Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Whole Foods, what could have been

Notwithstanding Eric's critique that I am making a mountain out off a molehill, I do want to answer Alderman Hess-Mahan's thoughtful comments about the Whole Foods special permit.

There are two issues:

  • What could have been done differently
  • Why this matters
Let's set aside the ideal -- a fully metered lot with demand-based pricing. Are there better solutions that could have been implemented?

Yes. There are at least two feasible better uses:
  • New development on the corner lot, sharing an [expanded] parking lot with Whole Foods.
  • The whole parcel a parking lot, but some shared spots
Alderman Hess-Mahan says that any development on the corner parcel would mean retaining the undesirable curb cuts used by the gas station.

Why is that a given?

The city owns a substantial part of the lot and leases it to Whole Foods. Here's the picture from the assessor's database. The yellow swath is the city owned parcel.

Just prior to granting the special permit, the aldermen extended the lease for thirty years. Why didn't they make an easement from both entrances (Beacon and Walnut) to the corner lot a condition of the extension?

That would have made it possible to develop the corner lot, have some parking, and close up the gas station curb cuts.

Development of a complementary use (one with different traffic patterns than Whole Foods) would have made much better use of the corner lot and the city property.

One of the downsides of a single-use parking lot is that some or all of it is going to be vacant at off-peak times. That's not pretty. And, it's inefficient. Patrons of establishments in new development could use the spaces.

Which leads me to the second alternative: nothing but lot, but with some number of spaces not Whole Foods only. In addition, there would be accommodation from the shared spaces to the sidewalk.

If there must be a parking lot at that corner, it ought to be available to more than just Whole Foods customers. It would be much better if even just ten spaces along Walnut Street were marked as not-just-Whole Foods and there were access from the parking lot directly to the sidewalk.

During Whole Foods' peak times, it would be most likely that Whole Foods customers would use those spaces, so the net loss of spaces to Whole Foods would not be the whole ten. During non-peak times, Whole Foods doesn't even need the spaces, so the net gain would be to the surrounding businesses (and, therefore, the city).

Why does this matter? It's just one lot in the city. Nobody else seems to be complaining. And, there are going to be a lot of happy Newtonians who will be able to shop for groceries more easily.

It matters because traffic on Beacon during evening rush hour backs Walnut Street to Homer Street. Which means that people cut down Homer and through Newton Centre to get to the intersection of Beacon and Centre. The additional 200 trips an hour are going to make that situation much worse. (I'd be willing to bet that the gas station attracted next to no new traffic during peak times, only traffic already on the road.)

It matters because free, single-use parking is about the worse land use you can have. Free parking on city-owned land squanders the value of the asset. Free parking on public or private land generates traffic. Single-use parking means that the traffic you generate does nothing to enhance the business district beyond the single establishment. Single-use parking means that people cannot accomplish multiple tasks per car trip, an essential strategy for decreasing traffic, fuel consumption, and pollution.

It matters because the city is going to become a (much?) less desirable place to live if we do not do something to get our arms around the traffic problems. At some point, we're going to start looking at projects like this and look for ways to decrease peak traffic, not put up with increases. We're going to look at our business districts as assets that need to be managed holistically, not piecemeal, with a meaningful pedestrian experience a critical factor.

I don't want to suggest that the Whole Foods decision, in and of itself, is a disaster. It's not. But, we're going to look back at decisions like the Whole Foods special permit as lost opportunities to shape a more livable, more sustainable community.

Pedestrians and Special Permits
Whole Foods mistake