Boston’s Vision Zero Action Plan and sharing the Arboretum Gateway Path with our friends at LivableStreets’ 10-in-1 Street Talk

As part of our effort to spread the word and gather more support for the Arboretum Gateway Path concept, I was excited to have the opportunity to do a 7 minute presentation at LivableStreets Alliance’s 10-in-1 Street Talk last Wednesday night at the Old South Meeting House downtown. This is the 10th anniversary for these talks, and they’re a great way to connect with folks who have similar interests and advocating for making our streets and public places better and safer for everyone. LivableStreets has posted some photos from the event on their facebook page. I’ll share the video of the whole thing as soon as I see it posted in a public forum, but I was most struck during the evening by the presentation from Mark Chase of Somerville Neighborways. You should check out the images on the website, especially the concept of stressing the importance and local ownership of key intersections with resident-organized and applied graphics painted directly on the pavement. Pretty impressive and something that we should look into doing here in Roslindale – I have my own thoughts on where, and I’m sure others in our neighborhood do as well.

The evening got off to a great start with the semi-surprise of the Mayor’s announcement of the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan in a short video, which was followed by reinforcing remarks from BTD Commissioner Gina Fiandaca. Chief of Streets Chris Osgood was also personally in attendance to emphasize the importance of the announcement. The whole action plan is worth looking at and taking part in as it moves forward. But I would say that among the most interesting  and important early action items is the institution of neighborhood slow speed zones in the Talbot-Norfolk triangle near Codman Square in Dorchester and between Washington Street and Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain’s Stonybrook section. My own understanding is that this is mainly a matter of lowering the speed limit from 30 to 20 mph and highlighting that fact with signage and enhanced crosswalk treatments and related measures. Bottom line: The pilots are a great idea, long past due, yet fundamentally every residential area in the city should get the same treatment, as soon as the city can get the standard package set next spring and summer through the pilots and then roll them out. The data on vehicle speed vs. fatality rates for pedestrians are uniform on pointing to the shift from 30 to 20 pm as being absolutely essential. If we can get actual vehicle speeds to that lower level on our neighborhood streets, we will have accomplished something of real and lasting value.

Of Millennials, Transit Accessibility, and our regional transit provider

mbtaThis article from yesterday’s Globe – Access to MBTA influences where millennials work, live – is an eye-opener, even for someone who already recognizes the massive shift in habits and preferences that Millennials (in this case, 660 of our friends and neighbors between the ages of 20 and 37 from the greater Boston area) are exhibiting on auto use and transit access:

  • A combined 96% of respondents to the MassINC/ULI survey reportedly put transit access in the somewhat/very important category on where they want to live, and
  • A combined 93% of respondents to the survey reportedly put such access in the somewhat/very important category on where they want to work
  • Just 24% reported driving alone as their mode of travel to work

Big numbers, without question, that reflect that access to the MBTA, despite its shortcomings, is viewed as an indispensible amenity and driver of locational decisions among a very large cohort in our population (and, by extension, the companies that want to employ them and the developers who want to build their housing). As someone a bit older who would fall into the very important category on transit access myself, I hope this and similar information on the importance of the T to our region’s livability and economy will spur all of us to advocate for and support new initiatives, funding, and service in the days ahead. Among the other things we all need to do, it’s time to help the T work better.

REMINDER: 20 Taft Hill Park Proposed Project — Comment Period ends 7 Nov 2015

We will be submitting a comment letter on behalf of the WalkUP Roslindale steering group tomorrow (most likely).

THAT SAID, everyone here is encouraged to submit their own comment letters/emails before the official November 7 comment period deadline. Public meeting presence and participation count to set the tone about a particular process, but it’s the written comments that really get reviewed and counted in the formal consideration. Take a little bit of time and send in an email with your comments and expression of support (if applicable) to edward.mcguire@nullboston.gov, the BRA project manager for the project.  And feel free to let us know when you’ve submitted and even a summary of what you said in the comments to this post. Thanks!!!

20 Taft Hill Rendering

Taft Hill Development Up Next

20 Taft Hill Rendering
20 Taft Hill Rendering

Everyone is encouraged to attend the upcoming community meeting on the proposed new development at 20 Taft Hill Park, next to the municipal parking lot just north of the Square. Per the BRA, which will be hosting the meeting, essential details are as follows:

Date: Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Time: 6:30 to 8:00 pm
Location: Roslindale Community Center, corner of Washington and Cummins

Information on the proposal as submitted by the developer can be found on the BRA’s website HERE.

Basic project numbers shown there are as follows:

  • 19 residential condominium units in 2 buildings (6 units/13 units).
  • Unit mix is 2 1BRs, 15 2BRs, 2 3BRs.
  • 19 off-street parking spaces (1 per unit).
  • Bicycle storage for 34 bicycles.
  • $2,000 car-sharing service credit to each unit buyer.

Five things to consider/watch for in the meeting and in discussions over this project:

  1. Generally speaking, this is a project that fits within WalkUP Roslindale’s principles and is likely to gain our support. The location is adjacent to the square, and so walkable to its services, restaurants, shops, and transit options, and the design and program appear interested in making use of that walkability. To get the most out of this project as a neighborhood, we will want to focus much of our attention on the quality of the urban design here so that we end up with something much closer to the substation redevelopment as opposed to, for example, the redevelopment of the former Roslindale Pub site. The initial renderings suggest that this will be more like the substation, even if it is a bit of a departure from typical residential architecture in the neighborhood.
  2. According to the application, the project will require zoning relief (in this case, variances) because the site is zoned 2F-5000, a subdistrict previously discussed at this blog. Given the project’s size, it will also be subject to the city’s inclusionary development policy, also previously discussed here. That means that at a minimum 13% of the units will need to be affordable under the policy’s definition. WUR is already on record through our principles that we think this percentage is low given the scope of the need and it further doesn’t address the broader workforce housing challenge that has occupied so much of the Walsh administration’s attention and bubbled up just a couple of days ago in a slightly different context dealing with the city’s housing and jobs linkage fees. This is an issue that will need to be on the table.
  3. The developer’s decision to include bicycle parking and car-sharing credits shows a willingness to engage on encouraging active transportation in our neighborhood. To WUR, this presents the opportunity to work constructively and proactively on promoting walking, bicycling, and transit infrastructure, very much along the lines of the City’s recently released draft vision for GoBoston 2030, especially the “health”  section. New development that smartly leverages our neighborhood’s existing active transportation assets should be thinking about ways to concretely support their improvement and expansion.
  4. The 1-to-1 off-street parking ratio will be a topic of discussion and deliberation. The multiple intersecting issues that are bound up in parking were identified as needing thoughtful consideration in an early post here. Clearly, there are different sides to this issue and spillover effects on generally available on-street parking from households that own more cars than they have off-street parking spaces to put them in can have impacts. On the other hand, simply imposing a higher rate of off-street parking has multiple impacts of its own, including increasing motor vehicle traffic, taking up valuable space that could be devoted to other, more productive uses, and driving up the cost of housing to provide an “amenity” that many residents may not want. These are just a few of the considerations about parking that I’m sure will be voiced through this process.
  5. Finally, a note on process: This will be a public community meeting required as a result of the developer’s Small Project Review application. There may be more than one such meeting for this process and there will also be an accompanying written comment period that the BRA project manager will identify at the meeting. Conclusion of this BRA process with a BRA Board vote will then be followed by a process with the Board of Appeal for the variances that would almost certainly include a further public community meeting and then a hearing before the Board. In other words, there will be multiple points at which to plug into this process, be heard, and be counted.

Thinking about the proposed project at 100 Weld and Boston’s inclusionary development policy

The former Weld American gas/service station at the corner of Weld and Centre may be zoned within the West Roxbury Neighborhood District, but by virtually any other known geographic listing it’s in Roslindale. After a prior redevelopment proposal failed a few years ago, it looks like the current proposal – now dubbed “100 Weld” and including 17 condominium units and a Centre Street-facing exercise/office space for residents with 26 accessory off-street parking spaces – is going to thread the needle and be that rare exception to the general rule that nothing worth doing is ever done under the Boston Zoning Code without needing zoning relief (i.e., either variances or, at the very least, a conditional use permit). This is not to say that the proposed development program and design don’t leave a few things to be desired — they do, and WalkUP Roslindale intends to submit a written comment letter about them to the BRA by the September 10 deadline. Among other things, I predict we’ll focus on the missed opportunity for retail to encourage vitality at this location, the need for well-designed and landscaped frontages on Weld and Centre, how the time has ever more obviously come to have a real discussion about the impact that required off-street parking has on the cost and shape of new development, and how this intersection and the mixed residential/commercial node here could use streetscape/motorway improvements beyond just at this project’s front door onto Centre. Overall, though, the project deserves to go forward. The neighborhhood has lived with this vacant parcel long enough.

Another issue that this project raises is the fundamental inadequacy of the city’s inclusionary development policy (IDP). This is the policy adopted over a decade ago by mayoral executive order under which the city requires residential projects of 10 units or more that require zoning relief (variances or conditional use permit) to set aside a number of units equal to 15% of the market rate units for households earning within a set series of ranges related to area median income, depending on whether a particular project is rental or homeownership, with a buyout option. I’ve italicized “that require zoning relief” because that’s where the rub comes on 100 Weld and where the city is going to need to figure out a new way forward. 100 Weld had a couple of pre-filing meetings in the spring at which alternative schemes were presented for a few more units that would have required variances and thus a few affordable units. Whatever the reason, the developer has elected to reduce the number of units and thus has come forward with a scheme that can be done as-of-right, with no zoning relief. As a result, the project no longer triggers the IDP and so there will be no affordable units in this project.

Going forward, there clearly seems to be a need to rethink the IDP and potentially make it apply to all projects with a minimum number of residential units, regardless of whether they require zoning relief. One would fully expect this to be part of the ImagineBoston process. But the pace of the current boom argues for putting in an interim policy that plugs this gap, especially if the city’s ultimate intent with the planning process is to right-size our zoning code for the task ahead of us and make a much greater share of worthwhile projects able to proceed without zoning relief. To be continued.

Exactly

IMG953432-2

This photo was taken yesterday at the Roslindale Farmers Market. I assume RVMS gathered the information and made the display. Well done, guys! Exactly the kind of thinking about the area that’s needed. Really makes the argument about how much is within very short walking distance. Our focus should be on finding ways for those steps to be easier and safer to make, increasing the number of places you can get to by walking, and supporting old and new neighbors who want to take those steps!

(Revised slightly after initial posting.)

Governor Baker’s official response on Casey Arborway looks like the final word

And the manner of the response could bode well for how our commonwealth’s new administration views major projects in urban areas

By necessity, WalkUP Roslindale’s focus is primarily on Roslindale Square and its immediate vicinity. But what is now happening with Casey Arborway — the MassDOT project currently underway to demolish the old Route 203/Casey Overpass at Forest Hills and replace it with a network of at-grade streets — also matters a lot. There is no denying that the construction has made the area more difficult to navigate in the short term: the area right now is a mix of permanent and temporary roadways and paths and demolition of the old overpass is ongoing. Ultimately, once completed, Casey Arborway promises a more connected, accessible, and livable Forest Hills for everyone.

For those who have followed the project for the last several years as it wound its way through the public process, the most regrettable outcome has been the bitter split among many politically active players in Jamaica Plain over the wisdom of MassDOT’s decision to go with the at-grade network over reconstructing or replacing the overpass. Since the decision was originally announced in March 2012, Bridging Forest Hills, the anti-at-grade group, has managed to hold itself together even as the project has moved forward through design, final approvals, selection of the contractor, and even commencement of construction this spring. The last move the group made was a petition and direct appeal this spring to Governor Baker to halt the project and consider a new direction. Putting aside the practicalities of doing that at this late stage, we all know stranger things have happened and so those on both sides of the issue were still waiting with some interest to see how the governor would respond.

And so he now has. The text of the email from the governor’s office was recently posted at BFH’s website and it does indeed look like the final word. In a brief but substantive response worth reading in full, his deputy chief of staff touches principally on the level of inclusion and robustness of the public process and the way the project evolved over time. In terms of looking forward and thinking about how MassDOT will evaluate their urban projects in the future (such as the Allston Interchange/Beacon Yards project, about which Renee Loth wrote in today’s Globe), the key passage for me is this:

The at-grade option was advanced because it ranked the highest for all forms of mobility, livability, and long term maintenance costs.

Those 3 criteria — mobility across modes, livability, and long-term maintenance costs — are pretty good measures if you’re looking to boil things down. For way too long we allowed one of those criteria and one mode within it to control decision-making. The Casey Arborway represents a new direction that I hope is replicated more often at all levels of government.

South @ Walter Clearly Heating Up — Time to consider Live/Work Units?

Add another ingredient to the mix at what is becoming a hot corner: Green T Cafe just announced they are moving into the former Christos Market space on the corner of Walter and South streets. Some limited activity had been noticeable a few weeks back, but over the past weekend a dumpster materialized (was quickly filled and already replaced) and work appeared to be starting in earnest. The news popped up on the LANA NextDoor group as well as the Keep Roslindale Quirky facebook page, and on Green T’s own website/facebook page. Timing sounds like this fall/winter. This is a big change – the location has been vacant for several years and we have been in desperate need for a neighborhood coffee shop for almost as long.

Green T’s impending arrival signals that there is retail potential at this corner. Further to the recent post about the proposed residential development across South Street, I would suggest again that there is a meaningful basis for more commercial activity at this corner (again, just down the street from where I have lived for 15 years), not less. And one way that the South Street developer might straddle the fence would be to include one or two live/work units on the ground floor street frontage of the building. I suspect, without researching the question, that live/work units at that location (and probably almost everywhere else in Boston) would require a variance from the existing zoning. But the advantages in affordability, flexibility of use and allowing the building to evolve with changing circumstances would be significant. Something to consider here and possibly elsewhere in Roslindale where retail might work but hasn’t been proven yet or has been dormant for an extended period.

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 accommodate 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.