Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Competing desires at Riverside

In a TAB op-ed today, I argue that the MBTA's requirements at Riverside Station are too much. They want to both develop the site and maintain the current volume of commuter parking. The traffic volume of the two uses would be crushing on the neighborhood. And, the garage necessary for commuter parking at present levels would fatally undermine the efforts to create an environmentally and economically sustainable walkable neighborhood center.

That the MBTA needs to choose between two visions -- commuter parking lot or transit-oriented development -- is dictated by the neighborhood. Trying to do both (or one and a weak-tea wave at the other) will create too much traffic. But, there's a larger issue at stake: what end should mass transit serve?

The MBTA can surround its stations -- new and existing -- with neighborhoods or parking lots. By neighborhoods, I mean dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The combination of a viable transit option, dense housing, and a substantial commercial district is a recipe for sustainability. The people who live in such a neighborhood will be much less car-dependent.

Parking lots support sprawl. They encourage driving. They are used by people who, in every other aspect of their lives are going to be car-dependent. (I think we can safely assume that folks aren't driving to Riverside who could otherwise walk to the Wellesley commuter rail station.)

Infrastructure dictates transportation choices. So long as infrastructure supports a car-centric lifestyle (and gas remains relatively cheap), people will choose such a lifestyle. Zoning regulations that limit density inevitably require people to drive. Big commuter lots at T stations facilitate an ex-urban, low-density lifestyle.

Take away the commuter lot option and the dynamic shifts. The land at Riverside or at Alewife or at any other big commuter lot becomes available for a more sustainable lifestyle. The people who used to park and ride fully absorb the consequence of low-density living. They make commuting worse for themselves and other drivers, which is a good outcome. It increases the demand for transit options. It increases the cost of low-density living, which increases the demand for high-density options.

In the bigger picture, commuter lots are not the responsible option.


dr2chase said...

I feel a need to be grumpy about this. To me, that looks like a non-thrilling place for dense walkable development, because (in Newton terms, more or less) it is out in the boondocks, and not well-connected to a lot of other stuff. Maybe the Green Line serves that purpose, but my understanding is that the Green Line is dog slow. Maybe I've got the wrong image of this, but it doesn't look like a great place to live -- it would be one little dense island, and the people who live there would more likely feel captives of the businesses nearby.

This just seems boneheaded all round -- the highway department ought to be willing to give ground on direct freeway access (their excuse is bullshit -- have a look at how Route 2 connects to Alewife), the parking garage ought to also serve a (new) station on the rail line, for fast access into Boston (why would you ride the Green Line, if you could ride that train instead? It's loads faster.) And probably we take a shot at dense walkable development, but it seems just as likely to me that people would also see that as a place to live with good access to 128, and drive to work (in the same way that people living near Alewife, including two of my colleagues, sometimes take the 350 bus to work, but also enjoy quick access to route 2 and an easy reverse commute).

Maybe I'm explaining myself wrong, but I think we have to think about where we are, and where we're going, and not pretend that we are already there when we aren't. It seems, in the short run, that good freeway access would get cars on the Green Line (and on the commuter rail, please), and thus off of surface streets. That would be good. Traffic on 128, that does not end up on surface streets, is good, because 128 is often at capacity and so this will be a net subtraction from the surface streets. This is also good because pumping people onto the T ought to reduce their losses.

Then, work on the surface streets. With reduced traffic, we can narrow lanes, put in more crosswalks, and better facilities for bicycles. Busses, inside 128, will move more quickly. I'm basing this somewhat on my experience living near Trapelo Road -- sure, you could put dense development on that road (somewhat dense development is already there) but the road is a traffic sewer. Nobody likes to cross it, it's not that pleasant to walk along it. It cuts into the value of the housing along it, too.

Sorry to be so contrary, but I just don't think this is the best path to your goal. I think you need to do some Brer Rabbit/Briar Patch with the MBTA and the highway department -- I think you want to make it easy for cars to get there, straight off 128, and ideally you want 128 clogged with people headed to transit parking lots, so that there is no room for anyone going anywhere else.

Sean Roche said...

As I wrote in my op-ed, it's not an ideal site for walkable development. (Newton has plenty of ideal sites, by the way, all of which need to be denser, but that's another story.)

But, it's not so un-ideal to banish it to a suburban, car-focused model.

A few points:

* There's already substantial residential density; more than you'd think. Take a look at Google maps. There is multi-family housing just across the street to the North. And, there's a big senior complex just north of that.

* The development is going to have a substantial residential component. There not Newtonians, yet. But, the development should serve their needs appropriately.

And, we fundamentally disagree about the virtues of Alewife. It is convenient to have a ginormous Route 2 cutting through Arlmont feeding a monstrosity of a parking garage at the end. But, it's not the best use.

Anonymous said...

your commentary seemed to be a wish for a utopia, with no way of getting there, and with every intention of saying we don't care about the usefulness to anyone outside the neighborhood. Another NIMBY, with no recognition that the MBTA has others to serve as well. Not only that but dr2chase makes the point that your utopia wouldn't actually be one in any case given the location and needs of the area as a whole.

dr2chase said...

@anon, Sean may know the territory there better than I do, perhaps it will work. I think Sean and I differ mainly in our tactical approach to utopia.

From the T's POV, a 1000-car garage means about 1000 riders/weekday; if the development proposed is smaller than 1000 people, the T is likely to favor the garage. On the other hand, there might be cheaper ways to add 1000 people -- improving bike access, adding secured bicycle parking (like at Alewife).

And seriously, how hard is it to get an identity? Don't you care about building some sort of a reputation online?

GaryR said...

I agree with Sean. And whether you agree with him or not, he has made a very important contribution to the dialog. He has provided something no one else has: A concrete, easily envisioned, and diametrically opposed alternative to conventional wisdom about how the Riverside site might be utilized. This is something that has been completely absent from the discussion about Riverside going back 3 years. Because it has been lacking, it has been very hard for anyone to put forward a vision for the site that could compete with the business as usual approach of yet another “mixed used development project”. [Am I missing something or could it actually be the case that I have never set foot in a mixed use facility in my life? And if I don’t know the answer to that question, is it because no one has ever built one that presents any value to me or they’ve all been done so seamlessly that I didn’t even recognized I was patronizing one? (I doubt it!)]

I for one would be very happy to contemplate the consequences of developing the site without a single square foot devoted to commuter parking. What would be the consequences of that? If the T needed to increase ridership in this scenario, how would it do it? Add buses and shuttles to bring commuters to the site? Provide better connections to the Commuter Rail? Improve bicycle access and safe storage facilities? Improve pedestrian access? Insist on development of amenities at Riverside that would draw people to the site from along the Green Line, Commuter Rail, and new bus/shuttle routes? (Anyone for a new Norumbega Park?)

Aside from the transportation related dynamics of planning for the site, why not ask the question “What kinds of facilities and services are lacking in the Metro West region that might be sited at Riverside?”

* It seems there are already enough other opportunities for building additional office space along the 128 corridor, so why bother with more at Riverside?

* Is high-density housing needed? And if it is needed, what kind is going to be most in demand in this region in the coming decades? Starter? Family? Retirement living? Senior housing / assisted living? Would housing be more appropriate than commercial building because of recreational advantages presented by proximity to the river, two golf courses, and (new) non-auto transportation options to travel north, south, and west?

* As for retail, would it be possible to create a “dense, walk-able, mixed-use neighborhood” (perhaps as opposed to the less descriptive “mixed-use development”, the current phrase of choice)as Sean describes? What examples of such neighborhoods already exist in Newton or nearby that might suggest how to redesign Riverside along these lines?

Could it be that by eliminating the requirement to build a commuter parking garage, freeing up substantial square footage for other revenue-generating uses, and minimizing the need for (auto-centric) infrastructure enhancements, the development becomes economically viable at scales and densities much more in line with existing developments and community values?

dr2chase said...

Am I missing something or could it actually be the case that I have never set foot in a mixed use facility in my life?

That's a damn good question. I know that we have, in Belmont, some old stuff, that may or may not be allowed under present zoning, with residences above retail at street level. It's not large scale. But thinking back to other places I have lived, looked at, or thought about living, it seems rare outside of actual urban development. I'm pretty sure there's some in downtown Palo Alto.

The zoning in Belmont, at least, is completely irrational -- most of the existing structures (which we claim to like) could not be rebuilt new under current zoning, and when a house is scraped and replaced by a zoning-conforming behemoth (which is possible) everyone goes "yuck, too big". So we like what is illegal, and dislike what is legal, and we passed the laws. I think it is fair to call that irrational. This may be part of the problem; people looked at mixed-use, said "ooh, urban, scary, we're not urban" and zoned it out of existence.

I don't see that a garage is necessarily bad, provided that the bad effects -- access via surface streets -- can be avoided. Again, referring to the Alewife example, Cambridge could have developed the surrounding neighborhood as dense+walkable, but they chose not to. The auto traffic could have been confined to the north end of the terminal, with little effect on the rest of the neighborhood, and even as is, most of the traffic is confined to the streets immediately adjacent to Alewife. I bike through there often, it is not too much of an impediment, and it doesn't seem to hinder use of the Minuteman Trail at all. I don't think that the non-walkable result came from Alewife and the garage, I think it came from Cambridge's decision to turn that land into a commercial cash cow. The cars to/from Alewife are pretty well segregated from the rest of the neighborhood (this is separate from the problem of Route 2 splitting neighborhoods in half).

The way I try to look at this is, "what happens when gasoline costs $10/gallon?" I don't see that it is necessarily bad to have office development there. The way I look at it is, in the short term, it's viable if we get auto access, and in the long term it is viable because of the combination of Green Line and commuter rail access, plus a big chunk of Newton, plus whatever else can be added. Contrast this with Waltham, with office buildings outside 128, across a godawful interchange (Totten Pond/Winter Street), with neither subway nor railroad. Ditto for Burlington (where I work now), no subway, no rail, and a really nasty road stretch that I would not ask anyone to bike.

dr2chase said...
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GaryR said...
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Sean Roche said...


Here's the heart of our disagreement:

I don't see that a garage is necessarily bad, provided that the bad effects -- access via surface streets -- can be avoided.

I see the bad effect of a garage as people getting into their cars in the first place. If there is a garage to drive to, there is an option to drive to it. The goal of mass transit shouldn't be to provide part of the ride, but all of the ride.

In the short-term, if you take away the garage, people have limited choices: move closer to some T station or drive in. Making housing closer to T stations more desirable is immediately good, and it puts pressure on communities to loosen zoning restrictions that limit density around T stations.

Making people drive in is, in the short-term, worse, but has medium- and long-term benefits. People drive/ride because they can't ride from where they live. They don't have options (or options they find satisfactory). Some of the drive/ride commuters are really not going to want to drive/drive. So, they are now motivated to demand more (satisfactory) options for transit options where they live. That's all good.

Even for those who will be okay switching to driving, driving from the suburbs is unsustainable in the long-term. There is no more capacity to be added. Adding demand (in the form of now-garageless former T commuters) only pushes us closer to the breaking point. It's only when things are broken that we'll really get the political will to provide some combination of more and better housing around T stations and more transit options to those places underserved.

Nathan Phillips said...

GaryR- you should consider adapting your comment as an editorial in the Tab. To consider not even a single square foot of commuter parking sounds shocking at first, but once stated, it stretches the bounds of the conversation in a very healthy way. Constraints can stimulate creativity and drive transformative innovation, as you suggest.

The planning process has gravitated toward an unhealthy dynamic at present, where the developers propose and residents merely dispose. There is no organic, assertive, unified neighborhood vision, except maybe unity around what folks DON'T want - noise, blocked views, etc. Neighbors need to originate and assert a community vision, at which time they will have a much stronger hand in dealing with the developer and MBTA. Otherwise it is a uni-directional process of negotiation that can only end in what the neighbors will be willing to tolerate, not what could fulfill their aspirations.
The City of Newton did a good job convening a neighborhood brainstorm session at the Auburndale library early this spring, and some great comments and ideas were generated. We need more of that, with increasingly more focus. We need some site plan sketch ups of our own to brainstorm around. We need actual drawings/renderings that can help people to actually envision what they like or dislike.

The Riverside Station Neighborhood Coalition is doing an excellent job of providing information that allows community response to development plans, but is staying neutral with respect to promoting a vision or concept.

John Sisson and Matt Cuddy of Newton Villages have articulated how development proceeds backwards in Newton - developers come in and then neighborhoods react. They suggested that communities should decide what THEY want, and then seek out developers who could realize that vision. At Riverside we are stuck in the backward development mode. We need to go back to the drawing board. As Sean points out in his editorial, it is not too late to start over and assert community leadership.

The challenge will be for neighbors to find common ground amongst a diversity of perceptions about what constitutes good development, and language itself can challenge communication. A key example is "density", which can scare some off unless they are willing to listen to the explanation of how it can be considered the antithesis of sprawl, promoting walkability and quality of life for residents and neighbors alike.

dr2chase said...


I guess I'm not that keen to push things to the breaking point; I assume that they will break badly enough, in good time. It's certainly not politically popular to do that sort of thing, and "not politically popular" sometimes has costs. I'd be more inclined to compromise, as long as I can find a way to get some added infrastructure (e.g., improved bicycle access, rail/subway links) that will be useful when things do break.

Or consider, how people react to Cambridge. Me, I bike, but that's because I already bike, I can wear my Effective Cycling hat, I can deal with potholes, etc. People who habitually drive, do not bike, they curse Cambridge. Some of them say "I would bike, but I cannot get through Harvard Square", or "Garden Street is just too crowded" or other actually legitimate complaints, for someone not accustomed to cycling in those conditions. These people are not necessarily asking for "no cars", what they want is places to ride that feel safe. And often, what inconveniences would-be cyclists, is stuff that makes the Cambridge residents happy, like parking for Cambridge residents that takes up space on the roads.

Carrots work better than sticks, and thus far, Cambridge has used more sticks than cars. (Their alleged bike route from Fresh Pond to Harvard Square is pretty wretched little carrot, too.) And to me, your proposal looks more like sticks, than carrots.

Nathan Phillips said...

Are we making an implicit assumption here that commuting must go from exurbs to city? If Alewife replaced parking with mixed use, would it not (in addition to promoting local and on-site housing) drive reverse commuting in a big way, promoting jobs and the real estate market from Cambridge through to Braintree?

Sean Roche said...


It depends on your perspective, I guess. Creating a commuter garage-free Riverside would be a carrot to new residents and, I suggest, existing neighbors. It would be a stick to existing commuters. Flip it and put in the big honking garage, and it's a definite stick to new residents and neighbors.

Looking at not having a commuter garage at Riverside (or dreaming of getting rid of the Alewife station) is only a stick from a driver's perspective. There's an identifiable group for whom it would be a carrot.

dr2chase said...

@Nathan - Alewife has the potential to create reverse commutes from Braintree already, it's just not a friendly walkable neighborhood. There's a blob of commercial development right at Alewife. There's even residential housing, I even worked with someone who lived in that housing. But the housing is hemmed in, not just by Alewife, but by railroad tracks, office buildings with fences, the Alewife Brook Parkway, and Route 2.

@Sean - I think it depends on the nature of the carrots and sticks. In Cambridge, one of the sticks for commutes, carrots for locals, is on-street parking for locals. Cars, which most people there are still unwilling to give up. The carrot/stick risk that I see in trying to build a no-garage-walkable-dense-development at Riverside, is that it would not attract enough people, and for those people, there is some risk associated with being without a car, in sort of a constrained corner of Newton. I work with people who live (for example) near Porter Square, a dense walkable neighborhood with good transit connections, and they still drive (reverse commute) to work in Burlington. I live in a walkable neighborhood (one of the denser parts of Belmont, not really dense), and we have a good transit connection to Harvard Square (#73, 7 minutes apart at rush hour) and TWO (!) commuter rail stations. We've also got nice-ish bicycle access inbound to most of Cambridge and much of Boston (depends upon how you feel about an unofficial bike path through wooded stuff). The transit was a factor in our choice to live here -- yet, we still own two cars, because my 10-mile commute is not always pleasant to bike (cars) and my wife is not comfortable biking to work in Cambridge (cars). My car IS getting quite old.

And with all that, most people still drive, and the T is apparently grumpy about insufficient boardings at two stations (there's rumors of a consolidation). The #73 does run full. And I also suspect that some of the neighbors would not view dense housing as a carrot; that is certainly the case here (largely because we have no tax base, and don't feel like subsidizing services for what is perceived to be "cheap" housing).

So, I don't think what you propose makes numerical sense yet. Maybe you just wait.

Nathan Phillips said...

dr2chase - I think you are making my point for me. There is no reason to commute to alewife from the red line because there is little there to commute to. Why? Because it is not developed to be a destination, only a transit hub. Riverside, on the other hand, is being developed as a destination, but the question is what mode of transport is being encouraged to travel to that destination: cars, or public transit?

Sean Roche said...

I think there's some confusion. I'm not proposing that people who live at Riverside have no cars. (That's Nathan!). I only want to get rid of commuter parking.

dr2chase said...

No, I must have made my point badly. There are office buildings at Alewife. If you worked at one of those buildings, you can take the Red Line to work.

Furthermore, there are apartments/condos at Alewife. If you lived there, and worked there, you could walk to work.

However, if you lived there, the only places you would walk, would be to work, to Alewife, or over a bridge and across a road and large parking lot to get to Fresh Pond.