Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sustainable Brookline: Next Steps

The February 10th Sustainable Brookline Conference was a great beginning. Gathering together with a common purpose facilitated focused thinking on specific measures, as each group communicated their unique perspectives on potential sustainability measures. It was clear that much thought, discussion and hard work had gone into creating the many important and valuable suggestions.

But more importantly, there was a deeper understanding that grew as the ideas were voiced around that table and a vision of a more sustainable Brookline took shape. All of our measures are necessarily interconnected and the ability to foresee (at least to some extent!) the impacts and reactions of each requires both a depth of understanding and a willingness to think beyond our usual ways of doing things. Tremendous efficiencies will be gained through combining some of the initiatives and allocating resources and responsibilities strategically. There is a depth of commitment that is a natural outgrowth of lifelong passions for many of us and the context of the enormous challenge of climate change was bringing us together in a new ways. Working together holds the promise of synergistically increasing our effectiveness and creativity. Continued communication and information sharing will be key to realizing this potential.

While many in attendance were loathe to create yet another committee, or to make an existing committee responsible for advancing the "sustainability agenda" it is nonetheless apparent that some sustained effort at continued coordination must be maintained. It was suggested that this take the form of a virtual community, which may well be an ideal solution. It was also noted that certain interests were not represented at the forum, such as local food activists, and other town boards. This only highlights the fact that the rubric of sustainability touches every aspect of policy, planning, our economy and culture.

Innovation and leadership in response to climate change has blossomed around the country at the state and local government levels. The reasons for this are two-fold. Obviously, we have had an appalling lack of leadership at the federal level. But, for many types of initiatives the nimble, location-sensitive, bottom up strategies, tailored to local culture and preferences have the best chance at being appropriate and will more likely be adopted and integrated into life-styles for the long-term.

Success in moving forward towards a more sustainable future is dependent upon unleashing individuals' and organizations abilities to perceive the long-term consequences and interconnections of their actions and to stimulate creative problem-solving. We need a way to stimulate "sustainable thinking" when we are going about our usual town decision-making processes. How might this be achieved? How about having a "sustainability coordinator" who would draw up a list of questions with considerations and general goals for each department, which would have to be answered before any purchase, policy, plan or budget decision could be made. Of course this list of questions would need to be tailored for the department in question. In addition to the list of questions, suggestions, input and feedback from those doing the job should be sought. This will likely yield the greatest benefit. A one on one conversation with the co-ordinator would ensue. None of this is regulatory, it is just a way to get the wheels turning in a different direction, instead of just doing everything in the same way because we always have, we can stand back and re-evaluate. Rather than beginning by imposing strict mandates that more often than not miss the mark and have unforetold negative consequences, why not instead propose general goals and objectives and see what kinds of ideas people come up with.

Just as federal grants programs stimulate research and innovation, we could use local grants to bring learning, excitement and fun to the challenge of sustainability. In the realm of product and business development how about having a Brookline Community Foundation grant that would be awarded to a promising business idea based on using locally sourced or recycled materials to create something that fits into a sustainable lifestyle framework. Part of the grant award could be expertise in business development or marketing donated by local professionals. I can imagine a great many young Brookliner's having a field day with this challenge. It would be a wonderful way to generate local economic activity, local sustainability awareness, and encourage some of our home grown talent.

On a grander scale, we are faced with the challenge of our antiquated and cobbled together zoning code whose provisions run counter to many features we might seek in a sustainable community. I have written previously of one of the most obvious of these, our excessive parking requirements. There are many other features of a livable community that a well crafted code could help us achieve. Some of them are focused on creating the kind of public realm we wish to live in, others are more systemic, looking at larger issues of infrastructure investments, open space protections, etc. Instead, as evidenced by the recent spate of Town Meeting warrants and serious conflicts that continue to arise, we are left to deal with each new proposal as best we can, while lacking an appropriately detailed vision or overall direction. A sustainable community is first and foremost a livable one.

How do we solve this conundrum? I see the problem as a fundamental lack of dialogue, communication and understanding. While many see the failure of our recent planning efforts as evidence of either our inability to work together or be productive or a failure of the entire endeavor of planning, I see it rather as a need for professional help. And I don't mean another consultant who comes in and tells us what we should do. No, the kind of process I have in mind is a very participatory and iterative process of developing plans know as charettes. While I don't want to get into all the specifics here, as I am simply outlining an idea, the point is there are professionals and methods that facilitate community led planning initiatives, and were we to go through this process of learning and making the hard choices and debating the trade-offs for ourselves, what comes out at the end is something that we all can own and that will help us craft both a sustainable Brookline and a community that honors our past while accommodating the future.

As a long term resident of Brookline and a professional planner, I am convinced that we must do something different along these lines. We have too much to lose and the pressures for new development will only increase as the desirability of our location continues to become enhanced, as oil prices rise, large single family homes on large lots in the suburbs become more untenable etc. This trend can work to our advantage if we are well prepared and manage this new growth to enhance our community.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

1285 Beacon Revisited

Now that we've dissected what is wrong with this building from a design and pedestrian experience point of view, I still can't leave it alone. For there are other serious shortcomings in terms of its function and contribution (or lack thereof) to our local economy and community. These shortcomings boil down to parking and the proliferation of chain stores in Coolidge Corner.

This building houses 21,000 sq. ft of retail space, which is divided amongst its various tenants as follows: Health Club: 12,000 sq. ft., Staples Copy & Print Shop 4, 800 sq. ft. , unleased retail space, 4,200 sq. ft. Like communities all across the country, our zoning ordinance contains parking requirements that are based on the premise that the existence of these stores will "generate" the demand for a certain amount of automobile travel, destined for these destinations. Someone, living somewhere, has the desire to go to Staples to get those copies made. In the case of our zoning code, we have assumed they are going to satisfy that desire via an automobile. To accommodate this "demand" a certain amount of parking has been provided. In this case that amount is 49 spaces, enough to handle 49 independent decisions to go to these three businesses in a car, at any given moment.

However, it would occur to even a casual observer that these establishments exist steps away from one of the most heavily used T stops on the entire MBTA system, as well as being smack dab in the middle of a dense residential area. Therefore anyone wanting to go to these stores who lives within walking distance of the T or the store does not have to drive a car. However, by providing all this parking we are not encouraging the use of these alternatives, instead we are accommodating excess cars at the expense of the environment and the community. In terms of these particular stores it seems particularly unlikely that patrons will come from distant places, given the ubiquity in the area of Staples and health clubs, etc. already.

Another problem with the parking is that it was built on-site for the exclusive use of the buildings' patrons. What's wrong with this? It is inefficient and anti-social. Let me explain. The assumptions behind on-site parking are 1) People making the trip to Staples are just going to Staples, as if it were set out in a field somewhere by itself. They are not coming to Coolidge Corner to take care of a number of errands. They are in a hurry and will come in, transact their business and leave. If they are going somewhere else nearby, they are expected to get back in their car and drive there, requiring yet another parking space at this new destination. This is the dominant thinking behind almost all planning and parking rate regulations.

Assuming we are trying to achieve an appropriate balance between maximizing alternative transportation use and providing the minimum amount of parking necessary, what parking we do have must be used in the most efficient way possible. Shared public parking, located in such a way as to be accessible to the majority of businesses within a district is vastly superior to private parking. It allows for "park-once" behavior for multiple trips, reducing both the overall amount of parking spaces needed and the amount of travel necessary. Shared public parking also accommodates the ebb and flow of demand needs, variations in hours of operations, differences in peak seasonal fluctuations, etc. Static dedicated parking lots have none of these efficiencies.

What is special about Coolidge Corner is that it was built before the automobile dominated our built environment. We have the perfect model for how to build "walkable urbanism". However, our ordinances do not allow us to do this. Instead, we are struggling to graft on the ultra-convenient auto-access model of development onto a pre-existing, dense pedestrian oriented commercial district. This is a recipe for failure. You cannot have it both ways.

Boston NOW, the newest free commuter paper, named Coolidge Corner as its Editors Choice for best Outdoor Shopping. The operative word here is Outdoor. An on-site private parking garage, such as we have at 1285 Beacon, makes it possible to patronize the businesses at 1285 Beacon without ever going outside. While this makes it possible to avoid inclement weather, it also makes it impossible for you to have a chance encounter with your neighbor, or to see a notice on the light pole for a garage sale, or to appreciate that new piece of public art, hear that snippet of Chinese being spoken by the pair next to you on the sidewalk, or have gotten that boost from the smile the young woman gave you, just because, etc. In other words you do not get that experience of being part of community. We are drawn to commercial areas like Coolidge Corner precisely because of these experiences and feelings. It is not just about buying and selling. Serendipity and spontaneity are given an opportunity to enter our life. If we had left our car in the shared lot half a block a way and walked, or better yet taken the T or walked , we might have had some of these encounters, Parking in the private garage is convenient and dare I say, boring.

And it is in the realm of human interaction that we can truly appreciate our locally owned and operated businesses. While the direct economic benefits are well documented (I have heard estimates as high as .45 out of every $1 spent at a local business goes back into the local economy), the social benefits are incalculable. Consider the value in terms of continuity, trust, and simple human connection brought to your life from the local shop owner who can look up what special ingredients your grandmother ordered for a holiday dinner. Cherished childhood memories of favorite treats or pass times are passed on to the next generation. We know them and they know us. There is trust. This counts for a lot in this day and age.

I experienced first hand the difference in community involvement from our local businesses when I was fundraising for the Minot Rose Garden restoration. I visited most of the businesses in CC and spoke to many of the owners. While some of the national chains had awakened to the fact that they too had a role to play in being active local participants, for many of them I was told to write letters to corporate headquarters, etc. Only our local businesses welcomed the opportunity to sell our note cards or display our brochures, again coming down to a personal connection. They support many valuable cultural organizations and contribute in so many vital ways.

Most would agree that keeping and promoting our local businesses is a positive. Buying local is our most powerful consumer tool. In terms of sustainability the more locally sourced and produced our consumables are, the better off we are. Perhaps, local manufacturing incubator facilities would be a good investment, along the lines of the shared commercial kitchen facility that allows start-up food based businesses to bypass the necessity of outfitting or renting a full commercial kitchen.

But what can we do on a town policy level to help achieve these goals, and how does this relate to 1285 Beacon? For one thing, by having to build all that on-site private parking (which is excessive and inefficient) the cost of building is greater. This cost ultimately gets passed on to the tenants in the form of higher rents. Lowering the parking rates could help in some small way.

But we need to lower the bar even further, by creatively allowing start-up retail establishments to keep their overhead down. Perhaps by rehabbing a larger space and dividing it into smaller spaces. Or allowing push carts. Or maybe even making locally owned businesses on the first floor of a new retail development a Public Benefit incentive, along with the bonuses allowed to developers for affordable housing or open space. If we had some sort of all season food market, local retailers could easily sell their offerings, without an excessively high rental rate.

In New York city a neighborhood merchants group (I believe its the East Village) are sponsoring a free public transit train to their destination. Other communities are experimenting with "Local Business Supporter" cards. In this scheme, members pay a one time membership fee and are issued a card. This card entitles them to a 10% discount whenever they spend above a certain amount. That 10% can either be pocketed by the member or donated to the local non-profit of their choice. This is a way of systematizing a relationship that often informally occurs. It would encourage local shopping and solidify the mutual support between shopper business owner and community non-profits.

These are just a few ideas. This is a complex and difficult issue that many communities are grappling with. In terms of serving some of our basic necessities it is not always a bad thing to have a national chain, again the right balance is key.

But it does make one wish we had brought something new and local to our block with this new building. Instead we will be gazing in at the back of copy machines, and because of some mix-up with the elevation and construction plans, there is an elevator and stairs to mount as soon as one enters the door.

[where: 1285 Beacon St., Brookline, MA 02446]