Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Pedestrians and Special Permits

One of the most jaw-dropping of Alderman Lipof's comments on the Whole Foods special petition was his opening sentence that: "Honestly, honestly, this type of re-use of a parcel has nothing to do with pedestrian traffic."

It caused me to review ordinance section 30-24, which governs special permits. As I pointed out below, one of the four general requirements for approval is that the Board of Alderman find that "There will be no nuisance or serious hazard to vehicles or pedestrians[.]"

But, maybe the requirement should go farther. Maybe it's time to amend the section to state that a special permit should only be granted where there will be substantial improvements to pedestrian access to other properties, where such access is feasible.

It's the right direction and it's not too much to ask.

Previously: Whole Foods mistake


Anonymous said...


You've done a pretty good job of making a mountain out of a molehill.

No arguement that Whole Foods is a traffic nightmare. But the idea that more parking will lead to more traffic... I disagree. There's a finite number of people that shop at WF, and I don't think that it's going to change.

Plus, pedestiran access for the shopping district? What district? The salon and wine store across the street? Those 2 stores are the only possible benifactors. Everyone else has parking.

I agree with a lot of your ideas for Jackson St., and you make good points about Rte. 9 development, but this is too much. The lot now is an eyesore, and one more overpriced gas station is not an option that I would consider to be more appealing. Plus, on a personal note, I would appreciate more room in that parking lot for the fire engine.


Sean Roche said...


You are not alone. Greg Reibman had a similar assessment.

Of course more parking is going to lead to more traffic. Whole Foods is one of the only supermarkets in the area. You add parking, you take away one of the only reasons that more people don't shop there. You make it more convenient.

The very fact that Whole Foods wants more parking tells you they think more parking will lead to more traffic. Why else spend the money for the spaces? If there are a fixed number of Whole Foods customers, it's much better for business to spread them out over the day than it is to attract them all at one time. It's a less attractive shopping experience when its crowded. And, it's much more economical to staff the store if customer traffic is evenly spread out.

I do believe that it would be better for business in the Four Corners area if people felt like it was pleasant to park and then wander around. Certainly, the immediate beneficiary would be the wine store and the hair salon. Over time, smart planning and a commitment to a pedestrian experience would make the whole area more pleasant. And, that makes more money, for the businesses and ultimately the city.

From other blogs, I gather that you are a firefighter. The (lack of a) contract situation and the conditions at the fire houses are appropriately more pressing priorities now. But, in the not too distant future, traffic is going to be a problem that has a direct impact on firefighters.

What's going to be the impact on response time if Beacon Street becomes a parking lot between Centre and Walnut every day during the evening rush hour?

Is the Whole Foods parking lot itself going to ruin Newton? Probably not. But, if we keep making parking and traffic related decisions like this, we're going to see a deterioration in the quality of life, and the viability of local businesses.

That's why I'm making a mountain out of this molehill.

Anonymous said...


Honestly, WF has their niche market, organic stuff, hard to find items, and I think that market won't change. It's overpriced, or at least I've always thought so on my salary. But I'll give you the point on convenience.

I always assumed that they, WF, were more concerned about not losing business because of the parking lot. That their desire to purchase the old gas station lot was a response to current customer complaints combined with a desire to beautify the area by eliminating an eyesore.

I agree that the City does a bad job considering pedestrian needs when planning and issuing permits, but I don't think the 4 Corners is the best place for a battle. Newton Centre is, in my opinion, the one spot in the City that would see the greatest benefit from improved pedestrian freedom. It's a more urban area, with greater access to public transportation, and more of the "village feel" that Newton people always seem to like.

As far as driving the engine, Beacon will always be worse in the Centre because of the on street parking. I can take the center of the Beacon street at 45 in rush hour traffic as long as we're west of Crescent St. Rte. 9 is no doubt the area where development would hurt us the most in terms of response time. Never mind the fact that the City is cutting trucks and increasing population and commercial development. It's a dangerous equation that's moving further and further in the wrong direction.

I think you have a lot of good points, my concern is that you end up as the boy who cried Wolf. There are bigger fish to fry than WF. It's a nightmare now, and it'll be a mightmare later, even if there was a new gas station and improved access and more trees. You have to pick your fights wisely with Cohen and his lackeys.

On a completely unrelated note...Woodland Rd. There's one street that I'm surprised more kids from Lasell haven't been hit on. I'm assuming you live around the Centre, but that's a street that could use a little attention.

Anonymous said...

Sean, I don't disagree with your basic premise about enhancing pedestrian access. At our working session, the Land Use Committee spent a long time discussing that very concern. What tipped the scales for me on this particular petition was that in order to provide ADA compliant access from the street to the parking lot at the corner, the ramp would have had a very steep incline. And putting a walkway through the middle of a parking lot that would not significantly reduce the distance pedestrians would have to travel versus using the adjacent sidewalk just didn't make sense to me. So, we did the best we could by widening the driveway access (Eric is absolutely correct about the need for additional room for a fire engine), widening as many parking spaces as possible, and insisting that the petitioner replace mature shade trees that are being removed for the expansion of the parking lot with larger, more mature trees than were originally proposed.

One thing every member of the Land Use committee seemed to agree on was that Four Corners is a textbook example of poor urban planning and design (or a complete lack thereof). Unfortunately, almost anything else we could have done to modify the petition, which would have required the petitioner's assent, would have been purely cosmetic--sort of like putting lipstick on a pig. If we had denied the special permit petition, given the configuration of the corner lot, we would have been stuck with a "by right" alternative that would have resulted in a retail use with curb cuts in the same location as the gas station, i.e., very close to the corner--definitely not a good thing. My other concern was that denying additional parking might ultimately drive out the only remaining neighborhood grocery store (overpriced or otherwise) on the south side of town. Again, not a good thing.

Ideally, from an urban planning and design perspective at least, the existing store should be demolished and rebuilt on the corner with parking in back and pedestrian access from the front. But that was not the petition before us and the owner is not prepared to spend the money to do that, so we are saddled with an unhappy result (at least from a planning perspective, since I happen to agree that the additional parking is a public benefit). The best thing the Board of Aldermen can do at this point is to adopt the draft comprehensive plan and require all new construction to adhere to the urban planning principles embodied therein.

If it's any consolation, your thoughtful comments (on your blog and in your email to the aldermen) made me think a little harder about this petition than I otherwise might have done. As I stated on the floor of the board, the original petition was not a "no brainer" as many people have suggested. Which is why the Land Use committee spent a long time discussing it and trying to improve upon it the best we could.

Ald. Ted Hess-Mahan