Sunday, June 7, 2015

Otherwise occupied...

...that's the message for the time being, RTUF Nation

I've helped some like-minded neighbors here in Roslindale (a.k.a., God's Country) get "WalkUP Roslindale," a new walkable development-supportive group, off the ground. As I've noted in several recent posts here at RTUF, the next couple of years are likely to prove pivotal in what kind of city we will be over the next several decades. Multiple visioning and planning efforts are afoot to address the wave of new neighbors and businesses heading our way. For now, it seems the best place to push for what I conceive to be the right thing is here at home.

Thanks for your support the last 6 years. - MJL

Blog Post No. 2015-7.

Friday, May 22, 2015

This is big Boston planning news...

...BRA Director of Planning Position on the block

This is not entirely unexpected, but it is big news: Kairos Shen, who has been a key BRA player and in many ways was the last mayor's urban planning and design muse, will be moving on from his position as the city's Chief Planner at month's end. Along with the active transportation director and chief of streets positions that the city is currently advertising, hiring a new chief planner would represent the final major move of the opening round of the new administration in charting a new direction on development, planning, and the use of public space in Boston. It was an open secret in Boston that the last mayor very tightly and personally controlled development decisions in this city for his entire 20 year administration, notwithstanding that he always tried to deny it when asked directly. He was, in effect, the real chief planner and decision-maker. Kairos was one of a group of fairly effective folks at the BRA who kept their heads mostly down and worked within that construct and so stayed around a long time.

The new mayor, Marty Walsh, shows many signs of not wanting to be that controlling, whether simply by inclination (he comes from the building trades and seems to have a generally pro-growth bent) or as a form of reaction to such a long period of tight control and a recognition that such a way of doing business is ultimately not optimal. This has the development community somewhat at sea -- after the last regime, it can seem like no one is in charge. This is admittedly a meaningful problem insofar as the zoning code in Boston is an unholy mess in which a main organizing principle is to force every project worth doing at almost every scale into the discretionary zoning relief process so that development decisions can be run from the Mayor's office and based on the Mayor's own political calculus. I am not exaggerating. It seems the Walsh administration really wants to get away from that and has been building the necessary predicate for about a year now by recognizing the unavoidable population trend (Boston is forecast to add 70,000 new residents in the next 15 years, which would put the city over 700,000 residents for the first time since the 1950s), developing a new housing plan that tries to accommodate that increase in population (53,000 new units of all stripes are needed), proposing new workforce housing growth zones along key transit corridors to target the residential market segment that has been lagging most significantly (the first time in the 15 years I've been following development in Boston that the words "growth" and "zone" have appeared next to each other), and then pushing, simultaneously, a new transportation master plan (Go Boston 2030) and a new citywide master plan (Imagine Boston). Unless all of this effort is to be wasted, this points to some fairly significant rezoning starting sometime in late 2016 that will presumably create new rules of the road that, one certainly hopes, will provide for much more of worth to be done as-of-right (could be a true form-based code or a hybrid, I'm personally not picky). Getting from here to there will be the hard part though ultimately well worth it. And whomever the Walsh Administration brings on as our chief planner will be a huge part of that.

P.S. We note that the interim director of planning, Tad Read, is a long-time friend of this blog's author and someone who has "gotten it" on the key issues of the day for some time. Tad's a great choice as the interim director and rates a real look for the permanent role.

Blog Post No. 2015-6.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Welcoming Roche Brothers to DTX... which we contemplate the turning of yet another tide

Photo 1: Exterior view, down Summer Street toward Washington.
Photo 2: Front view, with outdoor seating in foreground.
Photo 3: Interior on street level (prepared foods).
Photo 4: Lower level, looking back to escalator.

Photo 5: Lower level, main supermarket floor.
Photo 6: Exit to MBTA Concourse at lower level.

Photo 7: On the MBTA Concourse, facing toward entrance.
The Location: The proverbial walkable "Main & Main" of Boston - Downtown Crossing. Specifically at Winter, Summer, and Washington streets, in the Daniel Burnham-designed building that was the flagship store for Filene's for several decades.

The Story: It is here that Roche Brothers, a well-respected, locally-owned, and thoroughly mainstream suburban supermarket chain has decided to enter the urban market with a 25,000 sf store at a highly visible and attention-grabbing location. And make no mistake, this is a departure for Roche Brothers. They were founded in Roslindale (a.k.a, God's Country) in the early 1950s and never ventured any closer to the regional core, opting instead to spread into the western suburbs and eventually north and south of town (even going to the Cape for one of their locations). In the process, they left their original Roslindale Square location (leaving a hole that wasn't plugged until the community rose up to create the Village Market in the late 1990s) and have been headquartered for many years in Wellesley. A glance at their location map (which needs to be updated to show the new store) shows clearly how suburban their footprint is. Until now, the only store they have had within the city limits of Boston is in West Roxbury, the last neighborhood you reach before you hit the suburbs in Dedham. The pictures below the location map tell the story as eloquently as this weblog ever could: The WR store is somewhat walkable/bikeable (I've done both myself), but the full roster is, without exception, much larger and far more auto-served than DTX. In that sense, this is a little bit like the "One of these things is not like the others" segments on Sesame Street. Roche Brothers DTX is the outlier, without doubt.

And so, we come to the thought that this post is intended to provoke. What would bring conventional, suburban Roche Brothers down to the epicenter of the urban core? Clearly, it's the turning tide that is sweeping the area, including the massive residential/retail tower going up next to this location, as well as the Hayward Place building, Millennium Ritz-Carlton, 45 Province, restoration of the Opera House, Paramount, and Modern theaters The list could go on. There's a residential neighborhood taking shape in a part of town that hasn't been that way for more than a century. Now, Roche Brothers are good guys -- particularly to their old hometown of Roslindale/West Roxbury, where they have funded all kinds of community facilities out of a strong sense of corporate citizenship. But they didn't need to come to DTX to demonstrate that. No, they're coming to DTX for the money, because the market is clearly ramping up downtown, and a supermarket here just makes sense. I think it's safe to predict that the sales per square foot at this location are going to be the highest in their portfolio and will more than make up for the learning curve they're going to endure in learning how to efficiently supply and operate a store this "small" at this location. Time will tell, but your humble blogspondent will testify that this location was very, very busy each time I've visited it in the last few days, whether midday or in the evening. I don't see them regretting this decision.

Post Script -- The final photo shows a fairly lifeless exterior to the MBTA concourse entrance/exit. Much more can be done here, possibly including some exterior merchandise or table/chair combinations to create some activity. Vibrancy below ground is part of the equation here, even if only to call attention to the fact that retail activity has returned in a big way to the basement of the Filene's building.

Post Post Script -- It is also clearly time to rethink DTX as a pedestrian zone. The portion shown in Photo 1 works incredibly well, as does the Winter Street block. The rest, not so much. Seems like one solution would be to let motor vehicles back in, all times of the day, BUT at a very low, heavily enforced speed, say 10 or 15 mph to show that shared streets can work.

Blog Post No. 2015-5.

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.