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.