Thursday, January 31, 2008

If We Build it They Will Drive

While there is no shortage of opinions in this town, one thing we pretty much all agree on is our affection for it. We might differ on a few particulars, but the list of things we all rattle off about what we love about Brookline usually sounds remarkably similar.

It is somewhat disheartening then to see the escalating divisiveness and animosity around issues of planning and development. This is not surprising and our community is certainly not alone in finding ourselves mired in controversy. These are big questions with huge impacts, and depending on where you live and how you are impacted it can feel as if the livability of your neighborhood or the financial future of your family depend on the outcome. There are of course laws, procedures and techniques all designed to take into account everyone’s concerns and lead us to just and equitable solutions. I honestly believe we could all come to a remarkable degree of consensus if we could just ratchet down the rhetoric, evaluate some alternatives objectively and think in terms of the overall good of the town and it’s long term future. It’s just not easy.

With our unique governmental structure we do not have a big bureaucracy to do the job for us. All of you who serve on town boards, attend meetings, voice opinions, volunteering your time, you are our bureaucracy. We need a lot more of you. We need new voices. We each bear a unique burden of citizenship that we have inherited by becoming members here. As citizens we need to adopt policies that reflect our collective goals for the future.

There is one set of policies in particular that is resulting in unintended negative consequences to our town and its future. I believe if these negatives were fully revealed, the majority of Brookline residents would not support the policies. I am referring to the amount of parking that must be provided for new and redeveloped housing and businesses. The required rates are set way too high. Now I know parking is one hot issue in this town, but bear with me here.

Let’s talk about the businesses first. Our code requires 1 parking space for every 200 – 350 sq. ft of retail space. This creates a level of parking adequate to service a store out in a field somewhere in the boonies where all the customers are going to drive to that store and the store is the sole destination of that trip. We all know this is not the case in Coolidge Corner or anywhere along Beacon St. Now our code does allow for some reduction for transit accessibility, but not enough. A more transit friendly rate would be 1 space per 1,000 sq. ft. Requiring on-site parking for each building makes compact development impossible, such as the type of building we enjoy in Coolidge Corner now.

Now let’s talk about housing. The parking requirements per housing unit were recently (2000) raised from 1.5 – 1.8 per unit to 2 to 2.3 per unit (even for studio or one bedroom units). This, despite the fact that according to the 2000 Census Brookline has the 4th highest rank in the country (43.03%) of non-auto commuters for communities between 50,000 and 250,000. Many people cite Brookline’s T accessible location as their reason for locating here. If we maintain adequate neighborhood services, it is entirely possible to live car free in Brookline as many have chosen to do. There are many individuals who do not or cannot drive or own a car and their numbers will only grow. A recent analysis of auto-ownership near Coolidge Corner reveals that 82% of the households have 1 or 0 autos. We are building more parking than residents need.

Transportation costs are the second largest household expense. One way to reduce that is to live in a mobility enhanced location such as Brookline. Our parking requirements add significant costs to new housing, reduces the possibility for on-site open space, encourages driving, burdens our overcrowded roadways (which, by the way are deteriorating and expensive to maintain), and severely limits our ability to provide a variety of housing types and price points. Young professionals are seeking an alternative to the auto dependent lifestyle, but they won’t find it here if we continue to build for the car rather than the alternative transportation user.

Many think that putting the parking underground takes care of the problem. Out of sight, out of mind. The only benefit to this is not having a surface parking lot. We will still have that many more cars on the road, overwhelming our already congested streets, causing more backups, delays, and road rage. More autos bring many negatives; the pedestrian environment is degraded, it’s harder to cross the street, there is more pollution and noise and conflicts from cars turning into driveways across sidewalks. There will be less space on the roadway for bicycles and more car/bike conflicts. The cumulative effect of these conflicts will discourage walking and biking.

Our excessive parking requirements have far reaching environmental impacts as well. First, they encourage driving. In the age of global warming this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Vehicles account for 30% of our nation’s CO2 emissions. We cannot adequately reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by driving hybrid cars. For one thing, as population grows, VMT (vehicle miles traveled) will continue to increase. As gas mileage efficiencies increase, the limiting effects of high gas prices will be mitigated, thus causing drivers to drive more. No, the only way to reduce the CO2 from vehicles is to drive less and the only way to drive less is to build in such a way as to facilitate transit and other alternative transportation modes for a greater portion of our travel needs.

If we want to be consistent with the values of environmental sustainability, preservation of open space, enhancing our pedestrian environment and providing a variety of housing types and values then we need to reduce our parking requirements.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Logical Conclusion of Parking Regulations not Logical

I know what you are thinking, here we go again with the parking! But the truth of the matter is that the parking requirements that are incorporated into our zoning ordinance are just as influential as the building size and use requirements in determining what kind of development we will end up with. In addition, the method of applying the standards and reviewing each parcel and building proposal in isolation, treating it as if it were it's own universe yields a disjointed and dysfunctional public realm. But back to the subject at hand. The parking requirements.

Each requirement taken in isolation may seem reasonable, but the effects are profound and far reaching. For an area like Coolidge Corner we have to ask ourselves what kind of place are we trying to build? The standards we have set are more suitable for the suburbs. They are the norm and have been adopted throughout the land, and we can see the results. The building in isolation surrounded by a sea of parking. These regulations are based on a standard number of automobile trips that are "drawn" to a certain type of building, this is known as Trip Generation and is based on all kinds of science. Build an office out in the suburbs and a certain number of cars will come and go on a given day because the people working there have no other way to get there! It is fairly easy to predict then, based on the size of the building, how many auto trips will come and go. From there we can come up with a formula for a minimum number of parking spaces per a unit of building square footage, and voila a parking requirement.

By requiring developers to provide on-site parking for every new building, be it housing, office or commercial we are subsidizing and encouraging driving and increasing the costs to both build and ultimately occupy those homes and businesses. In an area rich in alternative transportation options this makes no sense. Those in need of affordable housing and small businesses looking for affordable rents could benefit from the infrastructure expenditure savings realized through a relaxation of excessive on-site parking requirements. In terms of the affordable housing household the savings are two fold. The unit is cheaper because they aren't buying an amenity they do not need (excess parking) and because they are living within close proximity of transit they need not spend such a large portion of their income on automobile costs.

In addition to the cost savings the benefits to the environment, both in terms of reduced pollution and energy savings and the livability of a humanly oriented public realm cannot be overstated. By reducing the pervasiveness of the automobile in our environment we remove a huge source of stress for the pedestrian. Citizens are coming to realize the joys of mingling with others in a relaxed public setting. This increased awareness has spread through the growing publicity surrounding the many successfully created public spaces in cities and towns around the globe. Brookline has the perfect setting for creating such a place and those who are raising their voices to demand such a place are speaking for future generations and the public in general.

This is not an either or proposition. There will still be people who will need to drive to Coolidge Corner. However, we need to plan for parking for the area as a whole and not force each parcel to provide on-site parking. This destroys the economics and walkability of our core commercial district. Lets see if we can't get a little more creative. We should do everything we can to make walking, taking the T and biking attractive fun and convenient. We should not subsidize and encourage driving. We should not destroy the street scape and pedestrian environment just to accommodate the automobile.

Until we come to grips with the ramifications of our unacquainted parking requirements. The reason we have heard of only one development proposal for the Centre Street parking lot, a nine story hotel, is because a hotel has a much lower on-site parking requirement than does commercial, office or residential uses. And still it must be completely out of scale (9 stories tall) in order to be economically viable. Do we really want to sacrifice the benefits to our community that other, more locally usable commercial establishments or affordable housing might bring, just to meet an outdated, inappropriate parking standard?
[where:Brookline, MA 02446]