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.