Monday, April 13, 2015

An instructive and dispositive juxtaposition on the question of the Casey Overpass

It's been a long time coming: the Casey Overpass at Forest Hills is finally coming down in the very, very near future. Of course, nothing touching the public realm in any meaningful way in this country is ever easy or fast (so badly have we collectively treated that public realm and sown distrust and fear of change - Casey itself being part of that legacy). But Casey occupies a category of its own by virtue of the substantial ramping up of opposition to its demolition and replacement with an at-grade boulevard configuration after MassDOT, the commonwealth's state transportation agency, announced the decision over three years ago.

For those who haven't been following this, I will note briefly that the Casey Overpass is an elevated roadway that puts the Arborway/Route 203/Morton Street above ground in the area of the Forest Hills Orange Line/Commuter Rail station -- an area which lies at the intersection of several neighborhoods including Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Dorchester, and Mattapan. The demolition decision came after an extended public process during which MassDOT considered, with community input and a citizens' working advisory group, whether to replace what was already a badly deteriorated eyesore with a new overpass or remove the overpass completely in favor of an at-grade facility. Your humble blogspondent lives about a mile and a half from Forest Hills down in Roslindale (a.k.a,, God's Country), and though I pass through Forest Hills a couple of times each day, it is typically while on the Commuter Rail. That is not to say, however, that I don't sometimes access the Orange Line at Forest Hills station or the businesses right in the vicinity by car, by bus or by bicycle, and even sometimes by foot. I do, but my experience and therefore my strong support lies with the at-grade solution that MassDOT has chosen. Whether the judgment of history will be on our side and Casey is therefore truly a "relic" of an era best forgotten remains to be seen, I guess, but in my view, with the opportunity presented, Casey comes down because it reflects a mindset that puts a premium on moving automobile traffic as quickly as possible at the expense of all other modes and without regard for what elevated facilities such as these do to the areas immediately abutting them. As such, replacing Casey with a new overpass would require that we, as a commonwealth, spend inordinate amounts of money to construct and then maintain, over the long-term, an elevated structure that perpetuates what I view as a fundamentally flawed prioritization of people in cars over people on foot, on bikes, or on transit, that is reflected in Casey's very existence and in countless other decisions made over the last several decades. Further, the lower cost of going for an at-grade solution when compared to a new overpass allows for much more to be done to enhance the pedestrian and bicycle experience through the area. It's a clear win-win.

And so, as the day of reckoning for Casey draws ever closer, we have a final point-counterpoint from the two sides of the debate in the community. Chris Lovett, of the Boston Neighborhood Network's News show, had Clay Harper of Arborway Matters on as the pro at-grade voice, and Kevin Moloney of Bridging Forest Hills as the anti at-grade voice, at the end of March/beginning of April. The videos have been posted to youtube and can be viewed here (h/t to Clay, who, not surprisingly, posted this on his blog as well). Draw your own conclusions -- you already know where I stand:

Clay Harper - Pro At-Grade

Kevin Moloney - Anti At-Grade

Blog Post No. 2015-4.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A blast from the past...Robert Moses in his own words

The document at this link --

 -- is an amazing artifact of urban America in the half century from the 1920s through the 1970s. (h/t Steve Lawton) 

Born in 1969, I literally grew up in the place that Robert Moses left me -- a disfigured but still magnificent New York. I can safely say my anger and awe at reading the man at length in his own words are in equal proportion. He is revealed as a perfectly magnificent bastard in every way. Each purported defense against a supposedly false accusation, each instance of Red-baiting, and every quotation from other angry old men (I mean -- Leo Durocher!) just seals the verdict of history tighter, and the lack of self-consciousness and introspection is complete and utterly impregnable. This is a man who never gave anything he did a second thought and was proud to have done so. Reading this, I have the distinct feeling Caro was too easy on Moses in The Power Broker…and that is saying a lot.

Now, I've touched on Moses at this weblog before -- 2011-18 (Reviewing an Anthony Flint piece in The Boston Globe) and 2010-13 (Reconsidering Jane Jacobs' Legacy). But I don't think I've indicated quite how visceral my distaste for and disappointment at the man and what he represents are. I think I was in 9th grade when I got The Power Broker as a Christmas present from my mother and it became a kind of Rosetta Stone for finally understanding the everyday world of late 1970s/early 1980s New York -- a place demonstrably in decline with abandoned and burned out neighborhoods, graffiti covered and broken-down subways, sprawling highway infrastructure that had been punched through neighborhoods and used to seal off the waterfront from the rest of the city already crumbling due to lack of maintenance, and big project failures like Westway showing that the party was over and the hangover was well underway. 

All of it suddenly made sense -- we had had choices, and we had routinely chosen the wrong things. And in the area of infrastructure, Robert Moses was largely responsible for decades of bad choices, both in the major mistakes actually made and in the meaningful opportunities squandered, and there were many of both. For every Cross-Bronx or Gowanus Expressway, there was also the failure to save Penn Station or expand the subway system. It may well be true that had Moses not existed, the zeitgeist would have had to create him, so perfectly did he embody the mid-century's headlong rush to both refashion our cities in the image and likeness of a happy motoring republic (credit: Jim Kunstler) and then to abandon those same cities at the earliest opportunity on the auto infrastructure thus created. But that does not absolve him from responsibility in gutting a great and good city and leaving the remains at the side of the road. The pattern repeated itself over and over across this great land -- New York was not unique in this respect, it's just that its problems were that much more pronounced because they were at that much greater a scale.

Blog Post No. 2015-3.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Thinking about Boston's Workforce Housing Growth Zones

Your humble RTUF blogspondent predicted back in December that the Mayor's speech on "Growth Zones" would turn out to be a big deal. And I stand by that prediction. But there is no denying that the details on the Growth Zones have been slow in coming. So, having given the matter some thought and having put some of those thoughts on paper, I was lucky enough that my friends at the Real Estate Bar Association put those thoughts in the current quarterly of the REBA News. You can check them out here at page 2: Getting down to specifics on Boston's growth zones. Thoughts, as always, welcome in the comments section. - MJL

Blog Post No. 2015-2.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Parcel 24 becomes One Greenway...

...and Chinatown regains some ground

The Photos:

Photo 1: Looking east on Kneeland Street.
Photo 2: Looking south on Hudson Street.

Photo 3: Looking south on Albany Street.

Photo 4: From the parking lot between Tyler and Hudson,
looking northeast.

Photo 5: Harrison Avenue, looking south from Essex Street.

The Location: Approx. 90 Kneeland Street, or the block bounded by Kneeland, Hudson, and Albany streets, Boston's Chinatown.

The Story: One particularly interesting aspect urban life is the changing makeup of the people who populate certain patches of ground in successive waves before moving on and out, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Much of what is now the southern half of Boston's Chinatown, effectively the area south of Kneeland Street and east of Washington and bounded on the other 2 sides by the Fitzgerald Expressway and the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, was part of the South Bay/South Cove until being filled in the 1830s. Soon after being developed, the neighborhood experienced a wave of Irish immigration and, then, in relatively rapid succession over the next hundred years, European Jews, Syrians and Lebanese, and finally Chinese and East Asian immigrants. The area today is the southern half of Chinatown, which has long been handicapped by the fact that a substantial swath was taken for the aforementioned turnpike extension and expressway 50 years ago, resulting in multiple highway on- and off-ramps and the trench of the turnpike itself. Parcel 24's location was, before the highway, a regular block bounded by Kneeland, Hudson, Harvard, and Albany, and home to dozens of mid-19th century Boston row houses, similar in scale and character, it seems, to nearby Bay Village.

With the Big Dig's submergence of the highway, Parcel 24 became available for potential redevelopment and Asian CDC, Chinatown's homegrown community development corporation, teamed with New Boston Fund to obtain the redevelopment rights from the state to pursue the mixed-use project that is now dubbed One Greeway. It has been a long road back: Those rights were initially acquired almost a decade ago, but construction of the project was delayed by the Great Recession's real estate downturn and only commenced in late 2013. As can be seen from the photos, One Greenway is another in the wave of new buildings that we here at RTUF have found worthy of note. It puts height at the right place - along Kneeland - meets its key street frontages appropriately and activates them with retail uses, and represents the kind of thoughtful infill development that we need more of.

The RTUF Sketch: The sketch shows that the building shown on the photos above is just the north building of the development, to be followed up a public park and a smaller south building:

A post script: A while back, RTUF took a look at Franklin Street at Arch and called for much less paved space for cars and more space for people (It's really way past time...). The last photo above, of Harrison Avenue below Essex Street, is another such location. Way too much pavement going to waste. Come spring, this would be an ideal location for some traffic barrels, some tables and chairs and a few umbrellas. Definitely underperforming for those of us on foot.

Blog Post No. 2015-1.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

This could turn out to be a very big day...

...for the cause of walkable urban places here in New England's central city

I'm sorry I missed the Mayor's speech about development issues before the Boston Chamber of Commerce this morning. Seriously. I had a conflict, but had I known what he was going to say, I would have been there. The news that he's finally made Brian Golden the actual, as opposed to just interim, director of the BRA is big enough, but then the Mayor went on to say the following:

Planners talk about “Smart Growth.” But it goes deeper. It’s about our identity. Our values. Our vision. We should show America there’s a better way to grow. A Boston way. Growth should enhance the best qualities of our city. Neighborhoods should reflect our historic tradition and our bold innovation. Our economy should be world-class and inclusive. New buildings should be creative, sustainable, and inspiring.
I want to share with you some new policy initiatives that illustrate how we are shaping our growth around these values.
We start by moving forward one of the key strategies in our Housing Plan: Growth Zones for transit-oriented workforce housing. Boston needs more housing. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every neighborhood has its own character. In some places, density is not only appropriate – it is badly needed.
 It is needed to bring prices back within reach.
 It is needed to spur retail investment.
 It is needed to breathe new life into under-developed streets.
We’re starting with two transit corridors. One Growth Zone will run along the Red Line, on Dorchester Avenue between Broadway and Andrew stations in South Boston. Another will follow the Orange Line in Jamaica Plain, from Forest Hills to Jackson Square. The T stops in these great neighborhoods should be embedded in thriving, healthy, walkable communities. And they will be.
More zones will come. When other neighborhoods see the kind of vibrancy that smart density produces, the conversation about new housing across our city will change for the better.
To borrow a phrase from Charlie Pierce -- Do you see what the Mayor did there? He laid out the the broad vision -- places that are creative, sustainable, and inspiring. He talked about a specific policy initiative: Growth Zones for transit-oriented workforce housing. Then he said the key words -- "In some places, density is not only appropriate -- it is badly needed." 

And then...he named two names:

  • First, Dorchester Avenue between Broadway and Andrew stations on the Red Line, and, then, 
  • Second, the Southwest Corridor between Forest Hills and Jackson Square stations.

 [Brief aside: Your humble blogspondent has previously given voice to the do-over needed on the Southwest Corridor here: Of the Bartlett Square Condos]

Now, the details of Growth Zones obviously need to be fleshed out and fought over and they can't be temporizing or putting off battles to another day or the next project, but I think we'll get to that pretty soon. The big news here is that there are now 2 corridors in existing neighborhoods -- not out in the Seaport/Innovation District, or the Allston Interchange or some other relatively clean slate -- where the City's highest elected official and the one who wields most of the power has said we want and need to see housing growth. We've all known for a long time that luxury condominiums downtown and on the waterfront are nice to look at and without question have improved the streetscape, but you really couldn't know that the tide was turning until the City actually put a stake in the ground and said more intense growth would happen in existing places with lower land costs and therefore a better shot at producing homes and apartments for people with incomes more in line with what most of us can afford. That day has now come.

From this day forward, the goal has been set. We know what the City's direction is. So now, we speak up for Growth Zones that actually promote growth and the right kind of development in the right places. And the Mayor indicated that "More zones will come." Let me be the first to highly recommend my own corner of the world, Roslindale Square, a.k.a., God's Country. The square has tightly woven existing urban fabric and a whole slew of one-story commercial buildings that were once two and three stories and can be again. We have fantastic bus transit service, perhaps the best in the entire region for an outlying location, by virtue of which we experience effectively headway service for the 1 mile trek to or from Forest Hills and the Orange Line terminus (and that stretch is flat enough that meaningful bike infrastructure would make the subway that much more accessible). We have a commuter rail stop on a line on which Saturday service will be restored at the end of this month. And we have an active main streets organization (the first urban main street in the US) that can help the BRA, our local electeds and the rest of the City government lead the conversation for a Growth Zone that will allow us to capitalize on this opportunity at this moment.

I repeat, the day has come, and we have the Mayor to thank for it.

The full text of the Mayor's prepared remarks can be found here.

Blog Post No. 2014-13

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Whither the Innovation District...

...or the rare occasion on which Robert Campbell goes a bit overboard.

The Place:


The Article: This is another in our series of reviewing what certain key regional media outlets (usually The Boston Globe) are saying about the urban scene (a.k.a., They-report-it-and-we-give-it-the-once-over). This time around we're back to weblog inspiration Robert Campbell, who recently took on the evolving state of urban design affairs in the Innovation District and found it sorely lacking in Innovation District needs a human touch. There's a fair amount of truth in what Campbell says, but from my perspective we need to remember that, for all of the faults identified, we're trading 50+ years of surface parking use for much, much improved urban fabric and the district is only partially built out. Reserving judgment is almost always the better path. And the reference to office parks in suburban Dallas feels unnecessary and gratuitous - there is plenty of office park terrain right here in eastern Massachusetts to provide a point of comparison. Perhaps the most far-reaching and ultimately non-recoverable mistake was allowing the street network to be dictated by then-EOT on an effectively superblock/suburban arterial model that puts the really fine-grained urban fabric of places like Beacon Hill or the North End out of reach. Campbell is also right about the highlights (especially Independence Wharf and the park at D Street) and the real lowlight, which is Seaport Boulevard, the district's main drag. Giving Seaport Boulevard a better treatment than overwide travel lanes and concrete paved medians would be a huge step in the right direction and one that should be taken sooner rather than later.

Blog Post No. 2014-12.

Monday, October 27, 2014

City Hall Plaza starts its needed downsizing...

...and the MBTA finally starts on a Government Center Station headhouse that meets its location

Act 1: The former headhouse,
now demolished.
Act 2: The new headhouse,
under construction.

Act 3: The new headhouse,
as it will look upon completion.

The Location: City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA.

The Story: We've visited this location for the weblog before, advocating for rotating, temporary installations back in April 2010, thinking about more aggressive street re-introduction later that year (since the plaza obliterated a very tight piece of urban fabric half a century ago that has its own restoration logic, even though it is virtually impossible to achieve), and countering revisionism about City Hall itself in 2012. Having finally concluded, I think out of necessity, that a massive re-do isn't feasible, the new administration finally decided earlier this year, with the help of Utile Architecture + Planning, as its main planning consultant, to openly opt for a kind of tree-led downsizing of the plaza's blank and badly dysfunctional slate. You can see the overall gameplan here:

Credit: Utile; Architect's Newspaper.

And the effort, interestingly, is being led by the replacement of the hideously god-awful, bunker-like, 1960s-era Government Center station headhouse with a new glass headhouse and pavilion that is much more substantial in all dimensions, and will provide a real sense of arrival/departure when completed in early 2016. To go into and out of the old headhouse on a regular basis, or even only occasionally, was to know, deep down, just how unimportant rail transit was to a city and commonwealth that, to speak plainly, absolutely relies on rail transit to keep it from seizing up completely on auto congestion. It gave you almost a palpable sense of sadness.

It appears that this initial phase will include the "bosques," or groupings of trees, shown along Cambridge Street and adjacent to the headhouse as well as the new stairway-eliminating ramps and wider sidewalks at the intersection of Cambridge and Court Streets. Eventually, several additional bosques are planned to help create a more manageable, intimate central gathering place. I'm usually not one to suggest that just dropping in some happy trees to hide your urban design mistakes, whether new or old, is a good idea, but I do believe I have finally found a use for landscape urbanism. If you look closely, I think you can also see that there's an intent to surreptitiously restore Cornhill Street on the right-hand side. Now that's the kind of thing that warms a still-recovering transportation planner's heart...

Special credit to the piece by Alex Ulam posted to the Architect's Newspaper website with a date of March 5, 2014. Thanks, Alex.

Blog Post No. 2014-11.