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]