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 ThisIsFramingham.com'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.

January 7, 2008

Silver lining dept.: Will housing and energy challenges help end sprawl?

"The collapse in the housing market and high gasoline prices are bad news for middle-class homeowners left to sift through the wreckage. But if there is consolation to be found amid the rubble, it may be that the inexorable spreading out that has characterized American life since World War II might finally be coming to an end," writes Cornell Law School associate professor Eduardo M. Peñalver in the Washington Post.

American suburban sprawl revved up in the aftermath of World War II, reversing centuries-old development patterns that focused around town centers. Many new housing developments had no local anchor, while neighborhood retail centers were supplanted by strip malls that were impossible to walk to.

However, Peñalver points out that this required low gas prices and "relentless demand for housing. . . . Middle-class Americans, not able to find housing they could afford in existing suburbs, kept driving farther out into the countryside until they did."

Even before current trends, he notes, the density of metropolitan areas, which had been declining since World War II, started nudging back upwards in the '90s. "[H]owever, the now-defunct housing boom and cheap gas kept exerting centrifugal pressure on living patterns, pushing the edge of new development farther out into rural America."

Both the housing boom and inexpensive gas seem to be over, at least for now.

High energy prices won't themselves prompt people to move, he acknowledges, but can be a factor in deciding on a new location when people are moving anyway.

If these trends hold, then providing affordable -- and appealing -- middle-class housing in existing communities is key:
"Accommodating a growing population in the era of high gas prices will mean increasing density and mixing land uses to enhance walkability and public transit. And this must happen not just in urban centers but in existing suburbs, where growth is stymied by parochial and exclusionary zoning laws. Overcoming low-density, single-use zoning mandates so as to fairly allocate the costs of increased density will require coordination at regional levels."

It'll be tough to go through this transition, but we might finally have the opportunity as a culture to step back and take a hard look at "the car-dependent, privatized society that has evolved over the past 60 years," Peñalver says. "We may discover that it's not so bad living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods."

I've long felt that for many people, moving to walker-hostile exurbs was less a lifestyle choice than sole option for attractive, affordable housing. Look at the costs per square foot for housing and land in choice neighborhoods inside 128 and outside of 495 and you'll see what the market values more. In fact, as I blogged about awhile back, almost 9 in 10 people rated a walkable neighborhood as being important to them -- more than large rooms or lots, according to 60,000 people who responded to a Better Homes & Gardens survey. But there are relatively few options available for someone looking for an appealing, walkable suburban neighborhood.

January 2, 2008

Another reason to get off the phone while you drive

...besides the obvious one that you're a safety menace to everyone around you if you're using your cell phone while driving -- no matter how careful you think you're being while you're talking (let alone text messaging). But now comes word that mobile phone chatters are also slowing down everyone's commute.

"New computer simulations show that chatty drivers — using regular cell phones or even hands-free devices — take longer to complete their trips because they drive more slowly on highways and pass sluggish drivers less frequently," LiveScience.com reports.

"Delays in traffic streams of very small amounts grow into massive numbers when you project it across a highway and across a nation," Peter Martin of the University of Utah's Traffic Lab told Reuters.

Earlier studies have "equated the risk of driving while talking on a cell phone with driving while drunk," Reuters notes.
Get off the phone when you're driving.

January 1, 2008

Storrow Drive outbound may close to motorists Sunday mornings

So reports today's Boston Globe:
A five-mile stretch of Storrow Drive could be closed to car traffic on Sunday mornings beginning this year, opening the riverside roadway to bicycling, walking, in-line skating, and other recreational uses, under a proposal being considered by state officials.

"The proposal by the Charles River Conservancy would close only the westbound side of Storrow between the Longfellow Bridge and Harvard Stadium, allowing inbound cars to travel into Boston as usual. If the plan is approved by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees Storrow Drive, the Sunday closures would take place from April to November from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., when traffic is typically light."

The move would be great for hard-core exercisers and serious non-motorized sports usage. However, it's not going to do much for others -- who else is out that early on a Sunday morning? The summertime shutdown of Memorial Drive from 11 to 7 am on Sundays has much more of an impact, attracting casual strollers who might be out and about for lunch, dinner, or an afternoon. But obviously, it's not practical to close Storrow Drive to cars the same time as Memorial Drive. Too bad Storrow couldn't close 11 to 7 am on Saturdays.

Public meetings about pedestrian access to transit in downtown Framingham

The Department of Community and Economic Development is holding 2 public meetings about pedestrian access to transit in Downtown Framingham, both on Jan. 3: 4 to 6 pm at the Memorial building in the Blumer Community Room or 7 to 9 pm at TD Banknorth, 74 Concord Street. This was rescheduled from December due to snow.For more information, call 508-532-5455.