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.