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.