Monday, January 22, 2007

Coolidge Corner's Future

What do we love about Coolidge Corner? I love the fact that I can walk there to take care of my daily errands, with the occasional special treat of taking in a movie or browsing at Booksmith. If I'm feeling cooped up or lonely, I can just walk down and have a cup of tea at Peet's. Everyone has their favorite spots. It's not like everyplace else. It's not the mall. We can talk to the people who own their own businesses.

Coolidge Corner is the social hub of Brookline. It's where we are most likely to run into our neighbors. CC defines our town in the minds of many. But now we have just learned the distressing news that instead of McDonald's and Zeeba's flower shop we are to have yet another bank. How utterly boring. Now, I'm no fan of McDonald's (I have read Fast Food Nation and seen Supersize Me), but at least people of all walks of life could get a snack or meal there. Zeeba's Exotic Flowers had some of the best floral arrangements in town. They will be sorely missed.

A bank does not generate much foot traffic. Their store window does not offer visual stimulation or an inviting setting. They are closed at night, taking away from the life of the street for evening saunterers. It's as bad as another cell phone store. Must we allow any business that wants to set up shop? Can we only have those businesses backed by large corporations with big bucks to spend? We are losing the soul of our town. Why not offer a tax break to independents? When it comes time to permit development in CC why not offer incentives to those developers who will put locally owned retail businesses on the first floor? This is a trend we can no longer ignore. It is not going to fix itself and we can't count on being lucky. The economic forces bringing the chains to our door will not change. We need to address them in a meaningful way.

There has been an ongoing planning effort underway in CC. The goals are two-fold. One to determine what we would like to see built in a few spots that are ripe for redevelopment and two to help protect the surrounding neighborhoods from tear downs that result in overly dense rebuilding and loss of character. Mention has been made of implementing "form-based zoning", which focuses more on regulating the streetscape and building design and scale of new building. It's a way to enforce more appropriate contextualizing of new building. All good. The neighborhoods would gain a great deal by establishment of Neighborhood Conservation Districts.

But what would make CC a great place, a special place that reflects our values and is welcoming and fun to visit? Retaining independent businesses is a good start. Better streetscape design would really help. Keeping in mind that CC is the social hub of Brookline, it becomes apparent that what we are lacking is a public gathering place. Anyone who has experienced the festive atmosphere at the farmer's market understands that it is popular for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is its social function. Why not extend that idea to a year round market? Like the Pike's Place market in Seattle. Part of the market would have to be indoors, and it should include fresh food, prepared food and places to eat in a public setting. It would have to be town owned and administered to help the fresh food providers survive economically, but what an asset for the town!

Some have expressed a desire for "green space" in CC. While I am as much of a tree-hugger as anyone, I think this is misguided. We need a people place. That's what CC is all about. If we think of our public place as a "Plaza" we get the right idea. Of course it could have small ornamental trees, a fountain, even tall grasses in planters, a spot of grass maybe even, but a "nature" area it is not. Not a patch of grass to look at, no, it needs to be a place with tons of seating for people watching. Maybe it could even be a site for outdoors concerts, poetry readings, drama, etc. It could never be big enough to be a true natural area, and we don't go to CC for solitude. Fortunately we have Hall's Pond near to us for that.

CC is at a crossroads. It is up to us to envision the CC of the future. Now is the time to use our imaginations and let the ideas fly. Remember the Brookline 300 celebration? All of those people surging down Harvard Street? There was a palpable sense of shared pride and happiness in our town's success. All of those people would love to come back to experience that type of "street life" again. As we withdrawal more and more into our private domains and the Internet, etc. we need that experience of community and human contact even more.

Why not think about sharing the road with people a bit more? There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, through wider sidewalks, traffic calming, even selective street closings. We need to make CC more friendly to the pedestrian, not the car. It's the walkablity and pedestrian environment in consort with its unique shops, that makes CC special and the better we make that, the more people will come. People are yearning to experience environments that are not the ubiquitous suburban sprawl swallowing much of the rest of our country.

Our history has blessed us with a built environment made before the automobile took over our public realm. Its dense enough to support mass transit, rich in beautiful architecture, and softened with lots of trees, but we can not coast on our laurels and hope for the best. The same threats and economic forces that have created anywhere USA are present and active here too. Only vigilance, regulatory change and a clearly articulated vision of something other will protect us.

What would you like to see in Coolidge Corner's future?

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Future of Public Service in Brookline

I'm disappointed. The trust we have put in our town government has been violated. With no real explanation, a talented and dedicated volunteer has been canned, and the cause of historic preservation has been dealt a blow. I am speaking about Dennis DeWitt, an architectural historian who selflessly gave his time to serve the town by volunteering on the Preservation Commission. In a recent vote the Board of Selectmen demoted him to the position of non-voting alternate.

Through the years the Town of Brookline has recognized the need to protect our vital historic legacy, and the voters have repeatedly endorsed the legal framework created to carry out this mission. Like the zoning board and numerous other boards and commissions, the Selectmen appoint suitable members to these boards. Candidates are chosen (we hope) based on their expertise, skill and willingness to serve and charged with enforcing rules and regulations and advancing the mission of the board. Sometimes difficult decisions are made, and sometimes petitioners are disappointed or down right incensed. This fact makes me all the more grateful and indebted to those individuals who take up the task and accept appointment to these boards.

No one has accused Dennis DeWitt of failing to execute the duties of the Preservation Commission. In fact, it seems that everyone who has ever been before the Commission or worked with Dennis speaks of his knowledge, expertise, and considered fairness. What more could you want? And yet, he gets demoted. Why? Because someone doesn't want the Commission to do its job. But the people of Brookline do. It was his talent that made Dennis a target for those who do not support historic preservation. But the people of Brookline do. And this is where the violation of our trust comes in.

Removing a board member in this fashion is an abuse of power, and we have all learned a hard lesson in the process. That our system is vulnerable to this type of action. That despite what we vote on and declare as the will of the people, we are dependent on those in office to carry out this mandate. Our only recourse may be to simply vote those Selectmen who were party to this action out of office.

A wet blanket has been thrown over all those dedicated citizens who selflessly take up the call to public service by serving on our boards and commissions. They are the troops who get the job done and we need them, and owe them thanks and gratitude, and yet because of Dennis's fate, others must now fear that, regardless of how scrupulously they administer their boards mission, someone may not like that and therefore they could be out tomorrow. How's that for an incentive.

With such a proud history of impassioned involvement in local affairs in Brookline we need to honor and encourage those who serve in order to continue reaping the benefits of their talents and passion. Attracting those individuals whose integrity and dedication to civic life lead them to public service requires our government to be both accountable and transparent. These two attributes seem to be missing in this case.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Too Much Litter

The leaves are off the trees and bushes. There is no blanket of clean white snow. In this naked state, an unwanted undergrowth has become more apparent, our sidewalks and streets are strewn with garbage. This is not an issue like global warming that causes us to ponder major policy initiatives or the far distant future. Yet, the sight of all this litter has a profound impact on our psyches and its presence reveals a troubling lack of civility.

One day, shortly after my husband and I first moved to Brookline in 1988, we were standing on the corner of School and Washington Streets waiting for the light to change, when a trio of young people sauntered down the sidewalk and proceeded to drop the paper boxes and wrappers from their convenience store purchases onto the sidewalk, about 10 ft. away from us. Not being inclined to tolerate such behavior, my husband said, "Hey, you dropped something!" The litterers response was, "What's it to you, this isn't your yard or something", to which my husband replied, "No, but it's my sidewalk and it is yours too, do you just drop your trash in the middle of the floor at home?" Eventually, the dour youths picked up their trash. I don't recommend confronting people in this way, it can be dangerous, but I have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in calling people on their bad behavior.

This encounter illustrated an attitude that I simply couldn't understand, but, it explained their careless behavior. This sidewalk was a no man's land, it didn't belong to anybody and therefore was theirs to exploit. Of course the truth is just the opposite, the sidewalk belongs to everyone and therefore trashing it was an affront to the entire community.

During my college years I worked for a summer at an amusement park as a "sweeperette". I walked the paths with a dainty broom and dustpan cleaning up dropped trash. I was stunned and saddened by the continuous act of dropping trash. A fellow worker explained that for a lot of the patrons this was their only vacation and perhaps they felt entitled to be "lord of the manner" for a day. This piggish behavior made us so jaded that by the end of the summer the patrons were no longer guests, they were "the animals".

Back on our home turf, the littering attitude seems to spring from one of entitlement. Kind of like the way people drive. The rules are for everyone else, but I'm more important and can't be bothered. The result is a rag tag looking environment that reflects a lack of care and pride.

I have lived in several different states and visited many cities around the country and I must say the litter problem seems worse here. Granted, it is somewhat a factor of density, and it only takes a tiny fraction of the population to have a big impact, but I've been to many dense urban areas that are much cleaner. What has brought about this state of affairs? Is it simply the lack of a public awareness campaign? Enforcement would be nice, but of course there are other, more pressing priorities. Adults looking the other way or even condoning this behavior? I love Michael Dukakis for picking up trash along the Riverway. This is the practical response. Don't like the trash you see? Pick it up. I am constantly picking up trash in and around the Minot Rose Garden which I help tend, but I shouldn't have to. There are plenty of frequently emptied trash containers.

I propose that all junior and senior high school students should participate in annual clean-up days, going around picking up litter to instill in them the idea that we all are responsible for keeping Brookline tidy. Just think about how much nicer the town would look without all those plastic cups, bags and papers lodged at the base of bushes or alongside the sidewalks.