (I do almost every day, and so do many of my colleagues, since my company rents space in multiple buildings that are not all on a private campus). People walk to bus stops and train stations and, yes, even neighborhood auto repair shops when their cars break down. People walk their dogs.

So why do our governments operate as if people do not need (or want) to walk during the winter months? Why is it understood that communities must keep roads clear of snow so that drivers can get where they need to go, but nobody seems to care about doing the same for sidewalks? Are pedestrians really just out in fair weather? Does nobody need to be out walking from December to March?

William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee, picked up on this agenda item from yesterday's Selectmen's meeting: "Town Manager’s Report: Reduction in Sidewalk Snow Plowing Routes."


Sidewalk clearing is already grossly inadequate in Framingham, given that at work we are advised to take our cars less than a quarter of a mile between buildings in winter, because there is no safe walking corridor between two buildings that should be less than a five-minute walk. Now even fewer sidewalks will be cleared?

Hanson said he spoke to Framingham Town Manager Julian Suso, and told him, "Hopefully the revisions you have proposed will only have minimal impact." Hanson also noted:
"Some local governments have established permanent "Snow Committees" so that all stakeholders in the community can work collectively in open sessions to formulate policy. Perhaps this is an opportune time for Framingham to form such a committee. . . .

I will pass on the information about the Town's new snow complaint line, (508) 872-1212 extension 3999. I will also ask FBPAC members to venture out after snowstorms this winter to evaluate and report on sidewalk conditions. "

December 7, 2008

Downtown Crossing Reconsidered

Interesting piece in the Boston Globe magazine today on whether Downtown Crossing will finally achieve its promise. I agree with the premise that attracting pepole to live in the district
"may just be the best hope to revive Downtown Crossing and transform it from merely a place where shoppers shop and workers work into a place where shoppers linger over lunch with their day's purchases, workers meet for dinner, and residents call out greetings to one another as they make a morning coffee run. No longer a business district but a neighborhood."

However, I see a few additional issues along with adding residences, filling empty storefronts and adding signage and clearer pedestrian areas -- all of which are important.

* Serious attention needs to be paid to the pedestrian corridors into the Downtown Crossing district, in order to attract tourists and suburbanites in from nearby attractions like Boston Common. They walking routes need to be compelling, not just possible.

* What's the reason for someone who doesn't live and work there to come to Downtown Crossing as opposed to other neighborhoods? There has to be a good reason to choose to eat or shop there, as opposed to Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the South End and so on. Stores you can't find elsewhere? A special sense of place? It's got to offer something different/better that the city's other great neighborhoods.

* Why would someone want to linger there instead of go to one or two places and leave. What makes it a multiple destination neighborhood? I completely agree with the premise that the area does not need "more cellphone stores, fast-food places, or pawnshops." Filling storefronts is important, but not enough; the right kinds of businesses are important in creating a compelling destination.

December 4, 2008

Saxonville Riverview Plaza update

Sorry for the lengthy time between posts, but the demise of my home computer has put a lot of my blogging time into setting up my replacement computer! However, I would like to belatedly report on the first Planning Board public hearing on this project last month. All the audience members who spoke, said they were in favor. In fact, several urged the Board to approve the project quickly, since it's very much a benefit to the town to have that long-vacant town parcel finally developed.

I, too, am in favor, although asked for a couple of small plan modifications.

One issue raised by several people, including Planning Board Members, was to make sure the sidewalk continues into the parcel to the shops so there's an obvious walkway into the site and not just driveway for cars. Another is making sure the intersection by A Street is a safe crossing for pedestrians, considering how many area residents and high school students walk in the neighborhood.

The other issue I'm most concerned about is the driveway out of the parcel, which is three lanes wide -- one lane too wide for creating an appealing and safe-feeling walking environment. I urged there be some separation between the incoming and outgoing lanes to create a better walking environment. However, the last time I walked by the parcel, there were drawings on the pavement showing the three-lane-wide driveway. I suggest someone try walking on Rte. 30 across the cars pouring in and out between Target and Lowe's to get a sense of what a wide and busy driveway does to your walking environment.

The Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee is going to discuss the project at its meeting this Tuesday, December 9, in the Memorial Building (Town Hall) Conference Room 2 (that's on the agenda starting at 8:10, the overall meeting begins at 7:30). You can see the initial letter they sent to the Planning Board about the project here.

November 9, 2008

Livable communities in the Obama era

[caption id="attachment_759" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Obama campaign's Boston phonebanking office, day before Election Day"]The Obama/Biden campaign's phonebanking center in Boston, the day before Election Day.[/caption]

This isn't a "political" blog, but now that the election is history -- congratulations to President-elect Obama, and to all of us who worked so hard to make it happen! -- it's time to take a look at what an Obama administration might mean for the goals of more walkable, livable communities.

President-elect Obama will have a full plate of crises when he takes office in January, what with the economic woes and two wars. So I'm under no illusions that community planning issues will be atop his agenda. However, he has strong opinions about transportation and community development, ones that see our urban centers not as "unreal America," but as centers of vibrancy and innovation. He has pledged to create a White House Office on Urban Policy and to financially support "innovation clusters" defined as "regional centers of innovation and next-generation industries."

Happily, he is also on record favoring "more livable and sustainable communities." Says his policy Web site: "Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars, to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. . . .
How a community is designed – including the layout of its roads, buildings and parks – has a huge impact on the health of its residents. For instance, nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and less than half of our country's children have a playground within walking distance of their homes. Barack Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act to help local governments assess the health impact of new policies and projects, like highways or shopping centers.

His campaign's 4-page transportation plan includes funding for Amtrak, development of high-speed passenger and freight rail service, invest in public transportation and create more incentives for mass transit use (such as ending the tax code inequities that allow employers to provide more tax-free parking benefits to workers than for carpooling or mass transit).
As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. Obama will build upon his efforts in the Senate to ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks. As president, Obama will work to provide states and local governments with the resources they need to address sprawl and create more livable communities.

At the highest of levels, the election of our first African-American president running on a platform of change, inclusiveness and personal responsibility sends a powerful signal that we're all part of this great nation. We're all equal partners, and we're all partners -- no one is going to make positive change happen for us, not unless we're all willing to do the work to make it happen. And we're likely to see more citizen involvement in trying to bring about the change people seek.

I never quite understood the reasoning behind Republicans disparaging community organizing. Seriously, it's a bad thing for people to band together to try to improve their communities?

(Sorry for the long delay since the last post. My home computer gave up the ghost, it's taken awhile to get a new computer set up.)

October 13, 2008

Sprawl and quality of life

When post-World War II suburbs were designed, the idea was to improve quality of life -- give people more space to breathe at affordable prices, compared to cities (viewed as too congested and noisy), while still giving them reasonably easy access to things like shopping.

But half a century later, we discovering that suburban sprawl isn't all it was cracked up to be. Post-1970s development took the original idea and expanded on it, giving people so much "room" that development patterns often made it difficult to do anything without a car or even walk around the neighborhood and get to know your neighbors.

When there's no care given to shared public space, when what greets the streetscape is a huge garage door and not a home's windows and entryways, when front yards are never for living or being in but 100% of activity occurs in private spaces where no neighbor-to-neighbor interaction is possible, well, your sense of community changes. And when you can't do anything -- anything -- without getting in your car, when your kids can't even go visit a friend without being chauffered, well, even those who love automobiles can start growing weary of how many hours they need to spend in their vehicles.

Add an increase in traffic jams and ever longer commutes, and older patterns of development start looking more appealing. Imagine being able to walk to the store to pick up a few things for dinner on a nice early autumn afternoon. I grew up going out for milk and bread for my mom, and she still often walks to the grocery store, hair salon, or to pick up a morning paper.

It immeasurably adds to your community to have lots of your neighbors out and about. I saw it on primary day, when I walked to my polling place and ran into several neighbors who were doing the same; we stopped and chatted about this and that. Those are the kinds of interactions that help stitch together a community, that don't happen unless people are out in shared public space. But we can't be out and about that way unless such space exists; and we can't and won't be out walking unless there's an appealing streetscape to draw us out. Useful destinations we not only can walk to but want to because of an attractive pedestrian environment truly add to our quality of life.

October 3, 2008

Project aims to turn Mass Ave into 'great pedestrian-friendly street'

Arlington has received state and federal funding to help turn its portion of Massachusetts Avenue "from a transportation corridor to one of Arlington’s great pedestrian-friendly streets," according to the project Web site.

The idea is to better balance the needs of walkers, cyclists and users of mass transit with automobiles. As opposed to the all-too-usual suburban roadway "improvements," typically aimed at how best to move motor vehicle traffic (what some planners rightly refer to as "traffic sewers").

Several public hearings have been scheduled this month on the plan.

The Mass Ave. redesign "will strive to create a truly livable, pedestrian friendly street, where people feel safe and comfortable meeting, shopping, and strolling, while also creating a vehicular traffic system that is safe, efficient, and easy to navigate," planners say.

More specifically, Arlington officials are considering:

* "Changes in street width and sidewalk width that offer options for seating, cafés and landscaping."

* Shorter and more visible crosswalks.

* Bicycle lanes

* Better on-street parking in East Arlington

* "Street furnishings that make using Mass. Ave. more comfortable."

Doesn't sound much like the Rte. 9 or Rte. 30 we know in Framingham ... or even what many people in a position to actually implement plans talk about for Rte. 9 or Rte. 30. But perhaps with enough public support, we'll think about such things going forward?

September 23, 2008

3 issues for the Mass. transportation office

I wasn't able to make last night's Mass. Executive Office of Transportation workshop in Natick, but here are the 3 issues I e-mailed them about this morning:

1) Walkability on Rte. 30 desperately needs improvement. We need more adequate pedestrian crossings! There are hundreds of office workers off Rte. 30 along Speen Street, the Leggatt-McCall connector and other roads just north of Rte. 30; and a lot of retail across the road we'd like to walk to. However, the pedestrian crossings are either in disrepair or non-existent.

There's a particular problem at the Burr Street intersection - no crosswalk at all, yet the bank many of us use is just across the street. It's not reasonable to expect someone to walk an additional 20 minutes on their lunch break in order to get to and from a pedestrian crossing at a completely different intersection, especially when that crossing (Whittier Street) is itself fairly dicey to use due to the many lanes of traffic. So, we cross at Burr with the light, but it's dangerous because of cars that are making right turns on red.

Down the road, the Speen Street pedestrian crossing is not well marked, which is extremely dangerous considering the high-speed traffic pouring off the Turnpike. In fact, so little care is given to that pedestrian crossing that the last time I used it, I had to dig through a great deal of weed growth in order to find and reach the crossing signal button.

It's crazy to force people to go in their cars a distance of less than half a mile. Some attention to creating a safer, more appealing pedestrian environment could pay large dividends, considering the high concentration of office workers within walking distance of retail destinations.

2) An express bus to Boston from the same general area as the Logan Express in Framingham would be a great idea. The commuter train just isn't that useful an option for those of us who live north of Rte. 9. For me, driving 5 miles southwest through heavy traffic to then wait for a train that takes almost an hour to head back to the northeast to Boston is rarely practical.

3) I wanted to share a perspective that I hope will help you understand how unfair and burdensome the Mass Pike tolls are for the western suburbs.

Imagine a resident who lives in Framingham and works in Newton Corner. That commute is roughly 30 miles roundtrip. Now, say their car gets 30 mpg on the highway. Travel cost for gasoline would currently be about $3.50. Now, add the tolls, and suddenly that resident is paying the equivalent of $5.90 per gallon!

There is no difference in the economic burden between paying per-gallon at the pump or daily as a toll. I ask you to remember what the economic discomfort was for people when gas topped $4 gallon, and then keep in mind for a Framingham-to-Newton commuter -- someone who is getting no direct benefit from the Big Dig -- you are already asking them effectively to pay $5.90/gallon!

A friend of mine who commutes daily from the South Shore recently had to head to Waltham for a week of offsite training. It was an eye-opener. "The Turnpike is really expensive!" my friend said. Indeed it is -- especially when you compare it to people elsewhere in the Boston metropolitan area who commute on toll-free highways. Few people understand this until they are forced to shoulder the burden themselves.

Why are taxpayers in the western suburbs required to fund a project in Boston, paying more than residents of Boston who are benefiting most from the new traffic flow and open space? Why are our tax dollars going to pay for everyone else's roads, but then we're asked not only to pay tolls for our own road, but pay tolls to fund a completely different road?

I urge you to work for equity across all areas of the metropolitan region in terms of the burden we pay for our commuter roads.

September 21, 2008

Saxonville Lumber site plans: Details and my comments

I got a look at Tony Kwan's plans for the old Saxonville Lumber site yesterday. While as Brett said in the comments, the plan isn't everything I hoped it might be, it's a huge improvement over what's there now, and a lot better than plenty of other possible site uses.

[caption id="attachment_744" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Model of Riverview Plaza project at the old Saxonville Lumber site. Click image to see larger version."]Model of Riverview Plaza, Tony Kwan's proposal for the old Saxonville Lumber site.[/caption]

Here's a photo of the model of what the Saxonville Riverview Plaza would look like. The existing larger building will be kept where it is, but renovated  to become a "two-story facility with a contemporized colonial facade." An "ornamental exterior deck" would be a covered walkway with planters.  This building would be used as a health club, medical offices and small bank area. The new, smaller building would be for retail.

[caption id="attachment_748" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Artist rendition of proposed Riverview Plaza building facades (click image to view larger version)."]Artist's rendition of proposed Riverview Plaza building facades (click image to view larger version).[/caption]

You can see an artist's rendition of what the building facades would look like in the photo at the right.

Developer Tony Kwan says he's willing to donate some property to widen Concord Street there and provide an additional travel lane. The big intersection on the model photo above is at Concord and A streets.

I'm not a traffic-flow expert, and am not sure how you'd keep traffic from backing up on Concord and School streets with a traffic light at Concord and A. But I  hope that can be figured out.

I do know something about pedestrian-friendly development and walkability, and that entrance/exit with the three lanes of  cars going in and out needs to be redesigned; an unbroken driveway three lanes wide is a walkable-streetscape killer. This can be easily fixed by cutting the entering and exiting driveway to two lanes; or, if that's not possible, by putting a decent divider between the entering and exiting lanes, giving walkers a wide enough place to pause and not feel threatened by the traffic. In addition, a great deal of thought needs to be given to that intersection to make it not only theoretically possible to cross the street safely, but make it feel safe and like a compelling walking corridor.

[caption id="attachment_746" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Poster explaining some features of the proposed Riverview Plaza. Click image to see larger version"]Poster explaining some features of the proposed "Pocket Park" at the planned Riverview Plaza.[/caption]

One of the most intriguing parts of the project is a so-called "pocket park" that will give both access and view to the Sudbury River. Here's a photo of an explainer for the park. Plans say it will include paved walkways, benches overlooking the river, bicycle racks and a drinking fountain. I hope he'll consider including a restaurant or cafe with outdoor seating facing the river and that park, to integrate the two and make the park part of the retail experience, instead of having a big blank wall with no windows or doors facing the river.

In general, though, this is a great addition to the Saxonville business district, since right now it's all but impossible to see or enjoy the river from most commercial areas of the Saxonville business district.

The Conservation Commission is scheduled to consider the project on Oct. 1, and the Planning Board on Oct. 16.

September 19, 2008

Redevelopment plans emerge for Saxonville Lumber site

The owner of the 5+-acre site housing the one-time Saxonville Lumber business has plans to put two buildings there: one housing a health club and medical office, the other for retail space, the MetroWest Daily News reports. This looks like good news indeed for the neighborhood, which has seen a key piece of the business district lie mostly fallow for more than a decade.

I'll be very interested to see details , which the News says may be before the Planning Board Oct. 16. I'm hoping plans include an attractive pedestrian streetscape -- meaning at least one building near the sidewalk, with an attractive facade and landscaping that make it appealing to walk by and to; there should be an obvious, appealing way that pedestrians can get to the businesses by walking. Saxonville is (for the most part) one of Framingham's few walkable neighborhoods, and we need to keep it that way. What we do not need is another strip mall with a moat of asphalt between pedestrians and businesses.

My ideal for the parcel would include a restaurant, cafe or other eaterie of some sort with outdoor seating in nice weather; nice landscaping, and some way patrons could take advantage of the river view. It's completely insane that we have no businesses in Saxonville that take advantage of proximity to the river.

First, owner Tony Kwan will be going to the Conservation Commission due to potential impact on nearby Cochituate Brook and the Sudbury River. Hopefully, that won't be a problem.

September 14, 2008

Route 30: What Could Be

With numerous nearby office buildings and hotels and loads of retail, Framingham's Route 30 still has the potential of being a park-once, walk-to-many destination with a real sense of place (despite the numerous chain stores).

Rte. 30 now has two specialty food shops with the potential to draw traffic from miles around: B&R Artisan Bread (a Boston Magazine Best of Boston for bakery bread and North End Treats (run by the same family that owns Bova Bakery in Boston's North End).

Imagine if you could park someplace and had a pleasant -- or even possible -- walking environment to go from one to the other, how many more people would be drawn to come to the area and patronize these local businesses? Now imagine they were up at the sidewalk - wide, attractive sidewalks with landscaping between walkers and the cars whooshing by. Imagine some attractive outdoor seating to enjoy a cup of coffee and pastry at North End treats.

Add to that some interesting restaurants, both ethnic and chain, -- which already exist in the area -- all in an attractive walking corridor, which doesn't exist. Actually, Rte. 30 already has several eateries with outdoor seating -- John Harvard's, Panera -- but you'd never know it from driving or even walking down the street, since both seating areas are surrounded by oceans of asphalt. Imagine if these establishments were at the sidewalk too, all in an appealing pedestrian corridor.

This is the potential of an area that already has the necessary critical mass of retail. However, we need town officials to make it more of a priority to create a walkable destination, so people who live and work (and are visiting) in the immediate area would find it attractive and compelling to walk from one place to another, instead of needing a car to drive a quarter-mile because it's either impossible to cross a street or feels dangerous and highly unappealing to walk down the street.

It would help, too, to encourage clustering of same-type businesses within walking distance (like Waltham did with restaurants; right now, B&R Bread and North End Treats are separated by the Mass Pike exit dumping cars onto Rte. 30, making it impossible to walk between them even if they were a bit closer). But even without that, it's crazy that there's not a more appealing walking corridor from the nearby hotels and offices to North End Treats.

September 7, 2008

When outsiders change a neighborhood

As a traveller, it's hard to complain that there are "too many tourists" someplace, since by definition, you're on of those outsiders. Nevertheless, if you're travelling to see a specifically authentic place, it can be disappointing to see it overrun by mobs from tour buses or cruise chips, along with tacky souvenir shops and others signs that a place is geared toward outsiders instead of being itself. If you have a right to visit, doesn't everyone else? What steps are reasonable for a community to take to preserve its character?

This is extremely complicated when a community starts changing due to an influx of newcomers, especially if the recent arrivals are demographically different from longer time residents. Here in New England, there are communities where you're still a "newcomer" if your family's been around for less than 3 or more generations. That's rather extreme; but what about when a neighborhood gentrifies, pushing out long-time lower income residents? What about when newcomers threaten to dilute an ethnic flavor that makes a place special, such as Boston's North End? And the New York Times today takes a look at "evolving Harlem," where great architecture, relatively attractive real estate prices and a cool/historic address is attracting a higher-than-usual amount of non African Americans.

"It's particularly wrong in Harlem, where you have the black cultural capital being devoid of black people," community activist Michael Henry Adams told the Times. "I don’t think tourists will continue to come to the neighborhood if it is entirely white."

Tourism is an economic issue for businesses who depend on them. But it's somewhat ironic that a historic preservationist is citing vacationers as a reason to protect a community from outsiders.

So do we discourage people from settling in a neighborhood because of their race?

Particularly in New York, neighborhoods change, especially ethnically oriented ones, as one immigrant group gets more established and moves on, and another takes its place. Harlem does indeed hold a special historical place, and I certainly wouldn't want to see the plaze razed for skyscrapers and an urban shopping mall. But it's a dicey position to take to find fault with newcomers who want to heop restore the neighborhood's grand architecture and fit in with the prevailing cultural norms, just because of their race.

August 28, 2008

Natick meeting: State transportation office seeks citizen input

Have experiences getting to work, school or elsewhere that you'd like to share with state officials? The Executive Office of Transportation says it's "kicking off a civic outreach effort to talk to Massachusetts residents about their experiences using the transportation system."

The second workshop is Monday, September 22, 6 pm at the Morse Institute Library in Natick (the first workshop is Sept. 17 3 pm at the main library in Boston). You can see the full workshop schedule  here.

"Tell us what you observe every day as you move around on the roads, rails, and trails of our state," the You Move Massachusetts Web site invites.

Alas, 6 pm is a tough time for most of us who work a full-time day job ( unless they're planning to feed us dinner there). Nevertheless, I'm hoping to get down to the workshop to share my experiences trying to, say, cross Rte. 30 without getting killed; or my inability to walk to Shoppers World or the Natick Mall from my office nearby because no thought was given to pedestrian needs.

August 25, 2008

The presidential candidates on public transit

Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden is a well-known, long-time supporter of public transportation -- particularly rail service, as he commutes daily from the Senate in Washington, D.C. to his home in Delaware via Amtrak. So that got me wondering how the two major-party picks at the top of the ticket stacked up on public transportation issues.

Turns out the difference is pretty clear. If you believe public transit can and should play an important part in helping to reduce our highest-in-the-world per-capita oil consumption, Barack Obama does as well, with a detailed transportation plan that supports the development and funding of high-speed rail service as well as modernizing aging urban transit systems and changing the tax code so that employees can't get higher benefits for driving and parking than if they take public transportation.

"Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation’s transportation infrastructure," Obama's plan notes. "Our domestic rail freight capacity must also be strengthened because our demand for rail transportation has never been greater, leaving many key transportation hubs stretched to capacity. Obama is committed to renewing the federal government’s commitment to high speed rail so that our nation’s transportation infrastructure continues to support, and not hinder, our nation’s long-term economic growth."

I couldn't find any policy statements on that even mentioned public transportation, although a number of newspaper articles highlight his long-held hostility toward intercity rail service. "In 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation committee, McCain killed $10 billion in capital funding for Amtrak. He denounced Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, claiming, 'There's only two parts of the country that can support a viable rail system - the Northeast and the far West,' " notes Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson. Currently on McCain's Web site, his plan to "reform our transportation sector" talks only about fuels to power private vehicles; there's literally not a word about mass transit.

In further searching, the only official reference to public transportation I could find was a blog post by McCain staffer Michael Goldfarb, who sneeringly referred to the possibility that a President Obama would tell Americans "to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can." As if that were some kind of awful thing.

"Particularly among rail advocates, McCain is well known as a consistent critic of Amtrak who has repeatedly tried to eliminate national passenger train service by slashing funding and proposing to dismember the national system into disparate regional entities," says LightRailNow!, which advocates for mass transit.

August 19, 2008

Dense development: OK for vacations but not at home?

"After fighting density at public meetings throughout the year, even NIMBYs need a vacation. When the weather is right and they feel like escaping their one dwelling-unit-per-acre suburban subdivisions for some rest and relaxation, these neighborhood activists often head for places like the Jersey Shore," writes planner Matt Wanamaker for Next American City. The irony, he notes, is that "a good deal of the vibrancy in resort towns like those at 'The Shore' may be attributed to something that many visitors would claim revulsion to in their hometowns: density."

Interesting point. While certainly some suburbanites who deplore any increase in density back home head off to rural oases like New Hampshire's White Mountains, many also do head to places like Wildwood Crest, N.J. - "where even the quietest blocks have a typical residential density of around 12 dwelling-units-per-acre." For some reason, what's not OK at home seems worth traveling to for vacation,=, Wanamaker notes:
"Parents who fight ordinances permitting 'dangerous' alleys at home let their children ride bikes alone through them at The Shore. Every block has a sidewalk used for short walks to shops, schools, churches, and of course the ocean. . . . Single-family homes sit snugly next to each other or next to townhomes, which often sit close to lowrise hotels. Sandwich shops without dedicated parking spaces are full of patrons all day. Most homes have porches and families wind down the day by sitting in them and waving to anyone who walks by. . . . They are things that planners struggle to convince towns to allow, yet are often denied by citizen groups who protest, citing concerns including…reduced quality of life."

Is this a case of what some people used to say about another tourist magnet, New York City: A nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there? Or is this a case where people really do enjoy traditional, more densely developed walkable communities without realizing it?

There's a difference between wanting to maintain a certain level of space and quiet in your community, because that's how it was when you moved there and that's the lifestyle you're hoping to maintain; and arguing that increased density will "destroy" quality of life, lower property values and cause all sorts of other problems. Personally, I'd like to live close to density but have quiet on my own block; who wouldn't? But density doesn't necessarily kill off property values. Beacon Hill is a lot more densely developed than, say, Hopedale, but it's pretty obvious which place has higher housing costs. Yes, there can be value in density, if done right.

August 11, 2008

Burlington, Vermont's 'downtown that works' ... and what Framingham might learn

Burlington, Vt. proper has a population that's smaller than Framingham -- just 40,000 people (plus several colleges) -- yet it boasts a thriving downtown and rejuvenated waterfront. We were there yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, and the 4-block pedestrian-only retail area was packed with people. There was a special street performer festival going on, but several locals said the crowds were typical.

What makes it work? What lessons could Framingham learn from Burlington's success?

[caption id="attachment_720" align="alignright" width="225" caption="Outdoor seating at numerous restaurants, along with an attractive pedestrian-only retail area with a good mix of businesses, brings crowds to downtown Burlington, Vt."]Outdoor seating at numerous restaurants, along with an attractive pedestrian-only retail area with a good mix of businesses, brings crowds to downtown Burlington, Vt.[/caption]

* A huge amount of effort was put into making a walkable city. The waterfront is connected to the downtown shopping area, and both are connected to nearby college campuses. It's not merely theoretically possible to walk between destinations, but the streetscape makes you want to stroll. Cars don't whiz by within inches of walkers, there's separation and screening. And intersections are crossable on foot. There's also a free shuttle running between college, downtown shopping and waterfront. Contrast that with the highly unpleasant corridors between Framingham's train station and retail area, Framingham State, and nearby parks and ponds.

* The city's colleges aren't hidden away, physically separated from the rest of the city, but are well integrated and bring foot traffic and life to nearby retail. "Twenty-five years ago, the four-block stretch between Main and Pearl streets was open to automobile traffic, and lined with shops that met a small city's everyday demands -- it was easy, on a weekday afternoon or evening, to entirely forget that this is a college town. All that changed when the core blocks of Church Street went all-pedestrian," note Kay and Bill Scheller in "Best Vermont Drives." Funny how catering to foot traffic turns out to be good for local business.

* The heart of the city's retail district is, yes, devoted to retail -- shops and restaurants, not things like medical offices, insurance offices or financial businesses. Yes, Burlington also has a Salvation Army center and food kitchen downtown, conveniently located a couple of blocks off the main shopping area.

* The city's sense of place is palpable. Even with some chain stores in the Church Street pedestrian mall, there were so many locally owned shops that I didn't feel like I was walking around a slightly different, outdoor version of the Natick Mall.

"Burlington in the 1950s and '60s was a different place. Docks and waterside railyards had become privately owned wastelands, littered with high grass and rusting debris," Christina Tree & Diane E. Foulds write in Vermont: An Explorers Guide. "The few public beaches were closed due to pollution, and the solution was seen as 'urban renewal.' In the 70s some 300 homes and 40 small businesses were demolished, and large luxury condo/retail development was planned. Then in 1981, Burlington elected as mayor Bernie Sanders, who had campaigned on the slogan 'The Waterfront Is Not for Sale.'

Because of that city form of government, one leader with a vision of how to change the community's direction could win the support of voters and spark a transformation. I'm encouraged that Framingham is working on downtown revitalization plans (something we've been hearing about on and off for decades now), but real change isn't quite as easy in a representative town meeting form of government, where most elected "representatives" easily win re-election without opposition, and voters have no idea what their "reps" stand for or how they vote, since almost no votes are recorded.

You can view a half-minute snippet of downtown Burlington below.


August 1, 2008

Bus from Framingham to a T stop in Newton?

I've long thought that an express bus from Shoppers World in Framingham to downtown Boston would be a great thing -- similar to the Logan Express but heading downtown. Alas, it doesn't look like that's in the cards, but there is talk now of a bus that would link Framingham to the Woodland T station in Newton.

That's good news for people who live on the other side of Framingham from the commuter rail station, making public transit here somewhat impractical. From my house, for example, it's over 6 miles due south to the train station, which has infrequent service and takes about an hour to get to South Station. (All that time driving southward doesn't bring me any closer to Boston.) Why drive and park there, when just a few miles more heading east gets me to the Riverside station in Newton, where service is much more frequent.

For a bus service to be appealing, though, it's got to be reasonably quick. So, I was highly unimpressed to read that the  MetroWest Regional Transit Authority administrator estimated a bus trip from Framingham to Woodland would take around an hour, according to a MetroWest Daily News report. An hour from Framingham to Newton? Seriously? It's only 15 miles from the western edge of Framingham to Woodland, so you're talking an average speed of 15 miles an hour. And, a commuter to Boston would then need another 35 minutes+ to get to downtown Boston. Excluding waiting time, that's more than three hours of commuting time per day to go to a job that's less than 30 miles away. That's nuts.

Compare that with Logan Express, which goes from Framingham to Boston in 30-45 minutes. How many people with access to a car are going to choose a public transit option that takes more than an hour and a half each way into Boston?

July 31, 2008

Google Maps walking directions: Good idea that could stand improvement

Google Maps now offers the option of getting walking as well as driving directions, one of my Computerworld colleagues notes in his blog. It's a great idea in theory, but the algorithm is a bit lame at times.

I'm guessing that Google is considering things like shortest distance and ability to go the "wrong way" on one-way streets when giving its walking suggestions, but not other important things such as crossability of intersections on foot, appealing streetscape, or even presence of sidewalks.

The system correctly changed its route for going on Speen Street to North End Treats on Rte. 30, routing a car down Leggat McCall connector but a pedestrian down Speen Street (it would be impossible to walk on Rte. 30 the first way, because of the traffic pouring off the Turnpike in between). However, Google Maps suggests pedestrians walk to Shoppers World from the Leggat McCall connector (see below) by crossing Rte. 30 and continuing straight on a road with no sidewalk and multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic -- an extremely dangerous route on foot.

[caption id="attachment_715" align="aligncenter" width="239" caption="This is the route Google Maps suggests for walking to Shoppers World from the Leggat McCall Connector."]This is the route Google Maps suggests for walking to Shoppers World from the Leggat McCall Connector.[/caption]

July 28, 2008

Lessons from Kansas City's Country Club Plaza

[caption id="attachment_709" align="alignright" width="300" caption="A look at a portion of Country Club Plaza in Kansas City"]A look at a portion of Country Club Plaza in Kansas City[/caption]

If, like me, your idea of a city is a high-density urban experience like New York or Boston, Kansas City's Country Club Plaza is something of a surprise. Fairly spread out, with the kind of wide streets, room between buildings and parking that you'd rarely see in a major city in the Northeast, I didn't need the shopping area's brochure to see that it was designed with the automobile in mind. Still, though, there's some interesting architecture, and it's a much more walkable environment than, say, Route 9.

In fact, the Plaza was an early version of what seems to be all the rage these days -- so-called outdoor "lifestyle centers" that replace the indoor sterile environment of a mall with an outdoor experience aimed at creating more of a sense of place.

I did in fact find Country Club Plaza a more pleasing experience than a mall. The fountains were lovely, and being able to walk around outside was a plus (well, except for the day it was 98 degrees). There seemed to be a decent amount of bus service to and from the area, and there appeared to be a fair number of apartments as well as hotels right within walking distance. The parking was very well screened, unlike many such developments.

This would be a great model for a reasonably densely populated suburb. How cool would it have been if the Natick Mall or Shoppers World could have looked something like this, instead of a) an indoor mall totally cut off, walkability-wise, from the surrounding community; or a poorly designed outdoor mall that's so pedestrian-hostile people feel the need to drive from one end to the other.

However, as an urban project, Country Club Plaza has a lot of disappointments. I realize much retail these days is nation-wide chains, but the dearth of local stores and restaurants (a few, but grossly outnumbered) was disappointing. It's hard to keep a sense of place when 90%+ of the retail offerings could be seen in AnyMall, USA. Also, it was really odd to see so few people out walking around except during limited retail hours. I went for a walk in the morning, around breakfast time, and the streets were so deserted as to be a bit creepy. With all the residences nearby, it would have been nice if there were some destinations for off hours, too, such as breakfast cafes with outdoor seating (all I saw was a lone Starbucks amidst blocks of closed stores).

[caption id="attachment_711" align="alignleft" width="408" caption="Intersection walking to Country Club Plaza"]Intersection walking to Country Club Plaza[/caption]

Finally, the emphasis on automobiles made a few of the intersections a bit off-putting for walkers. Intersections this wide could use a redesign, an attractive divider, or something to break up the asphalt ocean.

July 21, 2008

Brownfield redevelopment to begin in Framingham

Framingham will receive a $200,000 federal grant beginning Oct. 1 to help identify and environmentally assess 5 to 8 possibly contaminated sites for redevelopment. That was the word at a public hearing tonight aimed at explaining the Brownfield program and seeking public comment.

Don't expect the transformation of vacant, dilapated properties into showcase projects anytime soon, though. This is expected to be at least a three-year process, that will also involve trying to match private landowners with developers for properties that are not already owned by the town.

Some of the sites covered by the brownfield program might not actually be contaminated at all. Suspicions of such problems could be enough to prevent development, and only detailed assessments would be able to answer such questions.

A "phase 1" study at a targeted site might cost around $5,000 and would look at history of a parcel to investigate possible problems; a "phase 2" follow-up might cost anywhere $15K to $80K and include actual sampling and possible clean-up plans.

Project Manager Gene Kennedy, from the town's Community & Economic Development Department, expects 5 to 8 sites will be identified for initial study. There will be a steering committee to help select those sites, and public input will be sought throughout the process.

My comment: This is a community-wide program with planned emphasis on downtown and southeastern Framingham, but I'd like to see other areas of the town benefit as well. There are vacant parcels in desperate need of redevelopment in Saxonville (the old Saxonville Lumber site, the Texaco site in Nobscot, and so on). I don't know how many of those parcels might qualify for this program, but as I said during tonight's hearing, those of us living in these neighborhoods are taxpayers too.

One Town Meeting Member at tonight's hearing said that several residents and TMMs want to ensure that redevelopment helps put properties back on the tax rolls, as opposed to tax-exempt uses.

This program is specifically for "hazardous substance" issues; there's a separate federal program for petroleum problems. So it turns out that the Texaco site couldn't be included in this grant program unless there were suspicions of other, non-gasoline-related environmental problems there. Hopefully the town will apply for funding to help with gasoline contamination as well.

A grant fact sheet says that Massachusetts lists 438 contaminated sites in Framingham. That sure sounds like a lot of sites, but it turns out that many sites still on the list have already been cleaned up; apparently once a site makes the list it's never removed, even if the problems are long since solved. Sure wish they'd have a more accurate list.... Other parcels are merely suspected to have problems, but may not actually be contaminated.

Thkere's an initial 30-day public comment period. For more info, head to are contact Kennedy at 508-532-5455 or

July 20, 2008

The Joys of Local Food

Summer is the perfect time to slow down, change routine and try some different things -- and not only when you're on vacation. Mealtime is a great time to break the habit of junk-food takeout, or chemical-laden food-like substances purchased at big-box retailers and chain superstores. I'm a big fan of the French/Italian approach to food: natural, local, higher quality in smaller amounts, eaten slowly and with complete attention (i.e. not sitting at your desk or watching TV.)

The typical American lifestyle can make it tougher to buy and prepare quality, natural, local food than if, say, you live in a small village in Provence. However, it turns out that even in American suburbs -- neither in farm country nor high-density population centers sporting abundant farmers markets and niche grocers -- we can experience the joys of local food.

Here in Framingham, there's a farmer's market from 12:30 to 5:30 on Thursdays. Not exactly convenient for people who work 9-to-5 jobs, but several us decided to use our lunch break last Thursday to do a "field trip" to the market. I was delighted to see the eight or so stands pretty crowded (although less enthused about the lines, since we had to get back to work), and some of the produce was inspiring. I picked up some locally grown (outdoor variety done in the greenhouse) tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, along with some other goodies.

We also made a quick stop at B&R Artisan Bread, which I've recommended before. (Seriously, if you think that "bread" is the stuff you buy in plastic bags from a supermaket shelf that's been manufactured someplace far away and trucked in, if you live in the Framingham area, you owe yourself a trip to B&R. It was only after they opened that I understood why my European friends couldn't eat the the stuff I bought prepackaged at Stop & Shop.)

The next day, we took another "field trip," this time down to Waverly Market. I'd read raves about it on This is Framingham but had never actually gone to, since the hours (closed evenings and Sundays) rule out much of my grocery shopping time. It was much larger than I expected; and the array of offerings -- Italian and homemade pastas, cold cuts, cheese, olive oils, vinegars -- made me wonder how I could possibly have lived in Framingham so long and not made it over there sooner! I bought more tomatoes -- how could I resist the hand-lettered sign above them that boasted, "Tomatoes that taste like tomatoes!" as well as some artisan dried Italian pasta, and soft mozzarella cheese.

I made pasta with diced tomatoes, mozzarella and freshly picked basil from our garden, along with salad & homemade dressing (oil, vinegar, chopped garlic). The salad had sweet locally grown lettuce, cucumbers and basil. Along with a glass of (non-local) Tuscan wine, it was a simple but satisfying meal that truly pleased the senses and a perfect way to kick off a summer weekend, preparing me for a slower, relaxed pace. What -- and how -- we eat matters. "Low-fat," chemical/corn-syrup-filled crap isn't the answer.

June 18, 2008

Next-gen bike sharing comes to the U.S., in Washington

Washington, D.C. is launching what Time magazine calls "America's first high-tech bike-sharing program," featuring "key-card locking systems and tracking devices to prevent theft."

The idea is inspired by popular bike-sharing programs abroad, especially Paris's Vélib. Notes Time:
"Although places like Copenhagen, Lyons and Barcelona are big on bike-sharing, the City of Lights boasts the crème de la crème, with 20,600 bikes and about 1,450 stations--four times the number of Parisian metro stops. It's hard to walk more than two blocks without running into a bike rack, which helps explain why the program has already yielded a 5% drop in car traffic. Paris has also removed lots of parking spots to make way for bike stations.

But making things convenient for riders is a major production. Some 400 people work full-time to ensure that the Vélib program runs smoothly. Every day trucks have to move bikes around to meet rush-hour demands, and a barge along the Seine serves as a floating bike-repair shop. "

Not surprisingly, America's first effort is very much more modest, with just 120 bicycles and 10 stations. However, city officials know that will need to scale up considerably in order for the program to be a serious commuting alternative.

In Paris, the effort is quite serious. "We conceived of this as a public-transportation system, so it operates as one," Bernard Parisot, head of the company running Vélib, told Time. In contrast, most U.S. communities view cycling as a hobby indulged in by a few, and not a key mode of transport on par with autos or even subways. Then again, most U.S. communities view walking as an optional activity, not an important mode of transport, as evidenced by lack of snow clearing in winter, not to mention roadways actively hostile to people walking from place to place (case in point: it's all but impossible for me to walk from my office to Shoppers World, less than a mile away, because of dangerous intersections and lack of sidewalks).

A few cities, though, are taking cycling seriously for transportation, such as Portland, Minneapolis and Denver, Time notes. "For bikes to become a mainstay of the morning rush, cities need to spend time and money expanding bike fleets and making streets safer for two-wheelers. That means creating dedicated bike lanes and ticketing cars that double-park in them."

Perhaps soaring gasoline prices may finally create more pressure for municipal officials to take cycling, walking and mass transit more seriously as alternatives to the private automobile.

June 17, 2008

Bring an eatery to Boston Common!

If you think about your favorite urban spaces, chances are good they're "mixed use" in many ways. They likely encourage multiple forms of transit, not just the automobile; and they mix people living, working, shopping and relaxing so there's street life throughout the day and evening. Add in some outdoor space and restaurants with outdoor cafe seating, and if it's well designed, chances are you've got a space worth visiting.

That's why I was so encouraged to see that Boston officials are thinking of putting some kind of sit-down eatery in Boston Common. Adding a place to enjoy lunch or dinner in the midst of the city's green oasis is a great idea that, if done well, will make the Common more of an appealing destination. City officials reportedly traveled to New York City recently to check out a restaurant in Central Park.

"Boston officials, marveling at the vibrant scenes they found in New York, said they are exploring the idea of establishing a full-scale restaurant, a simple food kiosk, or something in between to attract diners to the Common," the Boston Globe reported. Both parks were designed by famed landscape architect Frederic Law Olmstead.

Many other cities have eateries in their public parks, adding to the enjoyment of visiting. For example, Geneva's botanical garden features an outdoor cafe (buy food inside, bring it out to your table) where you can get beer & wine as well as a nice lunch, and sit outside on a nice day.

June 15, 2008

Mayors’ Conference to consider biking resolution

"Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, IL, has introduced a resolution making the case that bicycling should be integrated into our nation's transportation, climate, energy and health policy initiatives, for consideration and adoption at this year’s U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual meeting, June 20-24 in Miami," according to American Bicyclist Update. Several mayors have already signed on as co-sponsors, including those in Denver, Redmond (Wash.), Santa Barbara, Minneapolis and Charleston (SC).

The resolution notes that since 1980, American miles driven has grown three times faster than the population; that 10% of all global oil production goes to fuel American driving; and that we could save 462 million gallons of gasoline a year by increasing cycling from one percent to one and a half percent of all trips.

June 13, 2008

Framingham and the river

One of the major missed opportunities in Framingham was not leveraging the presence of the Sudbury River into our residential and commercial development patterns. It's easy to spend hours in the Saxonville commercial district and not even notice the nearby river; you have to know about it in order to walk around and behind various buildings to get to the little park near the mill, or to find the Carol Getchell nature trail.

Contrast that with, say, Waltham, where there are obvious walking paths along the river from the heart of the business district, and where restaurants and housing were built to take advantage of being riverfront. Instead, we've got things like a car rental lot blocking views at one of the prime pieces of riverfront commercial real estate in Saxonville. Sigh. Hopefully, someday the old Saxonville Lumber site can be redeveloped to take better advantage of the nearby river. Outdoor cafe seating overlooking the water, anyone?

Meanwhile, if you long for the river to be better integrated into our community (as I do), we've got Riverfest! 2008 this weekend.  Framingham activities include a historic Saxonville walking tour Saturday at 1, an easy canoe trek from Framingham Centre to Saxonville Sunday at 10, and a bird walk along the Carol Getchell Nature Trail Sunday at 7 am.

Other nearby Riverfest activities include Concord River pontoon boat tours in Bedford, Assabet River Walk in Concord, Concord River Paddle (Bedford), History Paddle (Wayland), free canoe rides on the Sudbury River (Southborough), Twilight Canoe (Lincoln), rubber duck race (Sudbury) and lots more. The full listing of activities is here.

June 4, 2008

Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets June 10

The Framingham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee's next meeting is Tuesday, June 10, 7:30 p.m. in Conference Room 1 of the Memorial Building (Town Hall), 150 Concord Street. Looks like the main item on the agenda will be a working session to review draft chapters of the new Framingham Open Space and Recreation Plan that are relevant to pedestrians, hikers and bicyclists.

May 25, 2008

Lunch break

It is eye-opening to see how differently people view meals and mealtime in much of Europe vs. the U.S. To many people in Italy, France and elsewhere, meals are to be savored and unhurried. in the Northeast U.S., these days it seems that taking time out for meals is often considered extravagant, wasteful and even lazy.

When we first arrived in Italy, I noticed that my friends and I were always by far the quickest eaters wherever we were, in and out while everyone around us was still enjoying a less hurried meal. By the end of our trip, we had slipped into the rhythm of delightful hour and a half or longer dinners, and unrushed lunches. But that's a hard habit to maintain once back home.

In Italy, many stores close at lunchtime, and even in Florence, the shops close by dinnertime despite the hordes of tourists still filling the streets. Yes, they could probably be making more money if they stayed open; but unless you're in the food-service/hospitality industry, it's expected that you'll be having your meals during lunch and dinner, not working. Interesting and different perspective. I can't describe the look one of my friends in Slovenia gave me when I explained that during my lunch break, I take a 20-minute walk, and then go back to my desk to eat because I've pretty much used up the break time I feel I can take. He couldn't have been more appalled if I'd told him I eat my lunch in the toilet. There's a completely different viewpoint about the importance of mealtime to living a civilized life.

Is there truly a good reason why I couldn't leave later from work in exchange for taking a longer lunch break from time to time? I don't think so. Much of this is self-imposed, because we live in a culture where if you're not running around busy all the time, you fear being seen as not "hard-working" enough, not interested enough in "success." The results of all this pressure have now filtered down to kids, where many "high-achieving" high school students now don't take a break during the day, according to a story in yesterday's New York Times. "I would never put lunch before work," one junior told the Times, as she vowed to work through what will become a new mandatory lunch break. I find that sad.

May 20, 2008

The ‘Vacation Test’

I wrote awhile ago about the "postcard test" -- if you'd buy a postcard of a streetscape, it's a good measure that it's likely to be a livable, pedestrian-friendly place.

Now, upon returning from a two-week holiday, I'd like to offer up a corollary: the "vacation test": Is your community a place where someone would want to spend some free time?

Of course, not every town can be an ocean-front retreat or idyllic mountain resort. And not every community can be a place where out-of-towners want to spend a week.

But if your town isn't a place where someone would want to spend even half a day, finding something to enjoy and hold their interest, well, what does that say about it as an appealing place to live beyond your own private space? True quality of life requires quality shared public space along with one's own private home.

After spending some time overseas earlier this month, in towns that are so pretty, compact and walkable, it's clear that this is a much lower priority in much of America than, say, many countries in Europe.

In Framingham, along with our largely pedestrian-hostile but regionally appealing shopping (Rte. 9) and eateries, movies and arts center, we're fortunate to have the botanical jewel Garden in the Woods. I was there over the weekend, and it was definitely attracting a crowd from well beyond the town's borders. With so many things in full bloom and beautiful walking paths, it definitely passed the vacation test as someplace you'd want to enjoy on a day off. Callahan State Park is another.

However, our neighborhoods could use even more public space where it would be so pleasant to while away an afternoon, outsiders would be drawn there as well as locals.

May 11, 2008

New York City unveils ‘Sustainable Streets’ plan

After NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to charge drivers for taking private vehicles into some areas of Manhattan was killed by political opponents, the city's transportation department last month unveiled a more modest proposal aimed at "bring[ing] a green approach to transportation that will simultaneously ease travel conditions in our growing city while squarely facing the problem of climate change and improving the city's quality of life."

Sustainable Streets will increase bus service, as well as add bus lanes, bike racks and 200 miles of cycling lanes next year, among other things, according to the Gotham Gazette. There are a few more details (including video introducing the program) at Streetsblog.

May 4, 2008

Moody Street woes?

The Boston Globe had an article last Sunday about problems on Waltham's redeveloped Moody Street, with some stores closing - notably the Construction Site, a unique children's toy store and one of the district's anchor draws (they're going to keep an online presence only, at least for now).

"The wonderland window displays of wooden toys that once greeted shoppers who crossed the bridge over the Charles River into Moody Street's heart are no more," the article notes. "And the Construction Site is not the only independent enterprise to leave the street in recent months. The past year has also seen the departure of Maxima Gift Center, Harry's Shoe Store, Brickman's Furniture, and Lexington Music Center. "

Why the woes? The piece says:
"A lack of unity and cooperation among business owners, the absence of an overarching plan for encouraging shopping and business in the downtown area, slow foot traffic during the day, a lack of parking in the evenings, complicated city permitting processes, the loss of large anchor stores such as Jordan's Furniture (which left Moody Street in 2004), and not enough affluent shoppers interested in buying higher-end products."

It's a cautionary tale for those who believe "redevelopment" is a process with an end, as opposed to needing continued nurturing and updating. One analyst quoted in the story believed the area's "inner city" urban issues are scaring away affluent suburbanites, but a shopowner who closed a Waltham store told the Globe that many customers weren't from Waltham. There are plenty of residential units around, but most of those people likely work elsewhere. Are the stores open late enough at night to attract the locals? The loss of Jordan's as an anchor store was difficult for many other businesses. What can draw people to the retail center? Is there enough variety and critical mass to appeal to locals year after year? Is there a need to try to attract more daytime businesses to the area where people working in jobs other than retail could shop there during lunchtime? Particularly as the economy softens, even successful downtowns have to work to stay that way.

April 25, 2008

‘Pedestrians will be given priority over parking spaces’

"Pedestrians will be given priority over parking spaces as part of a facelift for Praia do Carvoeiro," starts a newspaper report on renovation plans for a village in Portugal.

"We want to make this an area of beauty for people and not cars," a spokesman for the area told The Online Resident. Adds the article:
"Parking spaces next to the square and beach are to be removed to make the entire area more pleasant for residents and visitors to walk about."

Do you know of  many American towns where traffic flow and parking don't take priority in planning discussions over streetscape aesthetics? And pedestrian appeal suffers.

One way to gauge whether a place has aesthetic appeal for people, as opposed to cars alone, is simply to see whether a lot of people are out walking around. If a place is walkable - it feels safe, attractive and inviting - and the weather's good, people should be out. If they're not, something's wrong.

Former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist has been credited with another simple method: the "Postcard Test." Would people want to buy a postcard of a neighborhood scene?

By the way, here's an overview picture of Praia do Carvoeiro. However, you don't need stunning oceanfront to pass the postcard test, as places like Concord, Mass. clearly demonstrate.

April 22, 2008

Cheap energy, and community

Cheap energy has had a profound impact on our communities, and I'm not talking about pollution/greenhouse/Earth Day issues. As many (including me) have written, designing our communities around the automobile has led to the pedestrian-hostile streetscapes that give us Rte. 9 aesthetic urban blight, and the need to drive our cars less than half a mile from one strip mall to another, because the walking environment is so unpleasant and unsafe. However, an article in yesterday's New York Times magazine notes that cheap energy has had other effects on our sense of community:
"Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others."

Now, I don't want to go back to the days when all we were able to buy or use came from within a day's horse and carriage ride away. But author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) makes an interesting point. It is cheap energy that allows us to buy food grown in South America and toys/electronics/clothing made in China, more affordable than if they were grown or manufactured close to home; just as it's cheap energy that's encouraged suburban sprawl by making housing more affordable 30, 40, 50 or more miles from urban job centers.

What can we do about it?

Plant gardens and grow some of our own food, Pollan urges! Sound like a small, inconsequential response? He argues passionately that "it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind. . . . You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support."

There's nothing quite like the sense of satisfaction I get picking our home-grown tomatoes and basil for a summer salad, even if I've got to add slices of Vermont-produced cheese and a drizzle of Spanish olive oil to the plate. Not to mention, little matches the incredible sweet, juicy taste of a tomato picked fresh from the vine. It's a completely different foodstuff from that which has been been transported thousands of miles out of season.

Being outside in the garden on a daily basis, I also see my neighbors, I notice my local environment, and I feel more connected with my neighborhood. Much moreso than if I get in the car and drive to my local super Stop & Shop, even if I run into my neighbors there.

April 4, 2008

Suburban New York vs Boston Rail Service: Ours is worse in every way

My parents live 3 miles farther away from Manhattan's Penn Station than I do from Boston's South Station, so comparing commuter rail service from each home is a reasonable endeavor. Of course, New York is a much larger city, so suburbs there are more densely populated 20 miles out than they are here. So, I expect that trains run more frequently on Long Island, especially off peak  (33% more into the city between 9 am and 5 pm). And, that stations are more convenient to more people on Long Island than they are here (by the time I drive the 6 miles south to get to the Framingham commuter rail station, I could be close to one-third of the way into Boston if I headed east instead.)

However, I do expect it to take a shorter amount of time to get from Framingham to Boston by rail than it would to travel the longer distance between my parents' home and New York City, especially since they need more stations to serve a more densely populated area. Yet it's just a 40-minute trip on Long Island, while most trains on the Framingham line are slated at just under an hour (56 minutes).

In other words: It usually takes about 50% longer to travel a shorter distance by commuter rail in Boston's western suburbs than on Long Island.


February 24, 2008

The end of suburban allure: Will suburbs become America’s new slums?

The "American dream" has often been equated to "owning a home of one's own"; and, in the post-World War II era, that dream more specifically translated to "a move to the suburbs." But those days are ending, argues Christopher B. Leinberger in The Atlantic.

He cites suburbs where "[v]andals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in" to make a somewhat shocking point:

"[T]he story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the [subprime mortgage] crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound."

In other words, "[T]the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."

Sound far-fetched? Arthur C. Nelson at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institue studied consumer research, housing supply data and population growth rates, Leinberger says, and then modeled future demand for various types of housing. "Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today."

The good news locally: There's never been a better time to invest in revitalizing older, more compact downtown neighborhoods, such as Framingham's. The plan to beef up downtown's walkability environment could pay even greater dividends than if, as I'd wished, it had been tried 10 or 20 years ago.

Some still argue that "market demand" is responsible for the boom in exurban McMansions and other car-oriented suburban development patterns. But actually, as I and many others have argued, it is local zoning regulations which are responsible. It's typically much tougher for a developer to build mixed-use cluster zoning on suburban land than a residential-only subdivision with quarter- or half-acre zoning.

Look at the price per square foot of various housing option, notes Leinberger, a real estate developer and professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan. You'll see what the free market values now:

"Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

"It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development. For instance, luxury single-family homes in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, sell for $375 a square foot. A luxury condo in downtown White Plains, the county’s biggest suburban city, can cost you $750 a square foot. . . . People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country—even when those neighborhoods are small."

When we were looking to buy a house in the mid-'80s, outer suburbs like Southborough, Acton and Stow were still affordable and exurbs beyond were cheap. But having grown up in a dense, walkable community just over the New York City line, I couldn't stand the thought of having to get in my car and drive 10 miles roundtrip to a strip mall just to pick up a quart of milk. On the other hand, after six years of apartment living (and hearing my neighbors clearly on the other side of the walls), I wanted a bit of breathing space between my own home and my neighbors.

That's why the Saxonville neighborhood of Framingham ended up as the perfect balance for me. I could walk to the library, post office and grocery store (now a hardware store, but at least there's a convenience store), not to mention take-out pizza and Chinese. But there's still some buffer between my house and others.

Over the past couple of decades, while it was the best lifestyle choice for us, it didn't look like the best investment choice. Property values in some exurban towns have soared more than older, mixed-income communities like Framingham. Now, though, I'm even happier I'm here. Instead of missing out on the great-flight-to-the-exurbs trend, it looks like Framingham is in sync with current and future market forces - if that long-discussed downtown revitalization comes to pass.

February 21, 2008

Framingham wins $500K in federal funds for downtown streetscape improvements

Framingham was qualified for half a million in federal money for its Downtown Streetscape Improvement Project, according to Congressman Ed Markey and State Rep. Pam Richardson. The money will go toward "streetscape improvements throughout the Downtown area including periodic streetlight installation, installation of pedestrian-scale lighting, sidewalk and walkway construction, installation of street furniture, and landscaping," Rep. Richardson said in an e-mail.

This is great news, as a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape is absolutely critical for downtown revitalization plans. It's nice to see serious local, state and federal attention on this key issue.

February 18, 2008

Proposed greenway would connect 5 South Shore towns

Residents have proposed creating a network of walking and cycling paths in Cohasset, Hull, Hingham, Norwell, and Scituate, the Boston Globe reports. The idea is to be both recreational -- so people can enjoy green space -- and for actual transportation, to link up to parks and waterfronts as well as ferry and train stations.

"All of these communities have some beautiful open spaces," Judeth Van Hamm, president of Sustainable South Shore, which first proposed the idea, according to the Globe.

"Proponents say a South Shore Greenway would build on substantial progress already made by the towns," the Globe says. "The plan would join the corridors and fill in gaps where needed."

Sustainable South Shore, have worked with the Conway School of Landscape Design to create a specific plan.

Local businesses are also on board; the greenway study is backed by Cohasset Cycle Sports and Jake's Seafood Restaurant in Hull, as well as Sustainable South Shore and Scituate's People for Active Transportation and Health.

"The idea is to link all these treasures that we have," Van Hamm told the Globe. "There will be a map; people can follow it."

February 10, 2008

Reversing sprawl in Hudson

The Boston Globe last week gave an approving nod to Hudson's Adaptive Reuse Overlay District zoning, which makes it easier for the owners of old mills downtown to revamp the buildings for mixed commercial/residential use.

The zoning change will not qualify for subsidies under the state's 40R Smart Growth program. That program requires rather high density levels for developments near mass transit. Many communities are leery of those high density requirements, and with good reason. "The smaller size project was more appropriate to our needs," Hudson Executive Assistant Paul Blazar told the Globe.

That's the right approach. No statewide program with a single density level can be a good fit for every community, and 40R probably make more sense for more urban neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Globe points out,  "the town has taken other steps to make its downtown more appealing. The 5-mile long Assabet River Rail Trail connects the downtown with Marlborough, and has become a popular recreation site for walkers, bicyclists, and skaters."

Although I've never lived in Hudson, I was a reporter there for several years and am familiar with its compact downtown. Like Framingham's, Hudson's downtown was theoretically walkable but the streetscape and street crossings discouraged park-once, walk-to-many strolling. Plus, there wasn't much pedestrian street life, which more downtown residences could help fix.  Without an appealing streetscape, new residences won't do much for pedestrian activity, which is why in Hudson now, "a walkway along the canal is lined with period light posts, which have also been installed along the town's Main Street," the Globe notes. "The town has secured facade-improvement grants for several of its downtown buildings. Businesses themselves have also chipped in, helping to landscape the rotary in the town's center and installing flower boxes along an alley connecting Main Street and South Street."

Without improvements like this, no one wants to walk around. These are things Framingham must consider along with zoning for things like condos at the old Dennison plant. The way the downtown streetscape appears now, few people would want to walk from Dennison to restaurants and shops just a few blocks away.

February 5, 2008

Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee Meets 2/12

The committee's regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 7:30 pm in the Memorial Building, will include updates on previous events in town, such as reports on the Cochituate Rail Trail, Open Space and Recreation Plan Committee and "MABPAB" (Massachusetts Bike Plan).

The committee will also discuss plans for development of the Bruce Freeman Trail through Framingham.

January 27, 2008

Downtown Framingham’s potential

Slowly, downtown Framingham appears to be gathering a critical mass of destinations that will entice some people to do more than one thing and leave. It's similar to the mantra of any commercial Web site: Get your visitors to "do one more thing." Click on one more story. Buy one more item. Patronize one more business.

For the first time in awhile, I had a multi-destination downtown evening. After viewing the photography exhibit at the library, we headed over to Brazzille for dinner.

Unfortunately, the area streetscape is so off-putting for pedestrians that we ended up driving the short distance from library to restaurant and re-parking (although the good news is that parking was readily available). If downtown is to truly revitalize, it's got to become a park-once, walk-to-many-destinations environment, tying together spots like the library, train station, Dennison condominiums, Fabric Place, new Amazing Things Art Center and more in a walker-appealing district.

That aside, though, it was nice to be able to see some stunning photos from Gateway Camera Club members (disclaimer: I'm a member, although don't have anything in the exhibit), and then continue the late afternoon/early evening with dinner.

Although some long-time American-born town residents complain that they don't feel welcome at certain Brazilian businesses, that's absolutely not the case at Brazzille. The restaurant manages to hit the ethnic sweet spot of staying true to its roots while offering its authentic cuisine to a broader audience. Very good food, excellent value, and warm, friendly service. Although the clientele is largely Brazilian, there are English-language menus and wait staff. It was clear we were welcome as soon as we walked in the door, when our hostess/waitress asked if we'd been there before. When we said no, that it was our first time, she smiled and said, "Nice!" and proceeded to explain to us how things work.

Brazzille has done a nice job of redecorating its space, with colorful lights and a nice tile mosaic. You can see some photos of the interior and food at's review last year.

Genuine ethnic cuisine and unique, locally owned businesses offer a sense of place that you can't find at the typical local mall. And sense of place -- boasting something that you can't find anywhere, U.S.A. -- is the key weapon for local business districts in trying to compete with nearby malls for consumer mindshares. In my daydreams, I envision pedestrian-enticing blocks that include outdoor seating in nice weather for the area's restaurants, bakeries and cafes.

For now, I'm hoping Brazzille gets spin-off business when the arts center relocates downtown, and other businesses spring up to appeal to a diverse, arts-appreciating crowd. Add in an attractive, appealing streetscape for foot traffic, and we might finally have real progress on the oft-promised revitalization.

January 20, 2008

‘Private splendor, public squalor’

In a piece comparing old and new homes & neighborhoods in the Bay Area, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carol Lloyd perfectly sums up the situation:
"In the Bay Area, where there are plenty of older neighborhoods with historic architecture, mature landscaping and pre-car, pedestrian-friendly urban planning, you're often not buying just private square footage, but access to a public realm, a place full of diverse people, culture, street life. In this distinction between old and new, I couldn't help but think of something my mother said in describing the limitations of the American way of life. After she returned from a trip to Mexico, where she'd fallen in love with the town squares, she said, 'We have private splendor, but we have public squalor.' "

Even in urban areas, new developments are often divorced from the surrounding communities. And in too many suburbs, homes and private yards are lovely while public space is largely strip malls. In too much of America today we do have nice  private space but little if any attention to the shared space beyond our block. There's a big difference between a town square in Mexico (or much of Europe) and a typical suburban strip mall, although we do have communities here that have managed to keep their sense of place. It's a theme I've touched on before.

I don't buy claims that "market forces" alone are responsible for all the McMansions being built these days. It's at least as much due to the fact that current local zoning makes it easier for developers to build large houses on big lots in most suburban communities (just look at all the hassles involved in any kind of cluster zoning project in Framingham, including the risk that you spend gobs of time and money seeking approval that may not come). When almost 9 out of 10 Better Homes & Gardens readers say they value walkable neighborhoods more than large rooms or acreage, I'd argue that zoning hasn't caught up with current trends. And here in Massachusetts, that's exacerbated by local funding of schools, where cash-strapped communities fear any development that might increase school costs more than Proposition 2 1/2 would compensate.

If you want to see how market forces value sense of place and public splendor, consider how much square footage $500K could buy you in a desirable community outside of Rte. 495 compared with, say, Concord center or Beacon Hill.

(See also, "It's Almost Impossible Not to Make a Friend Here").

‘Surround rail stations with pedestrian-friendly, green development’

So urges Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen in an op-ed piece about the restoration of passenger rail service between Boston and Fall River and New Bedford.

While fully funding the $17.2 million planning for the rail project, the state in return is asking 31 surrounding communities to develop a land-use corridor plan that would "guide new development of home and jobs to places that make sense while helping communities preserve precious environmentally sensitive areas." Cohen says communities need to be open to zoning changes to help the South Coast Rail project spark smart growth, not become "a veiled invitation for more [sub]urban sprawl" by prompting new homes on large lots in rural areas that "is eating up farms, fields and forests and eroding the historic villages and cities that help make the SouthCoast so special. . . .

"Clustering people and jobs near train stations helps us make new public transportation cost-effective. The more homes, offices, shops, and schools are spread out, the more people have to drive, and the less likely it is that a train will be convenient."

Good to see planners thinking this way. The state shouldn't be funding a public transit project that simply sparks more exurban McMansions, without developing walkable centers near the train stations that offer residences and retail with appealing streetscapes between them. Hopefully someday the area around Framingham's train station will also include an appealing, walkable streetscape to and from nearby residences and commercial areas. Right now the distance is theoretically walkable, but the streetscape is so offputting that few if any commuters would actually do so.