City hires new Active Transportation Director!

This is big news if you’re in favor of walkability throughout our city.

Stefanie Seskin has just been named as our new active transportation director.

You can read the City’s announcement here, and BostInno’s short take here (it’s the second item). The prior administration’s kind-of analog position was the bike czar, which Nicole Freedman held for 7 years. Nicole did a great job, but much more can and now will be done to expand on the concept of “transportation” beyond specific modes (walk, bike, transit, car) and their designated advocates. Two quotes lifted from the press release:

First, from the Mayor:

“Boston is an active city and we are continuing to invest in our pedestrian and bike infrastructure, encouraging residents to think creatively about how they get from point A to point B. Stefanie brings leadership and talent to this new position, and I thank her for her willingness to serve.”

And from the new Director:

“I am excited to take on this new position as Active Transportation Director for the Boston Transportation Department, and I am grateful to Mayor Walsh and Commissioner Fiandaca to be given this opportunity,” said Seskin. “I love seeing so many people who already walk and bike around the city, and I look forward to working with residents to make Boston even more walk- and bike-friendly.”

So, we have a brand new official ally at the city. No excuses now for not speaking up and letting our local government know what we want to see. What can WUPR suggest to our new active transportation on ways to make Roslindale more walkable?

Follow up on 874-878 South Street — Installment 1 — Pre-filing community meeting

Summary

Monday’s initial pre-filing community meeting on this proposed project — as yet unnamed — is now in the books. LANA board members observed more than once that the turnout was much heavier than is typical for their summer meetings. Almost everyone (other than the LANA board and a further exception that I will discuss below) was there for this project, expressing responses ranging from approval to rejection and qualifying questions/statements in between. Renderings of the project as presented at the meeting are not available electronically. If they do become available, I will update this post.

Generally speaking, if done right, this is the right kind of project for this location and should win support from those connected with WalkUP Roslindale. It is an easy walk from the site to the Roslindale Village commuter rail station and the square with its super market/bakeries/specialty food stores/restaurants, etc., and excellent bus connections into the Orange Line at Forest Hills. After several decades of decline or stasis, Boston’s population is growing again and we need more housing units to accomodate those who want to come here. We should welcome this opportunity to both do our part for our city and to bring more people close to the center of our community and support our main business district. This is not to say that there are concerns here — they are discussed below. But my own strong inclination is to support this proposal and encourage its improvement through the upcoming small project review/zoning relief process.

The Project as Proposed

Boiled down to basics:

  • Project site is located in the LC (Local Convenience) subdistrict of the Roslindale Neighborhood District (Article 67 of the Boston Zoning Code)
  • Demolition of the existing 4 storefronts and 2-family residential at the rear
  • All existing tenants (commercial and residential) are at-will/month-to-month
  • 15 off-street parking spaces at the ground/first story level
  • 15 residential condominium units on 3 levels above (all units are 2BR/2BA, approx. 1000 square feet (SF) in area)
  • Vehicular access would be over the existing curb cut and along the existing driveway from South Street at Walter Street
  • There would be no commercial space in the project as proposed
  • Two units would be required to be affordable per the city’s inclusionary zoning policy
  • Project will undergo Boston Redevelopoment Authority (BRA) Small Project Review (for projects 15 units or more but not considered a large project — entails design review of the project)
  • Variances required from the Boston Board of Appeal (per my notes) for this proposal are for Floor Area Ratio (FAR) (ratio of building size to lot area) (approx. 2.5 vs. 0.5 allowed), building height and stories (40’8″ vs. 35′ and 4 vs. 2 1/2), side yard width (5′ v. 10′ (abutting residential subdistrict width of 10′ applies)), and parking spaces per unit (1 per unit as opposed to 2 per unit for market rate and 1.5 per unit for affordable in a project of this size)

Concerns Raised

A fairly typical range of concerns was raised at the meeting, including urban design/architectural style (flat roof, flat front, not much detailing shown), height and bulk of the structure, affordability of the market rate units and whether additional affordable units can be provided beyond the two required, potential parking impacts (raised principally by those who appeared opposed to the project, with the assertion being that despite the transit-oriented and walkable location, there would be more than 1 car per unit, so the overflow parking would have to occur on on-street parking spaces that are perceived to be scarce; there was disagreement with this perception from a number of speakers at the meeting), and how much support there was for non-auto modes of travel (e.g., bicycle parking).  I personally raised the issue of the proposed elimination of commercial space at this location, but got almost no support in the room and a response from the developer/property owner that commercial really doesn’t work at this location (I acknowledge it has been limping along for the entire time I’ve lived here, though I think a single storefront or perhaps even a live/work unit or two should still be considered).

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. This specific point was raised from the outset by Wayne Beitler during the LANA Board’s Q&A and then by Carter Wilkie in the open discussion. This is not surprising, since both Wayne and Carter were members of the advisory committee that worked with the BRA on the rezoning a decade ago. While I appreciate the hard work they did on that committee and what they have both done generally to make Roslindale a better place, it is time we had a frank discussion about what our current zoning does and does not do, and how it needs to change for the better through the upcoming Imagine Boston 2030 planning process.

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.

What comes next?

I would expect that the developer/owner comes back to a further pre-filing meeting, whether it’s before LANA again or in a stand-alone format. If they’re willing to do that and show they’re listening by making improvements to their proposal, that would go a long way toward securing the support they’ll need. If they don’t, they’ll still be coming back to the neighborhood for their small project/zoning relief public meeting(s) and we will see what they’ve heard and not heard. Beyond that, everyone connected with WalkUP Roslindale needs to pay as much attention as we can to the Imagine Boston 2030 process when it gets rolling. We can’t let the opportunity to break out of the “zoning by variance” bind pass us by.

Wondering about Conway at South: Would on-street parking on both sides help slow down speeding cars?

The photos below are looking up Conway Street from its intersection with South Street directly adjacent to the commuter rail stop. Recently, I’ve noticed that signs have gone up seeking to encourage drivers to slow down, and even more recently a crosswalk has been painted after the street was repaved. Both interventions are visible in the photos, which I took this evening on the way home. My own personal observation is that these are well-intentioned steps taken by the city and/or residents on the street to deal with a real problem — drivers at this intersection tend, far too often, to ignore the stop sign at Conway/South coming down the hill, and they drive too fast. Apropos of the title to this post, I also wonder why there’s on-street parking only on one side of Conway at this location. The paved street width here is about 26′, about the same width as Fairview Street (one block over, about 25′ in width) and, to the naked eye, most other streets on Peters Hill. I would posit that one reason there’s excessive speeding on this street is that there’s parking only on one side of the street (as opposed to Fairview and most every other street I can think of in the immediate vicinity), leaving a too-wide driving area that signals to those behind the wheel that the way has been cleared for them to comfortably exceed the default speed limit of 30 mph. I would further posit that allowing for on-street parking on both sides of the street would signal to drivers that they must proceed on this street with caution and at a rate of speed at or below that posted speed limit. With only a single lane in each direction, cars going in opposite directions on the street have to yield to each other in order to safely pass, and they must therefore drive more slowly. This is a condition that generally works quite well throughout Peters Hill and elsewhere in the city. Comments welcome, especially from Conway residents following WalkUP who may have insight on why Conway is set up this way today.

Pic 1 Pic 2

Gentrification in East Boston

HT Ricardo: Great WBUR piece on development and gentrification in Eastie (listen or read), illuminating both the micro- and macro-economic forces at work in modern-day Boston. Demand for housing is surging in neighborhoods with short downtown commutes–which includes both East Boston and Roslindale. Each neighborhood has unique draws: East Boston has its waterfront; Roslindale has, among other natural and permanent features, the Arnold Arboretum. The result across Boston inevitably includes painful displacement:

Stories of exodus are increasingly common in East Boston, but it’s happening across the city. A recent study from Northeastern University suggests Boston’s housing market is in crisis: Young millennials and aging baby boomers are relocating from the suburbs, occupying housing that traditionally went to blue-collar Bostonians.

The WBUR article also cites a recent study showing Boston now leads the country in gentrification!

Having a much lower percentage of rental housing, the rapid displacement we’re witnessing in East Boston may be less dramatic in Rozzie, but development is coming here too (stay tuned for even more announcements soon), presenting both challenges and opportunities for the community. More residents, wealth, and improved building stock can be a net benefit, but in addition to design goals (encouraging smart transit- and foot-oriented development that will not exacerbate traffic and parking woes), we must continue to push for maintaining and adding affordable housing. One reason we love Roslindale is because it, like Eastie, has become one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city; let’s insure we preserve that key advantage in the coming boom.

Laudato Si’ – Pope Francis wades into the fray over climate change, and spends some time on walkability and placemaking

It’s been almost three weeks since Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, the groundbreaking encyclical on the environment and the role that humanity plays in its ongoing degradation on a global scale. As the dust settles after the initial media blitz, it’s worth considering that a document that speaks broadly on the spiritual dimension of the interconnection of the crises in climate change, global poverty, and increasing inequality also sees the condition of our social interactions and the fabric of our urban places as critically worthy of examination and direction. An excerpt (emphasis added):

There is… a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city which includes us and brings us together. It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighbourhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. Interventions which affect the urban or rural landscape should take into account how various elements combine to form a whole which is perceived by its inhabitants as a coherent and meaningful framework for their lives. Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a “we” which all of us are working to create…

Lynn Richards, who currently leads the Congress for the New Urbanism, has boiled it down in a piece entitled The Encyclical of the New Urbansim over at Better Cities & Towns. Lynn’s whole piece is worth reading, as is the encyclical itself, but Lynn seems to sum it up best here (emphasis, once again, added):

In his approach to urbanization and climate change, Pope Francis gave a global platform to the idea that the health of our natural environment is dictated by the shape and quality of our human communities—both our social connections and the physical places we inhabit.

Where and how we design, preserve, and build our streets, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions matter. Placemakers of all types, including New Urbanists, share with Pope Francis a conviction that our physical environment has a direct impact on our chances for happy, prosperous lives. Well-designed public places, neighborhoods, Main Streets, and rural villages help create community: healthy ways for people to live and socialize. These places also help reduce our impact on natural systems and can mitigate climate impacts.

The imperative at the local level is for walkable, well-designed development in neighborhoods connected by multiple, interlinked, and convenient networks (pedestrian, bicycle, transit, and auto) providing access to the broader city and region. Every neighborhood in Boston can achieve this vision. WalkUP Roslindale is dedicated to helping it happen right here in Roslindale.

UPCOMING: July 13, 2015 – Presentation to LANA on Proposed Project – 874-878 South Street, Roslindale

The project developer’s presentation will be made as part of Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association’s July meeting, starting at 7:30 pm on Monday, July 13, 2015, at Longfellow House (885 South Street). Per LANA, the tentative proposal is for demolition of the 4 storefronts and the residential structure to the rear and construction of a new 4-story building with 15 residential units, this is a pre-filing presentation, and preliminary plans are not yet available to the public.

Like other recent developments near the square, if done properly, this presents an opportunity to increase density in a walkable area and further invigorate the community and business district. We’ll likely have more comments as the details come to light.