Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Transit-oriented development: think globally, suffer locally*?

With four significant development projects being seriously proposed -- Chestnut Hill Square on Boylston St./Route 9, Riverside, Newton Centre fire station triangle, and the Austin Street parking lot in Newtonville -- it's time to take stock of what the city's goals should be. At or near the top should be creating an overall reduction in per-person automobile trips. With the looming consequences of global climate change, it's imperative that we build our infrastructure in a way that minimizes, as much as possible, the need to drive to work, to shop, to play.

Generally speaking, mixed-use, transit-oriented development (TOD) is the way to meet that goal. TOD puts more people closer to transit nodes (Newton Centre and Riverside T stations and Newtonville commuter rail and bus), making it more likely that new residents will use transit rather than drive to work. Mixed-use development (as opposed to just residential) means creating and enhancing retail opportunities so that the new residents don't have to get in their cars to do all their shopping. New residents mean more potential shoppers for existing stores and restaurants. More shoppers makes the commercial district more attractive to store and restaurant owners looking for new locations. More and better retail increases the likelihood that those already within walking distance of the commercial district will do more of their shopping in the commercial district rather than get in their cars and go elsewhere.

It's a virtuous circle that starts by adding density, which translates into foot traffic in the commercial district, which enhances the commercial opportunities.

Thinking globally, a new residential unit in Newton within walking distance to a transit node and a vibrant commercial center will lead to fewer car trips by that unit's residents than a new residential unit in some other municipality that's not within walking distance of an attractive transit option and a commercial district.

If the only issue is what's best for the environment, exploiting the existing rich resources of Newton -- T and commuter lines and good and potentially great walkable village centers -- is a no-brainer.

But, there are other, very real issues. Adding residents to some other municipality may result in more car trips overall, but it won't add school kids to Newton's already overcrowded schools. While the math is contested, some reasonable people worry that small residential units in multi-unit buildings won't generate tax revenue to offset the incremental costs of adding the tenants, particularly if there are children.

And, then there's the paradox of increasing traffic while reducing car trips. Adding residences to Riverside, Newton Centre, or Newtonville indisputably leads to lower car usage by the new residents -- compared to equivalent residences without the same transit and shopping options within walking distance. But, those new residents aren't likely going to stop using their cars altogether. And, not all customers patronizing the new businesses are going to walk to shop and dine. So, even though it's transit-oriented development in walkable areas, new development will almost certainly result in more traffic volume in the immediate area. (There's a potential offset at Riverside, but that's the stuff of another post.)

So, what's Newton to do? There is no question about the overwhelming imperative to reduce fuel consumption, and the simplest way to do it is to reduce the need to drive. Newton is uniquely situated to help solve the problem: lots of transit nodes with opportunities to increase density around them. But, there are costs that fall only on Newton: schools, tax revenue, traffic.

As global citizens, we have to do the right thing. But, our leaders -- our mayor, our state legislative delegation, and our congressional delegation -- must make sure that Newton's not just taking one for the team*. We need more generous aid to offset the costs.

*I don't want to overstate this. There are many who believe that denser housing around our village centers will enhance the villages, even accounting for the costs.


dr2chase said...

Same here in Belmont, only more so (tiny commercial tax base). For some bizarre reason, people seem to think that because we have some very wealthy people living here, that those in the poorer tail of the income distribution will have no problems paying their property taxes. Drives me nuts, because it takes money to run a town, and schools (which are a general good, not just a local good) are expensive.

In my opinion (I periodically hassle our state rep about this) we should raise the income tax at least back up to 5.95% (where it was when we moved here, and we were happy to pay it then) and turn most of that additional money straight back to the municipalities for local aid, apportioned on a per-child basis (lacking any other formula, that one has some feel of fairness). That way, they can at least slow the increase in property taxes. That would go a long way towards easing the pain of doing what is apparently the right thing.

Anonymous said...

Of course, with prop 2 1/2 it's either new development, yearly cuts to the budget, or overrides. Given the unacceptability of the last to to most residents (pay more? cut X that I need?) development is a given.

If we want to get away from that we either need to remove 2 1/2, or as dr2chase said, raise state income taxes. even 6.5% wouldn't break my bank ....