Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year that Was

I usually hate those "let's look back and sum up" stories we get deluged with at this time of year, but I find myself reflective and drawn to do just that as I look out on the second (or third?) big snow storm of the season.

We all weathered our share of adversity and it doesn't look like it will end anytime soon. If you didn't lose your job yet, you likely know someone or several people who have. You watched your IRA or 401(k) if you had one, lose almost half it's value or maybe you were a victim of the Madoff scandal. But what really stands out for me is the way we all reached out for each other and kept on keeping on. Somehow our community felt more like a community.

The morning after Barak Obama was elected I went down to Coolidge Corner to do some errands and the air was electric with relief, joy, potential, pride. Everyone smiled at each other. Strangers talked about being proud to be an American again, finally. I went to the hardware store and someone was there asking about American flags, and this was someone who did not look like they had flown one for quite awhile. Young people saw a reason to be involved again, a hope that maybe there was something worth working towards or for. All that bad news that's been heaped upon us is not smothering us, it's a challenge. A call to arms. Our talents, strengths, skills, hard work and perseverance are needed and will have a channel to be funneled through.

We had some pretty momentous and heated debates on local issues too. Article 15 and the revolutionary concept that there was such a thing as too much parking was a teaching moment, one that seems to need to be repeated again as 2 Brookline Place enters the final phase of their permitting. I was thrilled and proud that Town Meeting passed it. The Article 13 debate was a low point. There seemed to be so many disingenuous sound bites, lack of real discourse and just devolved to such a point I felt it wrong to even have a vote on it at that point. I have been working on a "Growing Smart" post ever since, stay tuned...

At the Minot Rose Garden we held a ribbon cutting, celebrating the installation of our fabulous, gorgeous fence, thanks to the Brookline Community Foundation, many donors and the Parks and Open Space division. It's always such a celebration of community to get together in the garden and express our gratitude and appreciation for all it brings to the neighborhood. On that score, our call for artists for our up coming art show at the Brookline Arts Center brought submissions from more than 60 artists. The caliber of the art was phenomenal and the show, coming up this February 9 - March 21 will be fantastic! I love the idea of getting all those artists together, who have the garden in common. I can't wait. Rose garden art in the dead of February.

Another highlight as far as I'm concerned was the creation of the town's Climate Action Committee. What a great, committed group of folks and we are just getting going! It's an honor to be a part of this effort, and while the subject of climate change is perhaps our greatest challenge as a species, it is a positive to be part of those seeking solutions and actions. It's nice too how with our new president and some very good new State legislation, (the Green Communities Act and the Global Warming Solutions Act), it feels like finally we will have the wind at our backs, all of us working towards the same goal. How long has it been since we've felt that way?

Brookline, like the rest of the country and the world has experienced a seismic shift, unlike anything I can remember, but rather than being a disaster, it feels like an opportunity to build a better, stronger community.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Finding a Better Balance

Greetings. Sorry for the long absence, but like the rest of you, I have been both very busy and preoccupied with the cataclysmic changes roiling throughout the known universe. It is both a frightening and yet exciting time. Before the full magnitude of the "crisis" was made manifest, I was stopped in Coolidge Corner by someone with a BATV camera, who identified himself as someone from the TAB. He asked me to pontificate about how the financial crisis was playing out on 'main street', and more specifically, my house. Feeling somewhat cavalier at the moment, I opined about the opportunity for new ways of thinking and doing. How chaos frees us from complacency, in a sense because we do not have stability to lose by trying new things. I still believe that. I also believe that we must find new ways to do things, and as the ranks of those who have nothing left to lose grows and the threats from climate change mount the demand for change will swell into a tsunami. But enough of grand theories. Back to the home front.

I came here to write about what Dick Benka has characterized (in last Sunday's Globe article about our new Economic Development Director, Kara Brewton) as "one of the festering issues in town--the tension between development and the neighborhoods". Festering indeed. Boiling over might be more accurate. Neighbors have been driven to the extreme action of banding together, hiring a lawyer out of their own pockets and filing lawsuits. This has happened repeatedly. It might be easy to simply dismiss this as typical "nimbyism" or an unavoidable consequence of building in Brookline. But I don't think it is at all that simple, nor is it inevitable. Clearly there is a lack of honest dialogue and trust. We talk around the issues. We talk in sound bites and platitudes and everyone gets frustrated, thinking the other "side" simply doesn't listen or understand. Despite plenty of "process". Well guess what. It is every one's job to communicate in a new way to make themselves understood. To talk truth about what it is they are really concerned about and what's behind their motivations. That would be a good start.

These lawsuits can't be good for anyone involved. They cost the town money, eating up vast amounts of town staff time and effort. They create an unfavorable environment for development, causing a self-defeating situation for those who favor development, sending the message that it is especially difficult to build in Brookline and adding additional costs for project proponents. Costs that might have been directed more constructively towards amenities we truly value and invested in building the types of projects that will actually add value and benefits to the community beyond mere tax dollars. But more on that later.

As for those bringing the lawsuits, they don't seem to be having much success either, except perhaps making a very expensive point.

The reasons for this situation are complex and deeply rooted. But, one thing is for certain, regardless of your opinion or viewpoint on the subject, continuing on in the same way, holding dear to our entrenched "core beliefs" and willful compulsions will only lead to further conflict and more importantly for the future of Brookline, bad developments. At the very root of the problem is a focus on short term gain. The realities of real estate financing dictate this approach on the part of the land speculators and builders. This is to be expected. The problem is, the Town has fallen victim to this way of thinking as well. We have seen the ramifications of this modis operandi playing out in the financial crisis, and in fact the analogy to that situation offers some interesting insights. A few days ago we watched Alan Greenspan confess that his "theory of the way the world works had a fatal flaw", that in fact investment banks, left unregulated, did not act in a way that ensured their long term viability, let alone take into account the effects of their actions on the larger economy or the public in general. No kidding. In the same way, we cannot count on private developers to be thinking about the long term costs and benefits of their buildings on the community as a whole. That is a public sector job, our job. The point is, someone needs to do it.

Applied to planning and development decisions the impacts of this short term focus are multifarious. While no one would willfully choose to discourage a growth in Brookline's tax base, it is an open question whether or not the single-minded pursuit of commercial development (and housing development for that matter) at any cost is in fact going to have the desired effect in the long run. Why do I say this? Besides the immediate costs associated with lawsuits and ill will alluded to above, I maintain that there are substantial and numerous costs and long-term impacts attributable to new development that we are not accounting for that make the "accounting" a bit more ambiguous. In addition, there are many potential benefits and economic "generators" that could be included in new developments that would have long term, multiplier effects that are also not accounted for when assessing the "value" to the community of a given development. For instance, locally owned businesses contribute a far greater proportion of their income to the local economy both directly and through their communty intimacy and support of our many cultural and non-profit organizations. Mixed use development, near transit reduces the need for auto ownership and travel, engenders community interaction, fosters cultural engagement and is attractive to many young professionals, thus benefiting long term environmental quality, building community and increasing Brookline's relative attractiveness to new residents. It is, after all ultimately the future citizens of Brookline who determine her character, cultural capital and potential for innovation and adaptability. It is with these future citizens in mind that we must make all of our decisions.

Why is it that "substantial amounts of community process" fails to achieve the goal of community consensus and doesn't generate the hoped for feelings that we are furthering our shared civic goals? The principle problem with our Design Advisory Teams is the fact that they are concerned primarily with "design". As if all the questions about a particular development can be solved by changing the facade material. If we are lucky, we have talented architects on the DAT, but still, many fundamental issues about size, scale, use, function, public benefits, etc. have already been made, This is in fact and after-the-fact proposition, despite the fact that it happens before "formal applications have been made". This is because the legal parameters of what is allowed have already been determined, and as long as the developer adheres to these, they will be able to build what they want. The DAT can tweak the look of a building's facade and maybe, with a willing developer get a few more concessions, but ultimately it is all too late. The time to figure out how much of what type of development is desirable is well in advance, before someone has invested the time and money in coming up with a proposal. The community has not been involved adequately in making these fundamental decisions, in adequate detail. Here is where new thinking and dialogue is critical. Both "sides" must speak the truth with respect and a true desire to communicate and compromise.

Many of you are hanging your head and moaning now, saying, but we just went through that agonizingly long "planning process" to write our Comprehensive Plan, or the even more painful Coolidge Corner District Planning Council. But, our zoning does not implement key provisions of our Comprehensive Plan, and, as the CCDPC tried to address, it was not detailed enough. Many issues remain unresolved in terms of our current zoning, as it relates (or doesn't) to community goals. The evidence of this are the continuous efforts at amendment through Town Meeting Warrants, etc. On the commercial side, we need to re-evaluate the particulars of how our key commercial development parcels are zoned and what might result from their development as is. Then we need to engage in a highly interactive process of visioning about what we do want, using professional techniques that will engender problem solving and allow real solutions to emerge. (A key difference from what has been done thus far). What would benefit the community and still be potentially buildable from an economic stand point? The solutions will grow organically out of a deep understanding of our community. Not just the physical space, but the cultural and social interchanges that add vitality to life in Brookline. We need to identify the kinds of amenities that will attract new businesses, customers and residents. Asking ourselves questions such as: What kind of employment centers could possibly do well here? Are they the kind of developments we wish to see and can we comfortably accommodate them? If so, what can we do to encourage them? Are the benefits of employment within our borders worth an investment of this sort? How can we build on the vast capital of capable professionals who already live here, as well as existing businesses, such as the large number of design professionals living and working here?

For a case study, let's look at 111 Boylston St. With any development on Route 9 an immediate issue is traffic. Sadly, we lack the transportation planning capabilities to adequately assess the true impacts of a high intensity auto-oriented development like a medical office building (see my previous post Traffic: Route 9 and Beyond), let alone look into the system wide functioning of our transportation infrastructure. Suffice it to say, this development, in combination with general background traffic growth and additional regional development results in significant growth in traffic volumes. Delays will increase. Intersections that accommodate the required turn-arounds will fail. The upshot will be increased cut-through traffic on Walnut and Davis and other neighborhood streets. Increased pollution and accidents. Increased costs for roadway maintenance, police enforcement, health care, traffic calming and a decrease in both the quality of life and value of residential properties affected. Major transportation infrastructure improvements will be required, costing substantial sums. Any remaining roadway capacity that exists now will be "used up", making additional development of this type all the more difficult. All of these costs along with many others need to be carefully considered when weighing the value to the town of this development.

This is a commercial development, but it is unclear whether it will serve, employ or be owned by Brookline residents. We have not asked ourselves whether or not it makes sense to put this type of development here, or what other types of development might have made more sense. We relied on the "private market" to make this decision for us. Had a more thorough planning analysis been made, we could have tailored our zoning to encourage local businesses, or mixed uses, and have better defined an appropriate building mass, setting and public realm design. Such a design would better incorporate all new developments in the area into an overall scheme that takes the pedestrian and alternative transportation options into account. A more energy efficient building would also be more attractive to future tenants and have a longer life span in an energy scarce future. As we all know, the private market does not have our long-term community wide prosperity in mind. Nor does it take into account the "external costs" that are born by the public in general, Brookline taxpayers, or the nearby neighborhoods.

The impacts of the shadow caused by the height of the building is just one of the negative consequences brought about by a lack of forethought about the implications of re-zoning this and other parcels along Route 9 would have. The shadow is graphic and has a powerful immediacy, but is only a first order, direct impact. The neighbors' lawsuit is based on the notion that the Board of Appeals decision was "arbitrary and capricious". It was the Board's job to determine whether or not the Public Benefits given by the developer, in this case, some physical improvements for Davis Path and Boylston St. Park as well as a small cash contribution for the intersection improvement at Washington St. and High St. were, in fact adequate "compensation" for the increase in height allowed for the building. It is not necessarily that these public benefits were not well intentioned, nor that they are necessarily not actually good things for the town. But, those bringing the law suit have a point. The Board's decision was a forgone conclusion. The Board of Appeals had accepted the idea that the "benefit" of allowing the development outweighed any negative impacts articulated by the neighborhood residents. This despite the fact that one of the conditions of granting the special permit is that "the use as developed will not adversely affect the neighborhood." Left out of the Board's deliberations were the many more negative "externalities", some of which I have identified above.

But, the greatest negative of all is the opportunity cost of what we could have had! This structure, and others like it, such as 1285 Beacon for instance, will be with us for a long time. Traditional economic development strategies promulgate a view of the world where municipalities or regions are in competition for development investment dollars. In some cases these strategies go so far as to grant tax subsidies to lure development, almost always losing fiscally in the process. In our case, we simply grant the right to build on our few remaining precious parcels suitable for commercial development. In a similar vein we seem to believe that we must allow what, in some cases seems to be an excessively tall and massive building footprint, and an anything will do attitude in order to "attract" development. The claim is made that we must do this in order for the projects to be economically viable. I find this hard to believe. While we cannot simply "get the project of our dreams", I do believe that had we had a better idea of what we did want, and what would be appropriate, before a proposal was on the table, a much better and still economically viable project could have been negotiated.

The fact that these projects are proceeding in these extremely difficult times and that housing values are holding their own and perhaps even still rising, testifies to the fact of Brookline's continued desirability as a place to live and do business. We are selling our selves short. It could have been so much better. Clarity of purpose, coupled with a deep understanding of Brookline's unique character and the characteristics that make it so, a reverence for her value, a vision of a workable future and top notch design adherence could go a long way towards achieving the goal of more appropriate development.

I know many of you will simply write me off as naive at this point, but I have seen countless examples of quality begetting quality. And we are quality, at least we were, and we are in danger of losing it. By knowing what we want, being clear and specific about it, demanding it, we will get it. In fact, this clarity would be a relief to all involved, including developers. The endless, nebulousness of our "process" could be shortened, with clearer guidelines allowing the initial proposal to be both closer to the ultimate goal and responsive to the particulars of the site. I am painting a picture here where, any future developments are in fact more in tune with Brookline's spirit, culture, physical layout and sustainability goals. Achieving this is what we need to do to make the process work, because it surely is not working now. It is a fundamental change in approach that will in fact require a commitment of resources, some new planning techniques and a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking. Being known throughout the region as the place to find, build and buy into a quality built environment that supports a vibrant forward-thinking community is what will ensure our long term prosperity. We need only value ourselves adequately, not giving in to the least common denominator. We are desirable enough to be in the position to demand the best. This will only have a synergistic beneficial effect, attracting new, progressive builders and residents, and therefore truly begetting economic development.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What would Olmsted do?

Once again we have been reminded about the staggering import of the work of F.L.Olmsted, his sons and the landscape architecture firm he established and ran from his home and workshop here in Brookline. Luckily for us, Olmsted's handiwork is abundantly present in our own environment. On Sunday, September 7th the National Park Service and the Organization of American Historians hosted a stimulating panel discussion at the Arnold Arboretum featuring four scholars: Charles Beveridge, Editor of the Olmsted Papers Project; Ethan Carr, Landscape Historian, University of Virginia; Alexander Garvin; Architect and Planner, Yale University and Delores Hayden, Urban Historian and Architect, Yale University.

Their charge had been to discuss ways to better utilize the vast archives of materials currently being cataloged as part of the Fairsted renovation project, as well as envision ways to engage the public both on and off site to engender a better understanding and appreciation for Olmsted's vision, values, skills, and perspective. They had many fascinating ideas. Not surprisingly, a rallying call was raised to digitize the plans and photos, etc. relating to all 6,000 projects. Ethan Carr suggested a Wiki style gathering of feedback on all those projects whose fate or status remain unknown.

Charles Beveridge spoke eloquently about the shear genius of Olmsted's talents. How his attention to detail and understanding of human perception, psychology, everyday life, patterns of behavior and their relation to landscape and spatial relationships all coalesced to help him create not landscapes but rather forms that built a structure for the life of the city to fill in around them. Olmsted's designs incorporate a deep understanding of what humans find beautiful in nature and offer a variety of experiences and views, paced at a perfect rhythm. Even just one of his well thought out ideas, such as the separation of modes when designing pathways, still have lessons for us today.

Delores Hayden wanted to give visitors to Fairsted an understanding that this was the "Place where their place was created" A kind of Meta understanding. Could the site somehow communicate the transformation that occurred as Olmsted's parks were being built? An era that saw our cities go from crowded, dirty, fetid places to more spread out and breathable habitats. Could we explain the massive and cascading impact on the development of the American landscape and our suburbs that Olmsted had. What was the actual site work like while the parks were being created? The hundreds and hundreds of men with shovels it took to move the earth. How about the technologies of the office. The hand drawing and model building, the pace of life, the hand correspondence. All evoke the cultural gestalt and bring to life the realities of Olmsted's achievements.

But Delores really grabbed my imagination when she raised the challenge of finding ways to interpret and communicate Olmsted's work in both the political and social context of its day and to encourage visitors to consider how current day political attitudes and realities differ. What do these differences say about us as a people and our views about public benefit vs. private gain? While there seems to be universal admiration, gratitude and enjoyment of Olmsted's parks, why is it so hard to make public investments today?

Ethan Carr spoke about Olmsted's ideological legacy and also called for interpretation. Our modern world is much more crowded. It is not necessarily a given that green space or access to nature is a necessity. Is there a "Public" for which to speak and plan for in the same way it was conceived of in Olmsted's time? He opined that government could no longer be counted on to provide parks or maintain them, thus the rise of multitudinous "Friends of " groups and stellar groups like the Central Park Conservancy.

There seems to be a lack of understanding in the fact that, when done well, public projects such as parks, civic spaces, public transportation, art, infrastructure, civic buildings of grand eloquence, and a cohesive well designed public realm, elevate the culture, spirit, energy and economy of the entire enterprise of the city. Despite the fact that over and over again we see the beneficial effects, in both direct (escalating property values near new transit lines or parks, etc.) and less direct ways (increased cultural activities, in-migration of young new talent, attraction of more creative property developers and employers, etc.).

Coincidentally enough, an intriguing article appeared in the Ideas section of Sunday's Boston Globe, entitled "Growth Factor: How Big Government Helps the Economy Take Off". A carefully documented presentation of the evidence that, despite the commonly held belief to the contrary, the size of government and high taxes do not slow a nation's economic growth. In depth study of other rich, high-tax countries revealed a higher standard of living as well as robust and growing economies. A cursory reflection on our health care crisis and lack of affordable day care to take two items will illustrate why this might be so. In fact, the article states that, "contrary to the romantic claims about the nation's laissez-faire past, American history is a story of government intervening, time and again, to support growth." But I digress.

After the panelists made their presentations members of the audience were invited to respond, making comments or asking questions. A lively flow of ideas followed. When I spoke, I first described my personal experience of being a researcher at the archives and what a thrill it was to view the actual plans in the very place they were created by the Olmsted firm. The totality of the experience was truly awe inspiring. It was a privilege. Then, I stated my interest in the challenge of interpreting Olmsted's legacy in a wider context of landscape history and planning, politics and public policy. I suggested that as we face planning and design questions we should ask ourselves, "What would Olmsted do?"

I am quite sure that his thinking would have evolved and he would have new and ingenious solutions to the modern concerns of climate change and non-renewable energy dependence. Of course we can't really know what he would do today, it's a bit like speculating on what Jimi Hendrix's music might sound like today had he lived. We know it would have been original and musical, but what would it sound like?

I do know that had Olmsted not grown disillusioned or cynical, he would still believe in the benefits of access to nature and the cultural benefits of public gathering places. He would have advanced his thinking in terms of environmentally sensitive site design. Transportation would have become more of an issue. The devastating environmental, social, health and economic impacts of suburban sprawl were not something Olmsted foresaw. How would his designs have evolved to adapt? His was a holistic perspective and I am sure he would have sought ways to engender life that better integrated people with their environment and each other along with ways to meet their daily mobility needs without automobile dependency.

In the current era, public investment for the civitas is made evident in those places that respond to the challenge of climate change by adopting innovative policies to encourage/mandate energy efficient building and design, alternative transportation, support for renewable energy, etc. will be the places that prosper. It is a feedback mechanism. These types of initiatives insure the ability to adapt and survive into the future and offer a roost for those looking for an optimistic place to pursue their own contribution to society.

To begin the process of interpretation of the archives, I asked the panelists if Olmsted every expressed concern or dissatisfaction with the shift of his work from large scale public projects to wealthy private estates. Their answers differed. Charles Beveridge talked about the purity of Olmsted's design objectives and his belief that they were worth doing as examples of "good design and techniques" for their illustrative status which could be adapted and copied by homeowners across the country. Delores Hayden said that Olmsted definitely had regrets and was greatly concerned about the shift in focus of his work, preferring instead to see a broader public have access to the product of his efforts.

In speaking to Delores Hayden afterwards, I was able to convey my admiration for her work to her. She told me she wanted to get a tee-shirt that said "What would Olmsted do?"

[where: 02446]

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Traffic: Route 9 and Beyond

I've been thinking a lot about traffic, or more precisely, traffic congestion, lately. I'm afraid I'm going to have to discuss the nitty-gritty details of traffic volumes, turning movements and intersection capacities, later on, but it's all for a purpose. Namely, to illuminate a possible future and to give us a chance to think about just what kind of future we would like to be planning for and whether or not the two correlate.

I spent the better part of a week forecasting and analyzing the potential traffic conditions on Route 9 focusing in on the section between Brookline Avenue and Cypress St. I began by looking at the traffic study done by the consultant for the 111 Boylston St. development. This study estimates the number of new vehicle trips likely to travel to the site, predicts their likely travel route and analyzes the function of the intersections these vehicles will travel through in year 2013. Building on this information, I have forecast and plotted the potential traffic impacts of continued commercial development at the other available sites along Route 9 in this area, postulating that it would be built-out to the full amount allowed under current zoning and assuming it were similar in use to the 111 Boylston St. development. This has been an enlightening exercise, one that has led me to some interesting conclusions which I will describe in more detail later.

All the while when I was working on my "build-out traffic analysis", I of course experienced traffic congestion without even getting into my car. Just going about my daily life, I experience the nearly constant problem in Coolidge Corner that culminates in the log jam of cars traveling north on Harvard Street blocking the westbound Beacon Street flow, long after the light turns green. This phenomena results in some colorful words and gestures, as horns blare and agitated drivers execute maniac moves. Pedestrians, defiantly responding to their walk signal, (for which they have patiently waited), trudge through the middle of this, unconcerned about the plight of the cars stuck in the middle of the road. Note that, I said cars, not drivers. Once behind the wheel, our isolation, anonymity and sensory deprivation often cause us to act and be treated in ways that would never occur if we were face-to-face. Riding a bike is another way I experience congestion without getting into a car. It is often a game of chicken, where one needs to constantly second guess what a driver might do and they all behave differently around a bike.

Just to add to the immersion factor, I have been reading the fascinating new book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What it Says About Us." by Tom Vanderbilt. What this book lacks in depth it makes up for in breadth, and one is able to come away with a few over-arching conclusions, the most persistent of which is that despite all the tools and aids we erect to guide, regulate, enhance and protect ourselves, our human fallibility leaves us vulnerable, as we come up against our limited capacity to perceive accurately, evaluate risk realistically or act rationally. Driving is an unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unmanageable and therefore dangerous pursuit. Controlling it or managing it is only partially successful because of the random factors of human psychology.

My favorite line in the book was this, "Parking is the gate way drug to full blown traffic abuse." A phrase much akin to Fred Salvucci's "Parking lots are fertility drugs for cars." My favorite section was about Hans Monderman, the Danish traffic planner who understood that it was the world of cars that was the guest in the human world of towns and cities and that by removing all traffic signs and designing roadways for slower speeds he could insert uncertainty into the driving experience, forcing drivers to expect the unexpected. Therefore to travel safely they must interact with pedestrians, bicyclists and other cars in a new context of shared space. To illustrate his point he closed his eyes and walked backwards into a traffic square of his own design and as predicted, the autos gently pick there way around him. As for "Traffic's" lack of depth, the nearly 100 pages of detailed notes offer enough source material for follow-up to anyone seriously interested in any of the many many research topics he touches upon.

But back to Route 9. The Article 15 debate focused our thoughts on the potential traffic impacts from the 2 Brookline Place development, thanks to Hugh Mattison, the Article's petitioner. The Article called for lowering the amount of required parking for this new, large and traffic intensive development, urging a shift towards utilizing the adjacent transit resources, as was originally intended by Town Meeting. We tried to tease out the nexus between vehicle trips and on-site parking. Concerned citizens living nearby wondered just how much of that new traffic would travel on their streets, or how they would be able to get out of their driveway as cars stacked up at a newly installed signal. We heard consultants predict how many new vehicles will traverse our crowded roadways to visit and work here and which intersections will be affected. They described what intersection improvements were necessary to mitigate those impacts.

The bottom line was that, despite a significant underestimate of volume, (the initial estimate for 2 BP was a total of 2,800 daily trips, for a 260,000 sq.ft. facility, compared to the total of 2,400 daily trips for a 66,000 sq. ft. facility at 111 Boylston St.) the intersection with Brookline Avenue and Route 9 cannot handle the demand for left turns off of Route 9 heading to 2 Brookline Place in the morning. These vehicles, once on Brookline Ave, will then need to turn left onto Pearl St., a new traffic light will be necessary at this intersection. Pearl St. itself will be strained, as it is a narrow roadway with parking, frequent double parking and many exiting and entering driveways. It is acknowledged that the Gateway East roadway improvement, (a major construction project involving State and Federal dollars), which lengthens the jughandle and aligns Pearl and Walnut St. into a four-way intersection with Route 9 is necessary to accommodate the traffic associated with this project. This is because it will allow eastbound vehicles to turn left, directly onto Pearl St., thereby solving the Brookline Avenue/Route 9 intersection malfunction.

These problems are near-term and close-in and even if these congestion difficulties are successfully managed, there are also the further afield "ripple" effects of the additional thousands of daily trips added both to the through traffic volumes on Route 9 and spread out through many already congested intersections, such as School St./Cypress and Washington. More through travel on Route 9 means there are less "gaps" to accommodate increasing volumes of turning vehicles, as these two demands work against each other. The hoped for "fix" of re-timing the signal that is often suggested for failing intersections offers little hope in this situation as all competing volumes are equally high. Changing the timing to allow for a higher volume of a particular turning movement will add additional delay will to Route 9, causing backups through succeeding intersections. Other major developments are happening just over our borders too, such as the re-development of the site of the old Omni supermarket in Chestnut Hill which increase vehicle trips on Route 9 substantially. Brookline will also be impacted by additional Longwood development and building over the air rights of the Mass Pike in the Fenway. These additional developments were not included in the traffic analysis for 111 Boylston St.

As everyone recognizes, Route 9 is already a heavily traveled roadway, carrying as it does approximately 31,000 vehicles a day. Anyone who uses it regularly for commuting knows you are just going to sit there, spewing pollution, wasting fuel and contributing even more to global warming than you might otherwise have had to, had you not been delayed. All this congestion results in poor air quality, increased greenhouse gases, increased stress, and lost time and money (for both individuals and businesses), negatively impacting our health, environment and economy. Desperate drivers begin diverting through neighborhoods to seek a quicker route.

As one approaches the city on Route 9, the delays increase due to the combination of heavy through travel and the increased frequency of cross streets and driveways with high volumes of crossing and turning travelers. What began out in the suburbs as a controlled access four lane arterial has become something of a hybrid roadway, still with its median barrier, but the intersections are less like a highway intersection with exit ramps and flyovers and more like a city cross street. Yet the roadway is still needed to carry its high volume of through traveling commuters.

Into this setting, let us consider the consequences of developing or re-developing, the other G 2.0 parcels on Route 9 near Cypress St. To orient you that would be the Audy Gas Station, and the 303 Boylston St. site on the north side of Route 9 and the Volkswagen Dealer, a small Electric sub-station and the U-Haul on the south side. The rest of the land along Route 9 between Cypress and Washington is zoned either G 1.0 or M 1.0 (CAM) and was not included in my "build-out" analysis.

The rough estimate of additional peak hour trips associated with the build-out would be:

AM Peak Hour: 1, 037
PM Peak Hour: 1, 355

Peak hour in this case refers to the peak hour on Route 9, not the peak hour at the development site, which because it is a medical office building will be busy with patients coming and going all day. These numbers may be too high, because they are higher than counts taken locally, but I also believe the consultant underestimated the "background growth" when they did not include the large additional developments in the area and assumed a growth factor of only .5% per year in volumes. Perhaps high gas prices will help achieve this low growth level. While these numbers alone may seem distressing, what is particularly problematic is the fact that at any given time at least half of the vehicles coming or going will need to reverse direction in order to access or leave their point of origin.

Despite the fact that these sites are very near to the Brookline Hills T-stop, they are valued and perceived by potential builders as auto-oriented building sites. Our current zoning code, with its on-site parking requirements and separation of uses, encourages and reinforces these perceptions. The resulting proposals are then not surprisingly best suited to a suburban setting with good highway access and plenty of parking to accommodate everyone accessing the site via automobile.

In the case of the land near Cypress St. and Route 9 it was estimated that 65% of the people coming or going to the site would be from the west. So, in the case of buildings on the north side of Route 9 accessing the site necessitates a U-turn. The 111 Boylston St. consultant predicted that everyone would achieve this maneuver at the Walnut St. jughandle. This requires the reversing vehicles to swing around the jughandle then turn right onto High St. and immediately left onto Route 9 at the Washington St./Route 9 intersection. This intersection was already functioning at LOS D in 2007 during the AM peak hour. With the addition of 111 Boylston it is predicted to function at LOS E. With higher through volumes on Route 9 and/or High/Washington St. the LOS will further degrade. This is before we add in any additional development on the remaining Route 9 parcels. In addition to the limiting factors of high through volumes on Route 9 this intersection is severely constrained in another way. The closeness of the High/Walnut Street intersection to the Washington/High/Route 9 intersection means that only about 3 left turn vehicles can fit in the left turn lane. Two source lanes of traffic are competing for those three spaces, cars traveling north on High St. and those folks who are reversing direction from the jughandle. With high demand from both sources, it becomes increasingly difficult for the jughandle cars to ever get into this lane. The entire signal cycle length at Washington/High/Route 9 is 90 seconds. That means there are 45 cycles per hour. 45 times 3 cars per cycle and this intersection can "process" at a maximum (if everything works perfectly) of 135 left turns. The 111 Boylston St. study predicted a demand of 129 left turns here during the AM peak hour. The project developers for 111 Boylston St. are contributing some mitigation dollars to the Gateway East jughandle improvement, which is postulated to aid the functioning of this intersection by allowing more space for vehicles waiting to make the left onto High St. This is a marginal improvement to the basic limitation of the left turn at Washington/High/Route 9.

For my build-out analysis, instead of assuming that everyone who needed to reverse direction (east to west) would do so at the jughandle, I anticipated the capacity limitations of this intersection and assumed that half of the people (124 during the AM peak) would instead turn left at Cypress, (no easy trick either) then right on Davis and then right on Route 9. This circuitous route is not self-evident and diversion attempts will, until they are learned, result in circling and wandering before a new route is learned. This alternative route is likely to be used even more than this, given the degree of difficulty I have described at using the left turn at Washington/High/Route 9. Half of those not diverted to Davis are still going to be trying to turn left at the failed Washington/High/Route 9 intersection, or will be executing illegal U-turns or finding other routes.

For development on the south side of Route 9, those leaving the sites who wish to return to the west will simply turn right on High Street, right on Walnut and then either right on Cypress or continue straight. I estimated an additional 490 vehicles in the PM peak hour on Walnut. While these vehicle numbers may be high, they nevertheless illustrate the inevitable result of additional auto-dependent development of these particular parcels, namely, the reverse direction move will be accommodated on Davis and Walnut Streets, two residential streets that are already suffering the physical and environmental assault of too much traffic.

Other roadways that serve as limited access commuter routes, such as Route 1 in Dedham for instance while also accommodating intensive retail development has done so by providing an elaborate system of controlled access ramps, frontage roads and signalized turnarounds. Clearly, we are not looking to develop to this intensity, but it illustrates the elaborate engineering machinations necessary to accommodate the disparate functions of through travel, localized access and intensive roadside development.

Some would choose to simply disregard the needs of the through traveler, taking "possession" as it were of "our part" of Route 9. However, this is a short-term and self-defeating proposition. Mobility for commerce, such as delivery trucks, tradesmen, customers and employees are all essential to the fabric of our economy. By developing highly intensive auto-dependent commercial uses on these particular parcels we are causing a much greater problem than we are solving. As currently configured these sites are attractive to business because of the amount of traffic that passes by. This is why a use like the VW dealer, while we may not think it optimal, is at least in terms of function, sensible. It is seen by a lot of people, but does not "generate" a great deal of trips. Same goes for the gas station. Gas stations aren't destinations and pull their customers from the passing flow, thereby not adding to existing volumes. Audy's has its own difficulties with the driveway on Cypress being so close to the intersection, but that's another issue.

But, it doesn't have to be this way, there are other alternatives, which are more in keeping with the goals outlined in our Comprehensive Plan and in harmony with a more sustainable vision for Brookline. This corner, Cypress and Boylston St. has some of the bones necessary to become a walkable, mixed use "village" that takes advantage of its T access and allows nearby residents to fulfill some of their daily shopping needs without driving. Altering our zoning to more precisely define mixed use guidelines and to devise an overall vision for public realm amenities will allow an alternative vision to take shape. Thereby, reducing the negative traffic impacts on our neighborhoods and Route 9 itself and maximizing the value of our transit resources and residential density, making for a more effective and longer-term economic development strategy. These goals were loosely stated in the Comprehensive Plan and further refinement could help us articulate a creative and specific plan for a new neighborhood commercial area. The Town will be seeking a smart growth planning grant from EPA or other sources to do just that.

[where: 02446]

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What Kind of Housing?

What on first blush might seem like an insignificant residential addition to an existing building near Coolidge Corner, has fanned the flames of a long standing debate. The request to "legalize" a four bedroom basement apartment has brought up many issues and concerns. The assessor's database lists the building as a three family. It is set mid-block in a row of attached three story walk-ups, some of which are condos, some rental apartments and others owner-occupied three-families.

This proposal could be an object lesson, giving us an opportunity to examine some deeply held beliefs; some ideals we may or may not prescribe to and some prejudices we may not like admitting we have. It also highlights some serious procedural problems that have simply made matters worse.

First off, we should look at the specifics of the proposal. The building is currently owned by an out of town landlord, who bought the building a year and a half ago and applied for a building permit to rehab the basement apartment, converting a 2 bedroom one bath unit to a 4 bedroom 2 bath unit. Amazingly, he was given the permit. Next door is another rental building. Two doors down, is an owner occupied condominium. All of these buildings are attached and were built together in 1920, and present a unified facade to the street.

Visually, the differences in ownership and occupancy are apparent. The condo building has a beautiful wood door and looks well maintained with fresh plantings gracing the stairway. The building in question's front door is the standard issue aluminum frame and the front yard has a short chain link fence bordering its weed-filled yard. The newly installed electrical boxes were mounted prominently on the front of the building and have already begun to rust.

The current owner of the building bought a three unit building. Of course he must have known about the then two bedroom unit in the basement, but the town didn't. Neither the current owner nor the past has paid taxes on a four unit building. The other similar buildings on this block that do have basement units have small one bedroom units, approximately 680 sq. ft in size. The proposed unit is 1, 848 sq. ft. The notice for the Zoning Board of Appeals Hearing on this application states that a total 5 Special Permits and 8 Variances are required in order for this unit to be legalized. Clearly, this should tell us something about how incompatible this intensity of usage is with the parcels' zoning.

Many residents in this neighborhood (myself included) have complained about the noise and destruction caused by roving bands of drunken students. This is a very real and disturbing phenomena. For those who live near to the party of origin, sleep is an elusive goal. While it is not possible to predict or dictate who will live in this basement unit or any rental housing for that matter, the proposed configuration of many bedrooms in a basement unit with as much parking as possible is geared towards that segment of the rental market. Families tend to seek out buildings with other families and professionals. They value quiet and they also value lots of light and air and are often willing to make do with fewer bedrooms to achieve these benefits.

The perception that the number of students living in North Brookline has increased in recent decades, is in fact true and is reflected in the 1990 and 2000 Census data for tract #4002 (roughly Precinct 2). The number of 18 -24 year olds increased from 672 to 1,078 which, as a percentage of the population is an increase from 12.16% to 18.37%. Meanwhile the number of adults aged 25+ declined from 4, 027 to 3,951, which is, as a percentage from 73% to 67% of the population.

Many individuals who support both affordable housing and the wisdom of building housing in proximity to our transit resources cite these reasons as supporting arguments for this particular conversion. This reveals a lack of attention to the particulars of design, issues of crowding and the functional ramifications to a setting that will come to bear in the immediate vicinity and beyond. Objections to density are usually a result of concerns about crowding, lack of open space, poor space planning and lack of usable and pleasant pedestrian/public spaces. These are issues that are real and will be a result of this proposal. It is an example of density done badly. A three story attached walk-up, as the building is now, and as it is zoned for, is a moderately dense residential setting, one that is adequately dense to support both public transit and neighborhood commercial areas and therefore is not an appropriate location for additional density. An average density of 13 dwelling units per acre, which is what the M1.5 FAR zone is, is a standard level of density acknowledged in urban planning practice as an appropriate target level for Transit Oriented Development.

There are other areas where additional housing density could be much more appropriately accommodated. Primarily, as upper levels in buildings within our business districts. This mixed use configuration has the additional advantage of maximizing the potential for non-auto transportation, due to residents' walking proximity to retail, services, employment and transit.

Another option is the adaptive re-use of existing large single-family homes, through the addition of accessory units, etc. This is something that the Housing Advisory Board is exploring as a policy proposal. This idea addresses several significant trends simultaneously, namely the increasing financial difficulty of maintaining a large home and the aforementioned diminution of household sizes and the need for more, smaller housing options. If the additional housing were located within walking of distance of transit and neighborhood business districts and parking were limited, another sustainable development goal would be met. While there are many aspects of this proposal that must be carefully thought out, I believe it identifies and foresees changes that will occur nonetheless due to trends in demographics, energy costs, economics, etc. It makes sense to get out ahead of the curve and manage the change, rather than having it simply overwhelm us. It would be better to allow and manage accessory units rather than lose a great deal of our housing stock and neighborhood character to teardowns. Without very well articulated formbased codes, new building may not be compatible with existing structures.

Adaptive use of existing homes and structures has significant energy and therefore environmental benefits. While it may be true that our older buildings are not as energy efficient as brand new LEED buildings, structures built before WWII are more efficient than anything built between 1945-2000. Existing buildings have a great deal of embedded energy, and their re-use avoids the destruction and construction of vast amounts of materials. If we can retrofit them with some energy saving materials and technologies, we will have made significant strides towards providing energy efficient and needed housing. We will also preserve our historic architecture where appropriate and maintain the visual qualities of neighborhood streetscapes, avoiding teardowns and incompatibly scaled infill.

We need to think a bit more clearly about just what we mean when we say affordable housing. What segment of the market is truly under served and what segment of the market would we like to accommodate? Who do we want to attract to Brookline? Is it in our best interest to invest in creating housing opportunities for long term residents who feel vested in their community? Is this a goal we can actually do something about? How do our policies and planning practices impact these personal decisions?

As someone who is directly impacted by the influx of students to my area, I do not see it as good town policy to promote the building of housing designed and configured to attract students. Besides the directly negative impacts to the neighborhood, there are consequences to the community from accommodating a larger transient population. It is true that we of course cannot dictate who chooses to rent a particular unit, but we can design our zoning ordinances and building codes, and enforce them in a manner consistent with, the intent to augment our housing stock with units suitable for the growing segment of our population in need of reasonably priced housing. Namely, working families, middle-aged singles, older adults, single parent households, etc. While there are opportunities and programs for low income rental and ownership housing, there is a lack of housing in the middle range. This is the population that is being squeezed out by landlords catering to students, and in terms of potential home owners, middle income residents are loathe to purchase or remain in areas rife with the high levels of student residents. Therefore, the influx of students to an area can dissuade a potential property owner from purchasing a home in that area. The homeowners still there have been dealt a blow to both their quality of life and their property's value.

Sadly, in the case of the basement apartment, some felt that because a mistake had been made in granting the original building permit, that the zoning relief should therefore be granted. While the property owner may have a legitimate complaint about this mistake, this is a separate issue from whether or not this intensity of use is appropriate for this site. This later question is the one before the zoning board of appeals and it is upon this and the criteria for granting special permit and variances, especially the impacts to the neighborhood, that must take precedence.

This occurrence has focused a lens on the need for consistency and diligence in permitting procedures and practices, causing many to feel a lack of trust and security. This is unfortunate and we should openly talk about and address this issue.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Greening Brookline: One Condominium Building at a Time

I live in a three story brick U-shaped courtyard condominium building. Built in 1940, there are aspects of old world construction that give the place its character like the hard wood floors, solid wood panel doors and archways between the rooms. There are also many "art deco" flourishes, such as pink and black bathroom tiles in many of the units, that owners have dealt with in a number of ways over the years. But there is a solidity and thickness to the walls, with their settling cracks and impenetrability that makes hanging art require a masonry drill bit, that you just wouldn't find in newer construction. All in all, for a 68 year old building, its doing pretty well.

For better or worse, 50 unit owners have made an investment in this place. We are stuck with the building and all its foibles and we are stuck with each other! For those of you who also live in a condominium, I know you are shaking your head in a knowing way. For nothing focuses the forces of democracy, nor reveals the depths of petty differences, quite like the joint ownership of ones' home!

Into this setting, comes the realities of climate change, peak oil, environmental concerns in general, and the need to rethink just about everything about how we operate. A similar scenario is being replayed at just about every other condo building large and small across town I am sure. In response, a small group of us have formed an ad hoc committee to tackle the "Greening" of our building. One or two trustees are members. Each of us has our pet issue. Natural lawn care, more recycling, energy efficiency, etc. The number one problem of course are the two extremely thirsty industrial-sized oil-fed boilers rumbling away in the basement. Since we all had to shell out a painfully large extra amount of cash just to keep the things fed this winter, we are in no position to hire "experts" or buy our way to any amazing solutions. No, this is a DIY operation, but we are gung-ho! Motivated and hoping to motivate others. Plus, we happen to know someone who is an "expert" who is equally gung-ho who offered to come take a look at our building gratis and to offer us an initial evaluation and suggestions (Thank-you Jim!).

First on Jim's list, of course, was the "low hanging fruit" of insulation. Our back doors need replacing or at least weather stripping and the single pane glass windows could be covered. Same goes for the bare water pipes in the basement and the skylights in the stairwells. We are planning an "Eco-day" fun work day, with refreshments to get this work done. A bit of camaraderie and elbow grease will be empowering, ultimately saving a bit of energy. Then of course there's the issue of windows. Some of the units purchased new windows as a group a few decades ago. Problem was, it was optional, so not all the units have them. It's unclear whether or not the Trust can mandate new windows, but at a minimum we are hoping for storm windows for everyone. The irony here is that our heating system is so uneven that some people freeze while others boil. So what you get are people opening their windows! even after they shut off their radiators. So, how do you justify sweating (no pun intended) the energy loss of the windows when you have this going on? Ultimately, we would be better off with individual heat/cool/hot water units, running on natural gas in each condo. These would be much more efficient and comfortable, but the conversion cost too high and the energy source not renewable.

We are looking into converting to natural gas, as an interim solution. It is at least cleaner, cheaper and domestic. The National Grid commercial sales rep and installation contractor have been positive and encouraging, as they run around like the energizer bunny trying to service the demand from all those beleaguered oil customers. Indeed, the entire Northeast's greatest and most pressing sustainability challenge is the need to transition from oil heat dependence. We are pushing hard to make this happen before the cold months return.

What about the roof? No one can agree about whether or not it lacks insulation. Should we get an official energy audit? But what really got us excited was Jim's vision of the future. Up on that big flat roof of ours, he saw solar panels that could capture the sun's energy to heat our hot water, (currently heated from those same oil-guzzling beasts). I'm hoping that next year is the year for solar here, as the State legislature has just passed its new energy bill. Included therein are provisions for both rebates, the ability to rent solar panels to own (minimizing capital outlay) and if we are lucky enough to generate extra electricity we can sell it to NStar! Solar panels proliferated across Germany once the government set the buy back price of energy high enough to make investment in the panels worthwhile. Jim told us that with the help of an electrician we could do some of the installation ourselves. We are eager to get started!

On the long-term horizon the vision gets interesting. Jim's idea? Geothermal, zoned for each unit, with solar augmentation. We have the unique advantage here of having a large courtyard where we could sink many wells. How feasible is this? We don't really know. There is one house in Brookline on Winchester Street that derives all its heating/cooling energy needs from geothermal, but it is essentially a newly constructed building.

Here is where our seven member group got into trouble. Suddenly, there were rumors running wild through the building that this group of eco-freaks were going to be assessing everyone immediately for a $1,000,000 geothermal energy system! Our manager declared he wanted nothing to do with us. The shrill emails flew and no one was being rational. Obviously we had a communications problem. Not too surprising. We only have one annual unit owners meeting a year, at the end of the year. No one knows what's going on. It's natural that fear and concern about such major decisions would cause anxiety and fear. So added on to our to-day list was getting every unit owners email and doing a newsletter. The newsletter can share all the research information we turn up, like our rate of recycling, or energy use statistics. We can educate and encourage. We talked about maybe needed a big meeting.

Many owners thought "going green" meant more expensive. Our objectives are focused on both short and long term cost control and adopting practices that will generate less waste, etc. To me, this lack of foresight and denial of reality is the most frustrating part of this. Doing nothing is not a neutral option, it is a recipe for continued waste, inefficiency, escalating costs and increased environmental damage. Any well thought out investment we make at this point to reduce our energy use or shift to renewable energy sources or remove harmful chemicals from our environment will have paybacks that far outweigh the cost. Even if you are not planning on living in your unit for long, which condo is more attractive to the potential buyer, the one that has got its energy needs secured for the future or the one at the complex that has buried its head in the (Middle Eastern) sand? Being able to market our building as a "green" building and have that actually mean something, will be extremely valuable to a great many people for a multitude of reasons.

Changing our cleaning or landscaping company to ones that use earth friendly practices and products could be challenging. We are just now researching our options. A significant obstacle in this regard will be the discounts given for multi-building contracts. Our management company manages many buildings. Being a lone wolf building with a new company could be difficult or costly or both, we shall see.

While we are trying to do as much as we can for ourselves, we are also hoping that as governments respond to the needs for energy evaluation and improvements there will be some assistance coming our way, both technical and financial. Until then, we will carry on, hopefully communicating and exchanging ideas to bring some positive changes. A clearing house of information between condo associations would be a useful thing, so we all don't have to re-invent the wheel!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lessons from London

I had the great good fortune of attending a lecture given by Nicky Gavron, former deputy mayor of London at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge yesterday. Her topic? London's comprehensive climate action plan. There were many valuable lessons here, most notably, the importance of leadership. Several of us from Brookline were there, David Lowe, Cynthia Snow and Bruce Wolff that I recognized, perhaps there were others.

She began her talk with some sobering statistics. The climate change we are experiencing now in the form of climate disruptions, etc. is from emissions released in the 1950's! The persistence of greenhouse gases are impossible to mitigate. Next, she told us that what was 1 year's worth of emissions in the 1950's are now released in 6 weeks. In sum, we have less than one decade to stabilize our emissions to avoid catastrophic consequences.

This was the extent of the doom and gloom however, because Nicky is a doer. In fact I think she thrives on the challenge of it all and is, with her former mayor and the rest of her staff and constituency, succeeding in remarkable ways. Like all successful strategies theirs is a top down and bottom up strategy. Multi-faceted and interlocking. Complex and chaotic. Marshalling the forces of the law, persuasion, co-operation, education, experimentation, data-gathering, pricing and procurement, all in the service of reducing carbon emissions, their climate change plan has improved the quality of life for London's 7.5 million citizens and spurred a new economic prosperity. London has the fastest growing economy of all the G7 cities.

This didn't happen overnight of course. It began with the 1992 Rio summit. In 2000, London directly elected their mayor who came in with the mission and mandate to respond in a substantive way to climate change. The mayor is overseen by a council of 25 elected representatives. 14 of these are from geographical districts. 11 are at-large. Two points seem important about this. A strong mayor is essential to keeping everyone on point and councils should have a good number of at-large members. This later one is so because there needs to be a strong non-parochial voice speaking for the overarching goal of carbon reduction and the livability of the city as a whole. I won't go into the implications for Brookline of these two points here, other than to say they are both ideas that have relevance and are worth considering as we face the daunting challenges of the 21st century.

Nicky believes that with their plan they can achieve a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025. Their goal is a 60% reduction, which would be made achievable in their estimation if national policies included, carbon pricing, renewable energy investment and the removal of barriers (regulatory and practical) to local energy production. All this within the context of a population
increase of 1 million people.

Each listener had their own area of interest I am sure, and there was much food for thought. For me, I was eager to hear about their transportation and land use policies and practices. London has a strict green belt surrounding it, "hemming in" any future growth, (past foresight!) and has also adopted a policy of not building on any remaining open space within the core area either. Theirs is a strategy focused on co-locating transit access and development, "densifying" existing growth areas where transportation is available. Substantial investment in transit both from a "hard ware" point of view and on the customer service end of things preceded a highly successful congestion pricing plan. Now in its fifth year, the congestion pricing plan reduced the number of cars entering the center city by 36%. Congestion itself was reduced by 25% and an expansion of the program to the west is being considered. Significant reductions in accidents and pollution were realized almost immediately and retail sales figures have in fact grown in the core at twice the rate of the remaining area's average. I believe this must be because a less congested core is once again an attractive shopping destination.

Of those who previously drove 55-60% switched to buses or transit. There was no significant shift to off-pricing hours. There are many details that have made the program successful. A few key points are: 1) Draconian enforcement of the bus lanes, (no one parks in them, thus assuring decent service), 2) TDM is practiced at major employers, including personalized travel coaching , 3) All new revenues generated from the fees goes towards improving public transportation.

Ah, we here in the land of un-coordinated overlapping agencies, unplanned development and independent fiefdoms can, in many ways, simply look upon such logical and systematic action with longing and envy. But, hope does spring eternal. At the Q & A I had the opportunity to ask her if their transport strategies included any kind of co-ordinated parking measures. Here is what she said: 1) Well, it is incredibly expensive to park in London, I don't even know how much it is, because I haven't even tried it for so long. (Just the other night, our presenter, Jason Schrieber spent a great deal of time talking to us about parking as commodity, set the price right and travel mode choice will be altered, I would have liked to ask her if these were primarily private or public spaces), 2) Parking enforcement is a big issue in the boroughs (suburbs) out side of the charging border) where it must be strictly applied, (sound familiar?), 3) There are vast amounts of subterranean parking underneath London, (didn't get to ask her, but wondered if this was a result of the bomb shelters built in WWII?) so they could not really do much to limit parking, and 4) They are reviewing their parking requirements because they think they are too high especially for residential development in the boroughs where they are dismayed by the loss of yards to parking and have instituted a requirement for 10 sq. meters of open space per unit.

21% of CO2 are from surface transport in a city. Nicky then went on to tell us about the remaining 71% of emissions that come from buildings in cities and ways that they are tackling that. It almost all comes down to energy, mostly for heating and cooling. When I was putting together my talk about sustainable Brookline neighborhoods, I had the idea that the scale of our neighborhoods might lend themselves to small-scale energy production and distribution. Surprisingly, this is a keystone of the London Plan. The benefits to decentralism are multitudinous, including redundancy on the grid, ability to adapt technologies to specific environmental conditions, the potential of combined heat and power generation (where "waste" heat in the form of hot water is used locally), and energy savings from less loss in transmission, etc.

What was really exciting about their whole outlook on the energy technology front was that they took up the mantel of being the driver of innovation. By that I mean that they understood that because of the size of their city, they could, through requiring certain energy innovations such as levels of efficiency and on-site renewable energy generation etc. they could actually stimulate the market to innovate in order to meet that demand. She called it "leap-frogging". I think we would call it jump-starting. And she mentioned several times how we, in the Boston area are sitting in the hot bed of innovation and could surely benefit from just such an approach. Here, her faith in, at least the ingenuity end of things, is, I believe well put. By creating the market for the products, the government has secured the risk! Brilliant. Why wait for the 20 years the companies tell us it will take to make these things work, deploying the infrastructure for recharging, or refining endless prototypes, etc., etc. Here she has truly grasped the importance of the large cities, which , especially if they work in consort with one another, can play a huge role in combating climate change.

She mentioned too, the role for smaller cities, stressing that it is up to us. All the types of decisions that truly have an effect on CO2 emissions occur largely on the local level, such as: How energy efficient are our buildings being built and renovated? How well-coordinated are land-use and transportation decisions? What behaviors can individual households change to reduce emissions and how can we support those?

Most convincing was her belief in the fact that aggressively addressing climate change and thereby securing her cities energy security, mobility and prosperity, she was securing its long-term viability and livability.

For anyone wishing to learn more about London's Climate Action Plan here are some useful links:
The London Plan (the over-arching policy document)

The London Climate Change Action Plan:

Congestion Charge Impacts Monitoring Fifth Annual Report (warning for data junkies only)

UN Climate Action Programme piece: (Excellent essay by Nicky about role of cities)


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Parking Space

The standard dimensions for a perpendicular parking space are 9 ft. x 19 ft., with an additional 24 ft. of pavement required behind the rows for access and egress. Parallel parking spaces must be 9 ft. wide and 24 ft. long. So, each car requires 216 to 279 sq. ft. of pavement to park. That is a lot of space for one vehicle that often carries only one person. That is also a lot of land to cover with an impervious surface. At the dawn of the auto age America seemed a vast and limitless reservoir of both space and land and we quickly set about dispersing ourselves.

We even felt compelled to accommodate the auto within our cities, riping through neighborhoods and destroying the fabric of our human scaled street networks to build parking lots and roadways, in an attempt to merge the vital hearts of commerce with the freedom and easy access of the automobile. The strategy was of course doomed to fail. The landscape became one of ramps, roads and parking lots. Once out of our vehicle the human body is met with the cold gray concrete of parking decks, or we must walk along side the empty threatening space of vast expanses of parking lots. A visit to Detroit, center of the automotive universe, holds many lessons on how not to build a city. They are struggling to overcome the past and have made some significant steps in the right direction, especially with their new waterfront park, but have a long way to go.

We are now beginning to have an intelligent discussion about parking in Brookline. There have been some surprising revelations. (Surprising to me anyway!) and I feel there are also some serious misconceptions. A major concern many people have centers around cars parked on residential streets. Everyone has a different theory about who these cars belong to and why they are there, but there is an intense dislike of them. I have heard the sentiment "I don't want Brookline to look like Cambridge or Somerville or Allston" from many people. Apparently these individuals perceive the big difference between these communities to be the presence of cars on the street. No one sees the irony in the fact that they all want to own cars and drive them where they want, but don't want to see them in parking lots or on the street. Personally, I think one of the biggest differences in the look of these various communities is the number of street trees. The other is the quality of the housing stock. But back to this fixation on the number of cars parked on the street. At first I thought this had to do with residents not being able to park (or their visitors) in front of their home because of these interlopers. But I don't think that quite gets at the heart of it. It is more about an idealized image of what a Brookline neighborhood is supposed to look like. And it doesn't have cars on the street. Hence the overnight parking ban. We have achieved what we wanted there, but the result has been another problem.

Free parking for commuters. Without good enforcement of our two-hour parking limit, it seems many have found it convenient to park all day and take the T or walk to their work destinations. I don't see this where I live, but it is apparently a big problem around Brookline Village. Where the breakdown in logic occurs is when people think this problem is related to the amount of legal parking provided in the Village. No amount of paid parking in the Village will make a dent in this problem. For one thing, the free parkers have no interest in paying for their parking. For another thing, the demand is infinite. If we attempted to accommodate the demand for commuter parking we would only be inviting more and more vehicles into our already overburdened, congested roadways and neighborhoods, further degrading an already dangerous and conflict ridden environment. The only answer is good enforcement of the two-hour parking limit.

Flowing from this "get them off the street" desire, there is a powerful seduction to the "out of sight out of mind" solution of "stuffing the cars in a big hole in the ground", aka the underground parking garage. If we just build enough spaces in the underground garage, we will be able to put all the cars in it and our streets will remain "unsullied" by the nasty cars cluttering them up. There are a few serious flaws in the logic here. First off, cars do not levitate to the garage. They must make there way there, twisting and turning, pushing and squeezing through our over-crowded intersections and roadways, playing chicken with each other because of the double parkers too lazy to park properly and worse, playing chicken with pedestrians and bicyclists who are just in the way. Crowd enough of these vehicles and people into the same confined system and conflicts escalate, its a matter of physics. Your big garage is a magnet, pulling more and more vehicles into the spot you had hoped to remove them from.

Highway engineers had to face this conundrum long ago. There truly is such a thing as induced demand. They learned that you cannot build your way out of congestion. Once you make it flow better, everyone wants to use it and you are back where you started. It is a treadmill that never stops. The best you can hope for is to strike a balance. That's why the Big Dig wasn't bigger. It is hopefully big enough. It was meant to be done in conjunction with improvements to transit, so that we could move as many people as possible with our excellent mass transit. There is real efficiency there on every level.

The strongly held view in Brookline is that we must accommodate all the "demand" for parking on site for each new development or else there will be overflow into the neighborhoods or worse the dreaded circling and searching for parking. We have never had a handle on just how to predict what that "demand" is, hence our current debate that will surely continue about just how many parking spaces are needed at 2 Brookline Place. It is a much bigger question. The parking rates in our zoning code are flawed to say the least, being based on suburban locations and related only to the square footage and use of a building, variables which are often poor predictors of a businesses activity level. Rates are just not the way to go. A more nuanced approach is necessary, one based on the realities of each situation. But I won't go into all the details here, only to say that demand for parking, like any other commodity in the market place, is in fact dynamic. Just as drivers respond to the free flowing new roadway in the induced demand example above, parkers respond to the availability of easy/cheap parking when deciding whether or not to drive, take the T, walk or bike.

The other day, I was walking home from my appointment in the Longwood medical area and a fellow next to me on the sidewalk, with his Beth Israel Deaconess ID tag dangling from his belt on his cellphone said, "I can't believe I was so stupid to drive in today". Exactly. Tomorrow he won't be so stupid. I'm not making this up, this really happened.

There are some who believe that our traffic problems are actually caused by people driving around looking for parking. Traffic volumes are up because people are out driving their cars to and from their various destinations. There are a few stubborn individuals who refuse to park more than a few feet from their destination and they will either circle, idle or double park. For the more flexible individual, accommodation is almost always available, as our recent parking utilization study of Coolidge Corner revealed.

For those who hold this view, if everyone could just drive up and park right where they wanted, we would have free flowing roadways. Those roadways however would have to be so big we would have to obliterate the very destination buildings they seek to serve. I suggest they spend one day with a traffic planner running intersection analyses to see that the actual number of cars on a roadway is the determining factor for how much delay will be experienced and that there is a point at which the capacity is exceeded and delay becomes infinite. In other words, it doesn't matter how big those parking lots are, the cars won't be able to get there!

Another serious problem with the on-site disappearing cars scenario is that it precludes the provision of shared public parking. There are many benefits to shared parking, which I have written about previously. It is vastly more efficient, allowing us to dedicate much less land/space/resources to parking and it engenders social interaction and good urban design, all positive goals for Brookline.

If you are at all interested in any of these issues, please come to the upcoming parking forum:

Better Parking = Better Brookline
Monday, June 9, 2008
7- 9 pm
Old Lincoln School Auditorium

Speakers are Jason Schrieber, of Nelson/Nygaard, a national leader in Transit Orient Development, Travel Demand Management, and parking management.

Al Raine, former Chief of Planning and Development for the Dukakis Administration and now National Practice Leader for Transit Oriented Development with DMJM + Harris. Al Raine is a Brookline resident and member of the Economic Development Advisory Board.

There will be a question and answer period after the speakers.

The forum is sponsored by: Brookline Planning Board, Brookline Transportation Board, Climate Change Action Brookline, Brookline Conservation Commission, Economic Development Advisory Board and Brookline GreenSpace Alliance

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tale of Three Neighborhoods

I've lived in Brookline for twenty years this year. That's longer than any other place I've ever lived, even my home town. During that time, I've inhabited three different abodes, each with its own unique character. But what has really made an impression on me is how different the daily experience of my neighborhood has been in these three places. This, in turn has got me wondering what it is about these three different settings that should make for such different realities. After all they were all in the same town, and in terms of the physical characteristics of my space (some variation on the one or two bedroom condo) they aren't all that different from one another, and yet, there are so many differences when it comes to the feel and tone and pace of life. From the daily rhythm of my neighbors and their patterns of behavior, or the noises I hear, such as the amount of bird song I notice, to the amount of traffic on the streets, all are drastically different.

My first place was a two-bedroom condo in a 1920's courtyard building we rented on Washington St., right next to the amazingly preserved Victorian "gingerbread" house, just up from the intersection of School/Cypress. This location had lots of advantages. It was equidistant to the Village and Coolidge Corner, and the Library was so convenient. My T stop of choice was Brookline Hills, accessed via a pleasant walk through the charming residential neighborhood off of Greenough. I loved watching the ever changing porch displays of window boxes, front yard gardens, flags, etc. as the season warmed. It was a nice way to start and end the day. The courtyard had a nicely overgrown archway entrance that gave it a bit of separation from the too busy Washington St., which we soon learned carried almost all of the firetrucks dispatched in town. One night several of them came to our place as the carriage house behind our building that had been the store house for unlimited junk for too many years burned to the ground, taking our car, which was parked near it, with with. That was the same night of the big fire on White Place. I got to witness first hand our famed "top notch" services, and was grateful for the fine work of our fire department.

But as for neighborhood feel, I have to say, the court yard building itself and the other adjacent buildings, just did not have it. We knew our immediate neighbors in our building, but did not see many people coming or going. Because of this we did not often have the opportunity to stop and chat, that all-important casual encounter that slowly builds ties in more cohesive neighborhoods. Our park of choice was of course Emerson, which on a hot summer night was a favorite haunt after getting a frozen fruit Popsicle at the very convenient convenience store at Cypress/Washington. While our unit was deep within the U of the court yard, we did still hear the constant stream of cars on Washington that did not still until late at night. Being next to the Victorian house meant that we had a beautiful display of maple leaves filtering the sunlight into our kitchen and mitigating the pavement out front. It was a comfortable and pleasant place, like many buildings of its era, with the small tile in the entry way and solid marble steps.

People did not loiter on the sidewalk out front though, and I think this must have been because of the traffic. Maybe visiting both the Village and Coolidge Corner dissipated our loyalties and we did not build up that same kind of familiarity one has going to the same places on a more regular basis. We lived here four years, as we saved for that all important purchase, our condo.

Shopping for a condo in Brookline, is of course an education. We looked at dozens of places. We had become sensitive to those "neighborhood" issues and would go back at night to check the noise level, etc. Of course you never really can tell until you move in...but you do start to look and pay attention, and you can never find that one perfect place, as you have to choose from what's out there when you are looking. But we took our time and ended up buying a place at the corner of Beaconsfield and Dean Rd. This place "had it all" actually more than we were looking for. A roof deck, a fire place, a balcony, an elevator (for only 4 floors!) and a garage, with automatic door opener and direct access to the building. The building had been rebuilt to replace the one that had been destroyed in a gas explosion in 1985, hence all the modern amenities, and no gas. Across the street was the Jean B. Waldstein park. The best feature of which was the laughter of the children sledding in the winter that would float up to our window, the sunset through the majestic trees were a treat too. The T access was to die for and the car simply sat in the garage. The Star Market was a two minute walk, the rest of Washington Square not much further. I often took walks on Fisher Hill, I felt the remains of the Longyear museums' formal garden were my secret sanctuary before the condos came. Oddly enough, no one else did. One day I was shopping for a present for my Dad at a flashy gift store at the Atrium Mall and the woman behind the counter said "You're the woman who I see walking in my neighborhood!" That's how unusual my activity was I guess. I was rather persistent and did not let bad weather deter me. I subscribe to the dictum that there is no inclement weather, just inappropriate clothing choices.

I relate this anecdote to illustrate some features of this neighborhood. While I loved having the Park across the street, this park was mostly an activity park and I did not find myself hanging out there much. There were plenty of ball games, tennis, dog runs, etc. but its steep slope down into it and lack of welcoming seating areas did not create good gathering spaces. So in this regard, it did not seem to help create a cohesive neighborhood spot. While obviously some people walked to Washington Square, etc. the foot traffic seemed confined to Beacon St. Again there was not much loitering on the sidewalk. I took it upon myself to plant some planters to grace our buildings' front door and while I was out there doing that, plenty of people stopped to chat. But our building didn't have a stoop and people didn't really sit out there or spend time out on the sidewalk. If we had a porch or stoop, that would have made a big difference. The other conclusion is most people will not walk somewhere, just to go for a walk the way I did. Dog walkers do, and they often have a social interaction pattern of their own. But for everyone else, they need to be going somewhere or doing something. Without those draws, you won't get life on the streets. Our nearest gathering spots were in Washington Square. So, as much as I found many things to enjoy at this location, I did not have a strong sense of living or identifying with "a neighborhood".

My third spot, where I live now is on Browne Street. Once again I am in a U shaped courtyard building. Our courtyard is big, with beautiful 100 year old maple trees, and it takes a few moments to traverse the walkway from the sidewalk to my front door. This simple fact often brings me in contact with my neighbors. They are out of their cars, even if they have just parked out front. There is a walkway that is protected from traffic and is comfortable to stop and chat on. The people living in this building are welcoming. Is it a self-selecting phenomena? or just a function of the fact that the design of the building allows us the chance to get to know one another in an easy, casual way? Across the street is Winthrop Square park, containing the Minot Rose Garden and a children's play area. A constant stream of people, mostly mothers and children during the day and elderly in the afternoon flow to this place the minute the weather even nears 50 degrees. BU students stop as they pass on St. Paul St. On the weekends when the roses are in bloom the place is packed. Here I see an amazing mix of people chatting to each other or just sharing the space together. The ethnic and cultural diversity in this neck of the woods is pretty amazing. This is a well used park and a true meeting place for the neighborhood.

Browne Street itself doesn't carry much traffic, as it is short and very local access only. So, in terms of traffic noise, this is by far the quietest place I have lived. The birds in the tree outside by window wake me up. The quite street helps make the sidewalks the kind of place you want to stop on, so when you see your neighbor, you feel comfortable spending a few minutes catching up. And here is the biggest difference. There are lots of people out walking on the sidewalks! We all have somewhere to walk to, namely Coolidge Corner or the park or library and there are enough of us that there is some kind of critical mass. The routes we take are pretty predictable too, so this enhances the chance of us seeing each other. So, here, I do feel I live in a neighborhood, this place has achieved that illusive definition.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Changing Me to We

Perhaps you have seen or heard about the logo developed for Al Gore's new endeavor. It is a visual pun on the words me and we, showing an upside down m, which becomes a w before the letter e, all inside a green circle. Like this.

His new organization is called I am reminded about the power of symbolism: an individual, transformed into the collective we, encircled by green. While on some level we may think it overly simplistic, childish even, to reduce a call to action in response to a global crisis to a few letters in a circle, but the power of direct communication cannot be minimized. If a simple idea can be grasped, internalized and function as an inspiration, this is the stuff of cultural shifts. Think of the peace symbol, or the flower being stuffed in the barrel of a gun and what these images meant to the anti-war movement in the Vietnam war era.

The logo spoke to me of the profound change in thinking that will free us from the tyranny of excess, waste and hyper-consumption that has sapped the earth and our cultural of its creative life force. It says we are all in this together. It isn't just about me and what I want today, but rather how do my actions impact the greater whole and how can I contribute to making things better. The Hummer and the gated community may keep the "others" at bay for awhile, but when the water (or oil, etc.) runs out, it runs out for everybody at some point.

And the funny thing is, this turns out not to be about sacrificing, or giving up, but rather it's about relearning self-reliance, getting creative and conscious again. It becomes a relief and is empowering and I believe the American people are ready and yearning to apply themselves if only given the chance. The opportunities for innovation are stupendous. This could be the flowering of a time of unprecedented creativity, a giant leap forward. Perhaps a logo reminding them that me and we are two sides to a whole will do that.

Who among us did not cringe on some deep fundamental level when, after the horrible events of September 11, our President, who, at a time when the country most needed guidance, leadership and a moral compass, instead told us that we should go shopping? How utterly humiliating this was. Not only were we to once again seek the false and fleeting balm of some new gadget or toy, but we were to turn to this at this time of crisis, as if this is all we know how to do. Does this sound familiar? As our "economic stimulus" quick fix checks will soon be hitting the mail box as we once again are encouraged to bury our heads in the sand.

The "we" way of thinking doesn't mean that humans, and our basic needs and wants will or should change, but what it does mean is that in finding news ways of doing and being we will discover greater opportunities for more genuine interactions, meaningful work, greater artistic expression and reestablish closer ties with each other and the natural world. These are all things that have been missing in our lives as a great many people sense.

To bring this down to a more local level, perhaps you read Edith Pearlman's eloquent essay about Brookline's Town Meeting form of government in the April 7th Boston Sunday Globe? As we draw near to that time again, I would like to ask each of you Town Meeting members, and everyone who serves on a board or commission, to keep in mind the "we", which in this case includes the Town as a whole as well as future generations of Brookline citizens and beyond. As Edith put it in her essay, "The ideal representative is the one who closely identifies his own self with the town, even to the point of conflating them -...The good of the municipality is expected to trump that of the individual or the precinct"