Sunday, March 25, 2007

Public Participation: Making it Work

When I first moved to Brookline (1988), long time Boston area residents kept telling me things like "people in Brookline are so active in their local politics", or "they are so involved". I found this both encouraging and a bit intimidating. On the plus side, it meant that people cared about the place that they lived, enough to speak out and work at protecting or improving it. What intimidated me was the thought of long held political alliances and networks, power structures that were deep and too secretive to penetrate, leaving little room for the new comer to get involved.

Before coming to Brookline, I had worked as a land use planner in Vermont, where the Town Meeting truly is a small group of citizens debating issues grand and petty. While we strive for this level of intimate democracy, we have our unique substitute form of it, which I for one support. For the most part, I have found that there is a very high level of local involvement and concern in Brookline and yet, as the process of planning for the future of Coolidge Corner has revealed, it could be a whole lot better.

A great deal of the problem is the process itself. We have laws and institutions set up that dictate how and when notifications get posted and meetings get held, all to ensure that the public knows that in this case, decisions are being made about the future of development in Coolidge Corner. In an attempt to capture a diversity of viewpoints while developing policies, a committee was formed with representatives of various constituent groups, such as business owners, the GreenSpace Alliance and neighborhood representatives. Working with town planning staff, the group studied existing conditions and attempted to forecast future scenarios. Consultants were hired for special technical analyses, where needed. Meetings were held, some of them public. All of this is as it should be I suppose, but what seems to have happened is you end up with a few strong voices leading the discussion in a certain direction, with the conclusions already formulated. Input, from the public and the consultants both, is accepted and listened to, but may or may not be acted upon.

A draft plan is written. It is long. It is filled with technical jargon. Citizens are told about the plan and asked to submit comments. I am a professional urban planner, and it was an effort for me to read this plan and interpolate what the implications of its mandates were for Coolidge Corner in the coming decades. I can't imagine too many busy people, no matter how dedicated, concerned or intelligent, taking the time to do this unless they perceive some threat to their personal situation. Some do, and they write comments or attend the public meeting and have their say, and if their experience was like mine, they may be asking themselves if they were heard at all or if it made any difference that they came. Because the public involvement is in fulfillment of a requirement of the process, it occurs to you that this was its purpose.

I do not mean to criticize the work of either the planning staff of the Town of Brookline or the dedicated citizens who have made the sacrifice to work so diligently to develop the Coolidge Corner District Plan. They have done a remarkable job given the constraints of time and staffing they have to work with, and they did not create the process I am commenting on, so please do not think I don't appreciate your service to our community.

Nonetheless, if you asked people on the street if they were concerned about the future of Coolidge Corner, I am sure a majority of them would say yes. Yet, they may not even know about the process underway or what the possible impacts of a change to form-based zoning (one of the proposals in the draft plan) might mean to their neighborhoods. Perhaps they don't really need to, until these issues come before town meeting, but I can't help but feel we are missing a great opportunity to engage a diversity of talented individuals, whose combined insights might lead us to unexpected and delightful new solutions.

We witnessed another potential pitfall of this lack of engagement last fall, when a last minute scare letter went out to homeowners telling them false hoods about the dire consequences to the town tax base and their property values of a proposed zoning change coming before town meeting. Turns out the group had their own special interests at heart, but their timing made an informed discussion impossible, and their letter achieved its goal of casting doubt on the proposed zoning change.

There are examples from around the country of communities who have overcome apathy and time constraints to successfully harness citizen participation in the planning process. It can require substantial resources and additional staff, such as in the case of holding "design charettes" such as what is being done in New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath. But perhaps in our case it does not need to be such an intensive effort. Technology being what it is these days, I can imagine a website that could display different development scenarios that people could vote their preferences for. What about the youth of our community? How about an essay contest about Brookline in the future, or a video or short story submissions website about characters and activities in the Coolidge Corner of their dreams? Most of those ideas generated will of course be impractical or illogical, etc. etc. but remember that all of the great creations on the planet started out as a dream. We should find ways to engage people's creativity.

On a less ambitious course, a little more effort could be made to simplify and "translate" the draft plan proposals into examples that people could easily relate to, and comments could be solicited via a website, making it easier to participate, rather than requiring citizens to read a 70 page document and then attend an evening meeting or compose a formal letter, in order to have input.

A great deal more dialogue is needed. It is not enough to say "we want to change the parking requirement to this, what do you think". There are always opportunity costs for choosing one course of action over another. Technology could be deployed here as well, with a blog on the town website posting proposals with explanations, pros and cons and asking for thoughts.

Yes, we are lucky to have so many concerned participants in town government, but we have so much talent in this town, wouldn't it be great to find a way to tap just a little bit more of it when it comes to creating the Brookline of tomorrow?

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Harold Brown's Proposed Robotic Parking

Mr. Brown's proposal for a robotic parking garage in Coolidge Corner is no doubt well intentioned and generous. An effort to minimize it's visual impact has obviously been made by "tucking" it behind the Coolidge Corner Theater. The whole idea of going vertical by deploying the robotic parking technology attempts to accommodate many vehicles without devoting a lot of land area to it, in a sense attempting to let us have our cake and eat it too. If we replace the existing surface parking with vertical parking, we are in effect gaining some land area that could be put to much better use. These efforts reveal Mr. Brown's understanding of the concerns and issues inherent in providing increased parking in Coolidge Corner.

Unfortunately, despite these laudable goals and the application of advanced technology, the resulting negative impacts of going forward with this proposal will far outweigh the potential gains. No matter how small and hidden we try to make a parking garage we are still choosing to give over a key part of our public realm to automobiles, rather than to people, or new businesses and the impacts of this choice go far beyond the site of the garage. The planning process is still underway that seeks to identify the development goals for the town owned land that is currently the Centre Street parking lot. We must take the time to look at the overall site and how it's development fits in with the future we wish to see for Coolidge Corner. It would be premature to decide now to build just one little piece of the puzzle and it would lock us into a scenario from which there would be no escape.

On a very basic level, there are serious traffic impacts if the robotic structure's 130 spaces were built in addition to the existing parking. An additional 130 parking spaces and all the vehicle trips in and out of them. Imagine the driveway at the Centre Street parking lot with twice as many vehicles traveling in and out. The driveway is too close to the Beacon Street intersection and it would become extremely difficult to turn left out of the lot. Then there is the left turn from Beacon to Centre Street, already a nightmare, now double the number of people trying to make that turn. Now imagine you are trying to walk down Centre Street, but you have to wade through all those cars driven by desperate people trying to get out. Then there is the question of where would the cars line up as they wait to get into the robotic deck? With all those additional cars, right next to all those occupied buildings, we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to be concentrating all those harmful emissions here? Functionally there are some really serious problems, but these are not the only or even the most important reasons why the structure should not be built.

I am aware that many are convinced that we need more parking in Coolidge Corner. Part of this perception is tied into the issue of long term parking needs for employees working at Coolidge Corner businesses. This is an issue that is being addressed separately, and employee parking would not be located here. The recent parking study performed by Traffic Solutions concluded that rather than a shortage of parking spaces, what is really happening is we are falling short in terms of utilizing the parking we do have. The study notes that regulations are not being fully enforced that would improve parking turnover, thereby making more spaces available for patrons. Additionally, available parking often goes unused due to lack of driver knowledge. People go to look for parking at the few places they are familiar with and don't bother to find out about other spaces that go unused. Better signage and public education could go a long way to address this knowledge gap.

There is disagreement about parking availability, and people's beliefs are based on perceptions. What is really at the heart of this debate are expectations. If everyone defines available parking as being able to drive and park right in front of your destination, then there is a lack of parking. What people don't realize is that fulfilling this expectation implies a trade-off. If we choose to make providing ultra-convenient parking our priority, we are precluding other uses for the land and making the public realm in that central location more hostile to the pedestrian. It's a question of location.

If we build this structure on our one remaining prime piece of land in Coolidge Corner, we will not be encouraging alternative transportation or the use of the alternative parking lots we already have. If we have learned anything about the automobile and cities it is that places that cater exclusively to cars are not very nice places to walk through or near. If we want a commercial core that has a lively street life, one that is pleasant to stroll through and to window shop, to sit on a bench, or to spend time in our hoped for new civic space, it cannot be successful if all those people have to cross many busy driveways, or walk through parking lots or sit next to a parking garage.

If we can park a block away and walk, or better yet take the T, walk or ride a bike, we can have a commercial core that we will want to visit and spend time in. There is a self-fulfilling aspect to building parking at such a central location. If that parking space is there, people will drive, when they could perhaps have chosen not to drive. With streetscape amenities, vital ground floor retail and civic space, the area becomes one that is nurturing to relaxation and community life. This is what we would be giving up. What we want is to create is a commercial area that is so compelling people will want to come here even if they can't park in front of the store. If convenient parking were all that we had to offer, the customer might as well go to the mall. Shopping has become more than just shopping in our culture, people are looking for an experience and genuine human interaction, along with unique retail offerings. We are poised to provide this. People will come from further away because it will be inviting. Think about the vast number of people with access to the MBTA who are potential new customers.

Lowering our parking expectations is a long term proposition with great potential benefits besides just improved land use. There are the environmental benefits from people switching to the T to get here. New employees will self-select from the pool of those who have good T access for their commute. The Traffic Solutions parking study also showed that Brookline's current zoning dictates parking requirements that are one-third to one-half higher than rates in Cambridge, Somerville and the Institute of Transportation Engineers manual. We should lower the parking requirements. This will encourage use of alternative transportation, and it will encourage mixed use development, which could ultimately reduce auto-dependent travel as well.

Rather than just arguing about whether or not we have a parking shortage, we need to be honest about what we are really asking for and giving up when we want more parking behind the Coolidge Corner Theater. It is tempting to accept Mr. Brown's generosity, especially since the economics of developing the site are so challenging. Nonetheless, I encourage those who are planning for CC's future to keep their eyes on the prize and envision what that space could be, an asset for our community life and a place bursting with business opportunities.