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 www.framinghamma.gov/brownfields are contact Kennedy at 508-532-5455 or brownfields@framinghamma.gov.

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.