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.

1 comment:

A said...

Like your Article! Thanks. My two cents -

This Financial Crisis began a long time before America was “discovered”, long before the British Isles were settled, in fact so long ago that many of us have forgotten. It was when humanity first made the decision that Land could be considered personal property and belonged in the marketplace as a commodity when in fact Land is a necessary component of Life and therefore a Birthright. Food and materials for clothing and shelter all originate from Land. In fact Land is where the majority of wealth producing goods originate. Along with Oxygen and Water, Land is a necessary component of Life and therefore a Birthright of every human being. All “great” societies have met their demise due to the neglect of this simple fact. We can point our fingers at peripheral problems and solutions all we want but until we learn to honor the contract of Life and build our social structure upon that Sacred Foundation we will always reap dire consequences in the long run. Land is a Universal Birthright!

There is a principle called Ockham's razor which is attributed to the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar, William of Ockham. It basically states that – "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best."

The following are two simple ideas that effectively create the ideal social construct.

Simple Idea #1

1. Socialize ALL Land (True Socialism defined as the vesting of ownership of Land back in the community as a whole)

2. Charge leases on ALL Land based on current market prices.

3. Return 100% of the resulting revenue equally to every man, woman and child (no matter their financial status) in the form of a yearly Land Dividend check.

4. Make the Universal Birthright of Land an Everlasting Standard in the education/understanding of every human being.

This effectively makes the average piece of Land Free for every Living Soul and restores our Natural Birthright as well as coupling our social construct to the Principles of Life.

Simple Idea #2

1. Remove ALL FORMS of taxation

2. Implement a Tax on ALL NEW goods based on the resources they contain and the resources they use in production and delivery (this can easily be implemented with the current barcode system used at the checkout)

3. Use this system to encourage/discourage various resource usages (High tax on non-renewable/ecosystem damaging products and low/no tax on renewable/ecosystem enhancing products) and to encourage purchasing of local products.

4. Use the resulting revenue to fund infrastructure expenses and the restoration of ecosystems.

This effectively encourages the creation/use of longer lasting, high quality products as well as encouraging recycling and reuse of existing products while also establishing a compatible relationship with the ecosystem.

Idea #2 effectively constrains the ravaging appetite of the capitalistic consumer society within the Boundaries of Sustainability while Idea #1 effectively encloses both Sustainability and capitalism within the Principles of Life.

That's it! The path to True Democracy (rule by the people) – True Liberty (Freedom of expression) – True Socialism (Universal Birthright of Life). Simple and Effective