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?


Anonymous said...

Have you ever been to Burlington, Vermont? They have a street where a few blocks have been dedicated to pedestrian only traffic called Church Street Marketplace. Shops and restaurants line the "street" and it's a great place to stroll, to window shop and to people watch. But the thing that struck me most was that the danger, noise and lack of space caused by cars and trucks was all but gone and the effect was truly dramatic! We should do this in Coolidge Corner. It would make Coolidge Corner even better and also help the independent businesses to be profitable in this "high-rent" area.

Susan Senator said...

I could not agree more. Excellent piece, excellent arguing.