Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Whole Foods mistake

Only two aldermen -- Mansfield and Parker -- voted against the Whole Foods request for a special permit to add nearly 50% more parking spaces to its lot. (Alderman Danberg was absent.) The only thing more dispiriting than the 21-2 outcome was the long aldermanic debate.

Alderman Mansfield was the only speaker to put the question into proper context, discussing the two key issues:

  • Increased parking will lead to increase traffic. Incredibly, the aldermen approved the special permit without any traffic study to back up Whole Food's key contentions about present conditions -- among them the claim that trolling for scarce spaces increases traffic -- or the likely effects.
  • Store-specific parking without pedestrian connection to other properties squanders an opportunity to enhance the entire shopping district.
What's amazing is how little leverage the board seems to think it has. It will not be a condition of the special permit that parking spaces conform to city requirements (they will all be less than 9 feet wide). Or that there be pedestrian accommodations. Or that specimen fruit trees be maintained.

This is on a lot that includes land the city owns and leases to Whole Foods! The alderman couldn't even get Whole Foods to conform to city parking standards on city land.

But, the hard-bargaining aldermen did extract a few concessions. Whole Foods has reduced their demand by one space, increased the diameter of the trees that it's going to plant by a few inches, and will make sure that a fence isn't vinyl.

Irony alert. There are also going to be benches. No accommodation for people to walk to the benches, but the city bench count is going up by a few.

While not entirely representative, the second set of remarks by Alderman Rick Lipof are illuminating, so I present them in full (and annotated).
Honestly, honestly, this type of re-use of a parcel has nothing to do with pedestrian traffic.
There are only four general requirements of a special permit. One of them, set forth in section 30-24(d)(3), requires that the board find that "There will be no nuisance or serious hazard to vehicles or pedestrians." So pedestrians are always a special permit consideration.
Okay, we're talking about a major intersection in Newton Four ... It is the Newton Four Corners major intersection. With four-way lights where people can push a button and cross. This little parcel is not an opportunity for us to better the pedestrian traffic. It just isn't.
It's not an opportunity to better pedestrian traffic? Why not?

Section 30-24(g) specifically authorizes the Board of Alderman to attach conditions to a special permit to "to protect or benefit the neighborhood, the zoning district and the City."

Among other things, improved pedestrian access between businesses:
  • Improves business conditions in the area
  • Cuts down on traffic in the area and in the city (as people accomplish more per car trip)
Perhaps more importantly, pedestrian routes to other businesses would offset the harm that's going to come from all that new traffic.

Think the wine store across Walnut Street from Whole Foods is going to be helped by the increased congestion?
It's an opportunity for us to better the parking situation in an area that has been burdened.
Think the area is burdened now. Wait until the traffic starts filling the lot.
Now, if we were doubling the parking lot then maybe people around town and other towns would say, "Wow, that parking lot's doubled in size, there's an opportunity for me to park there. I'm going to go to Whole Foods in Newton Four Corners." Adding this amount of spaces is not going to bring people to this supermarket that normally wouldn't come because they can't find a space.
Of course adding spaces is going to bring new customers. Otherwise Whole Foods wouldn't be so interested in spending good money leasing the land. To suggest otherwise is willful.
This is alleviating a problem and making it a little better for the people who come there and for the people in the streets around the area that don't want to take excess parking anymore.
There is absolutely no foundation for the argument that increased capacity cures congestion problems ... and certainly no analysis from Whole Foods. While counter-intuitive, it is just as likely that congestion at peak times will remain high and that there will be continued demand for off-street parking. Maybe, just maybe, the added spaces will shrink the period of congestion a bit, though, again counterintuitively, it may have the opposite effect.

Unquestionably, however, the additional parking spaces are going to add traffic volume. At peak times, it's going to get 200+ vehicles an hour worse for "the people in the streets in the area." It's up to leaders like Alderman Lipof to understand the consequences of a change like this and communicate it to the neighborhood. This isn't going to give them the relief they expect.
And, I have to say that when people on this board talk about what developers or what people make in a deal in a situation it really irks me. We have no position in speaking about the profit that somebody makes in a situation.
The very act of granting a special permit increases the value of the land affected. That's why developers want them. Without the permit, the land is worth x. With the permit the land is worth more than x. Because the special permit process creates value for the petitioner it is it is not only the board's right, but its obligation to make sure that there is some return to the city of the wealth created.

I have no objection to developers developing and getting rich. But, the city should extract significant concessions in the process. Not just a bench or two.
Whether they want to pay a lot of money so we don't have a little store 24 at the corner is not our business.
It is a complete abdication of the board's duty to say that it is not city business whether a special permit is being used for an anti-competitive purpose. And, the city has every right to make provisions for a mix of commercial enterprise in a business area. It's called planning.
And, if you want to look at the situation and see that they are going to overpay to make parking better, that situation makes that corner better for the city as a whole.
There's no such thing as overpaying. Whole Foods is paying what it reasonably thinks is appropriate to increase revenue and decrease competition. That they are willing to "overpay" indicates, as discussed above, that they expect more business to flow (which means more traffic) and that there is likely a commercial use for the old gas-station lot.
So I applaud them for overspending.
Instead of applauding them, ask yourself why they are overspending so that you understand the dynamics that would have them overspend and what affect those dynamics are going to have on the neighborhood and the city.
But, we do not count the dollars of the businesses or the people in this city when they do business. We look at zoning.
We do count the dollars of the businesses. It's how we assess them.
We look at what's right and what's best for the area.
I am certain that Alderman Lipof's intentions are good, but I vigorously reject his conclusion that more site-specific parking is best for the area.

Previously: Whole Foods parking lot

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sean, you say "What's amazing is how little leverage the board seems to think it has."

It is true that the Land Use Committee and the Board of Aldermen can impose any conditions they want on a special permit. But as a practical matter, unless the petitioner assents to a condition it has little or no effect. If the petitioner does not agree with a condition, it can challenge it in court or simply not exercise the special permit. For example, had the Board insisted on all of the parking spaces being nine feet wide (something that Whole Foods was not legally obligated to change), thereby reducing the total number of spaces added, Whole Foods could have simply decided it was not worth the trouble and expense to gain fewer, if any, spaces. If Whole Foods did not exercise the special permit, the city would lose revenue from renting its property and the owner of the corner lot where the Mobil station was would rent to someone else who could exercise the "by right" alternative, which includes the curb cuts near the corner that are not good either. And Four Corners might get another gas station or a convenience store in a box on that corner, just what we don't need more of at that location.

Sometimes also the board and petitioner agree on conditions to a special permit that may not be enforceable as a matter of law. Everybody wins because the petitioner gets its special permit and the city gains something it could not otherwise have. There is pedestrian access on perfectly good sidewalks that Whole Foods is going to fix at its expense, just not the kind of access you and Ald. Mansfield would have liked. And because they will now have control of the corner, Whole Foods will not only close those awful curb cuts but will also have to clear the sidewalks of snow and ice (which we put in as a condition for good measure even though the ordinance would also seem to require it). We were also able to get some other concessions that were cosmetic (e.g., Whole Foods will build a fence made of a hardy composite material that looks like wood on an abutter's property, at its own expense, instead of a installing a white vinyl fence that is highly reflective of headlights and looks shabby after a few years). Win, win.

It's not "perfect" but almost nothing in life ever is.

Ald. Ted Hess-Mahan