WalkUP Roslindale is always on the lookout for opportunities to join forces with our friends at Rozzie Bikes and Roslindale Village Main Street to improve the walkability, vitality, and livability of our neighborhood. This week, we put together a letter to the Public Works Commission to raise the urgent need to improve paving conditions on Washington Street in Roslindale. The full letter appears below, and is also available in PDF form. Let’s hope we see improvements in this critical and highly-trafficked corridor this year. Demand more! Continue reading
Earlier this week, we offered testimony at a Boston City Council hearing on parking issues. Although the connection between walkability and parking policy may not be immediately obvious, because parking uses up billions of dollars of some of our most valuable urban real estate and has a substantial cascading effect on all forms of transportation, it stands at the core of any effort to move our neighborhood and our city toward walkability and sustainability.
Our comments were also sent by letter; the text is reproduced below, full version available as a PDF.
The Boston Globe’s editors got this one right: Obama’s YIMBY Moment. The whole thing is worth reading, but one data point about the recently proposed downzoning of a swath of Cambridgeport really stands out:
…over the years some residents have persuaded the city to tighten zoning rules to the point that their own neighborhoods could never be rebuilt the same way. The Riverside area had previously been downzoned to the point that 59 percent of existing buildings break the rules, according to the city’s Community Development Department; under the new restrictions, a full 80 percent of existing buildings would be nonconforming.
Got that? The proposed downzoning would have resulted in 80% of the existing built fabric in the neighborhood being rendered nonconforming — allowed to remain, but disfavored and not allowed to be expanded or built anew without zoning relief — in a sense, illegal. This is particularly striking because the proponents of the downzoning claimed that it was directed at preserving neighborhood character. The linked blog piece at “break the rules” calls out the illogic of this position fairly well:
The most specious of the petitioners’ arguments, however, is the idea of preserving “character”. They have happily actually defined what they mean: single family homes. But the slightest examination of the neighborhood dashes that idea to pieces. The area of the proposed change is a pleasing mix of styles, heights, types, ages and uses. Yes, there are a few single family homes, but there are also triple-deckers, brick apartment buildings, row houses, a complex belonging to the Cambridge Housing Authority, mixed-use buildings, schools, churches and parks. Hardly any two buildings are alike.
Making Riverside into an exclusive country club will only line the pockets of homeowners and prevent people from moving in and improving the neighborhood with their individual touches and styles. With its transit accessibility, walkability and a population already going car-free, Riverside is the perfect neighborhood for new, parking-free apartments and homes.
The “exclusive country club” phrasing is a bit hyperbolic. But there is certainly a disconnect at work — essentially, the downzoning’s proponents are seeking to “preserve” their neighborhood by making it more illegal than it unfortunately already is. It would be tempting to be amused by what is being attempted in Cambridgeport if our neighborhood hadn’t already done essentially the same thing to itself about a decade ago. Indeed, here’s the relevant excerpt from my own comment on a now-dormant proposal for 14 units in a “Local Commercial” zoning subdistrict at Walter/South about 15 months ago:
An additional concern raised in opposition to the project was that the LC zoning from which so many variances would be required is part of a neighborhood-wide Roslindale strategic planning/rezoning effort that was completed in 2007. Accordingly, to paraphrase how the argument went, there should be no deviating from that zoning because it reflects the neighborhood’s established preference, which was, it is said, to (1) preserve the existing density and character of this LC subdistrict and, more importantly, the surrounding 2F-5000 (“Two Family-5000 Square Feet”) residential subdistrict, and (2) channel development like this project to the commercial district in Roslindale Square.
The Fundamental Disconnect of Our Current Zoning
Focusing first on the 2F-5000 residential subdistrict in which all of the Longfellow Area except the LC subdistrict has been zoned, it is critical to realize that “2F-5000” is itself a misnomer. When you look at the dimensional table for this subdistrict under Article 67 (the Roslindale Neighborhood Article), it’s actually a minimum of 5000 square feet (SF) in lot size for the first dwelling unit, and then a further 3000 SF for the second unit. So, it’s really a “1F-5000/2F-8000” zone. Now, consider for a moment that the most common lot size in the neighborhood is actually closer to 4500-4800 SF in area. For example, the lot for my single-family house is 4600 SF in area, and the lot sizes for the existing 2 families on my street are 4900 SF, 4340 SF, 5150 SF, and 4600 SF. In other words, the zoning that was adopted in 2007 means the majority of us are non-conforming at the most basic level.
This is not insignificant since any infill development (think of the scattered “double-lots,” many of which don’t meet the 5000 SF threshold) would have to meet this ill-fitting standard, and non-conformity applies also to additional dimensional aspects of the typical developed lot in the neighborhood, such as side yard widths (required to be 10 feet on both sides for detached structures – my house and every house on my block has at least one side yard that is narrower than 10 feet – most houses in the subdistrict do), rear yard setbacks, FAR, you pretty much name it. In addition, the parking requirement is 2 off-street spaces per unit throughout the entire Roslindale district (not just the 2F-5000 zone), with only limited exceptions right in Roslindale Square and for affordable units. I have a single space on my lot. Several of my neighbors have 1 space or no spaces at all. Overall, then, the zoning for our neighborhood, ostensibly meant to “preserve” us, actually treats us, with few exceptions, as legally not within the vision of what the neighborhood “should” be. In practice, this means that the existing zoning requires almost any change in the neighborhood’s built environment to go through the zoning relief process.
An object lesson in exactly this issue was in fact given at Monday night’s meeting. The first item on the agenda was a single-family home owner on Walter Street who was before LANA to seek support (or at least non-opposition) for his proposal to add a dormer to the upper story of his house to allow for a second full bathroom. He needed relief because the existing house, which appeared to be similar to almost every other house in the Longfellow Area, is non-conforming and the dormer would exacerbate that non-conformity. Thankfully for him, he appears to get along well enough with his immediate neighbors that this small change is not an issue. But the question has to be asked as to what kind of land use regulatory system would routinely require this level of process for such a small change?
The same mismatch of the current zoning with existing use and development, let alone what we might want, occurs in the LC subdistrict in which the South Street project is proposed to be located. The most obvious mismatch is the 0.5 FAR, with which I suspect none of the properties currently comply and which, if it were really to be complied with, represents a fundamentally dispersed, low-density suburban vision for this area. Furthermore, if the saving proposition of the rezoning was supposed to be that Roslindale Square was rezoned to accept more development, that didn’t actually happen. The two projects that have been done – the 3-story commercial building that replaced the old abandoned gas station, and the substation/funeral home redevelopment – both required zoning relief in the form of variances. In other words, the zoning for the square was so good that it had to be varied from to do two projects that the community wanted. Should they also have been told that the zoning was relatively new and they would have to live with it?
To summarize, we have what amounts to “zoning by variance” and it has been quite effective at slowing the pace of change. That may have worked in a period when Boston’s population was declining or remaining flat. It does not and cannot work when population is increasing, as it is today and appears poised to do for the foreseeable future. This is why the Mayor’s housing plan is so important to support and why Imagine Boston 2030, the citywide planning process that is just now getting going, is to important. We can no longer afford to treat any part of Roslindale as totally off limits to change, as if there were a growth boundary around the square and that is it. The square is great, but it can be better for everyone, and it won’t be better unless we welcome new neighbors within walking distance of its amenities.
I wasn’t able to take pictures, but I did verify this morning that the flashing pedestrian beacon has finally been installed at the reconfigured crosswalk at Washington and Blue Ledge. In addition, the lane striping that had been torn up by recent utility work has also been restored. While I have, at times, expressed frustration with the pace of the response to the tragedy at this location, the end result here is definitely a substantial improvement from a pedestrian safety perspective.
Thanks again to the city’s transportation and public works departments, and their consultants and contractors, for developing a plan, taking on this installation, and getting it done.
We can only hope that we don’t have to do any more rapid responses in Roslindale and elsewhere in the city. Instead, it would be great to step up the effort to turn Vision Zero from policy to reality — to take the lessons learned about planning and process here and apply them to all of the many, many places around our neighborhood where we know dangerous pedestrian and bicycle conditions exist.
Join your Roslindale neighbors and City Council President Michelle Wu for a screening of “This Changes Everything” — a documentary film about the effects that climate change is having on real people, in real places, today. Following the film will be a brief conversation about how to get take action for climate resiliency and adaptation in Boston, including efforts to stop the high pressure natural gas pipeline being constructed in neighboring West Roxbury.
The screening will be on Saturday, October 15, 2016, starting at 6:30pm at the Roslindale Congregational Church at 25 Cummins Highway.
Spread the word, and hope to see you there!
We are happy to report that flex posts have gone in the ground at Washington & Blue Ledge. Our sincerest thanks to BTD and PWD for moving the Vision Zero crash response here to this milestone. All that remains is the installation of the pedestrian crossing beacon. A couple of photos taken early on Saturday morning.
WalkUP Roslindale is joining with all of its allies in the Vision Zero Coalition to encourage everyone to turn out for a major Rally for Safer Streets. We will gather at City Hall Plaza on September 29, 2016, from 6pm-7pm to demand meaningful steps toward the Vision Zero goal of truly safe streets. Recent crashes and fatalities in Roslindale illustrate that progress has been much too slow and it’s time to turbocharge the movement. Facebook RSVP here, more details below. Spread the word!
We were a bit busy this past week, so not much time to post, but wanted to make sure folks knew that both the Arboretum Gateway Path and the American Legion Greenway have been selected by LivableStreets Alliance to be Greenway Partner projects! The selections were made public at the Tour de Streets event a week ago Saturday. Links here:
This means LivableStreets Alliance has committed to working with both WalkUP Roslindale and the American Legion Corridor Coalition and helping them move forward. This is great news and we all deeply appreciate the work LivableStreets Alliance is doing all around the region on the interrelated issues of walking, bicycling, and transit connectivity.
Readers of this blog may recall that we offered written testimony to the Boston City Council at their hearing on Vision Zero in May of this year —
— and that a major part of our focus was on the Neighborhood Slow Streets program and the slow pace of its rollout in Stonybrook and Talbot-Norfolk Triangle. Back then, we put it this way:
And we also applaud the concept of Slow Speed Zones outlined in BTD’s December 2015 Vision Zero Boston Action Plan. These zones would combine a lower speed limit in defined areas with the physical interventions needed to really make a difference – curb extensions, refuge islands and medians, raised crosswalks, special crosswalk signals, vehicle speed monitors, narrower vehicle travel lanes, street diets, and separated bicycle lanes/tracks. We are eagerly awaiting the initial roll out of Slow Speed Zones in the Norfolk-Talbot Triangle in Dorchester and the Stonybrook Area in Jamaica Plain this year. That said, we are surprised that there has been so little information shared or made available broadly about the progress on those areas and we have heard nothing definitive to date about the expansion of the Slow Speed Zones to other neighborhoods once the first two have been implemented. This is desperately needed, it should happen as fast as possible once the essential combination of interventions has been decided, and BTD should be planning for this expansion right now – I can safely say that my own neighborhood of Peters Hill will be among those areas seeking designation as soon as the expansion process is made public. Slowing speeds in our neighborhoods will save lives. While we understand capacity constraints, there is no need to wait or take this part of the Vision Zero effort slow. Everyone in Boston deserves to live on a street on which vehicle speeds are safe.
This past Wednesday evening, the public finally saw the plan for Stonybrook at a community meeting held at English High:
I was there myself, along with 3 WUR compatriots, and can attest to the strong support this plan had with the people from that community, including the Stonybrook Neighborhood Association. The most critical features of the plan are a 20 mph speed limit, gateways and signs at the entrances to the area announcing it as such, daylighting of crosswalks, and strategically spaced speed humps (wider than speed bumps, much more effective, and much less taxing on vehicles). I should also mention that this is only phase 1 and that phase 2 is intended to include curb extensions and raised crosswalks at key locations. All in all, the recipe makes sense and BTD deserves thanks and praise for putting this together. We will thank and praise them even more if they get this and Talbot-Norfolk Triangle (their meeting comes later this month – we should all go to that one too in order to show our support) done before the year is out.
And, then, dear friends, we should push everyone we know in our city’s government to find more funding and more capacity to roll this set of changes out to every residential neighborhood in Boston as soon as possible. The stated goal is 2 areas per year. It should be 20. There is no reason to wait.
Everyone in every neighborhood deserves to live on a safe street.
UPDATE: Materials from the meeting have now been posted online here, including the full plan of which only a snapshot is provided above.
It’s turning out to be a long process, but what Somerville is proposing and will likely soon adopt is truly nothing less than a radical reform of the rules governing buildings and their uses. And our city should follow suit as soon as ImagineBoston 2030‘s work is done and we are ready to embark on the hard work that will be required to recast our zoning code in a way that fits the city we actually have and love already and the ways in which we want to make it better. I’ve personally blogged here about the fundamental mismatch between even our neighborhood’s relatively new zoning article and the real thing as it exists on the ground. But the graphic in the middle of the article that shows that there are exactly 22 out of Somerville’s almost 12,000 residential lots that are fully conforming to their current zoning code is mind-blowing.
Think about that for a minute — almost the entire urban fabric of Somerville’s existing residential neighborhoods is outlawed.
I very strongly suspect that the results would be almost identical in our neighborhood and you couldn’t build Roslindale or any neighborhood in Boston as it exists today by following the letter of the zoning that is currently in place. Speaking for myself, I love where I live and want the regulations that govern buildings and uses in my neighborhood to reflect a due respect for what we collectively have by making it the rule instead of the exception.