Friday, July 2, 2010

Riverside, headlines, and the rest of the story

The following is going to run in the TAB next week:

The headline on my op-ed last week -- Roche: Current Riverside proposal all burden, no benefit for Newton -- suggests that I might not have been clear. "All burden, no benefit for Newton" is language that describes the commuter lot at Riverside Station and, by implication, the commuter parking garage included in development designs. Regarding commuter parking, that's the right language. Whatever benefit to the T and commuters of commuter spaces, it is not a benefit that flows to Newton. We only bear the burden.

All burden, no benefit is not, however, language I would use to describe the the overall design. The op-ed focused on one particular, decisive aspect of the development; I did not have space to address the whole development. Forced to render judgment today, I'd probably give a thumbs down. New development plus commuter parking on that scale is going to produce too much traffic. But that doesn't mean that the development would be all burden, no benefit, only that the benefits -- and they are meaningful -- don't outweigh the burdens.

What are the benefits?

  • Commercial office space -- significant tax revenue with a relatively low services burden. There are no free lunches, but office space served by 128 and an existing T station is a relatively cheap sandwich. And, it's not totally out-of-character with its immediate neighbors -- a hotel and a large office building -- though the bulk is not going to be welcome by residential neighbors.
  • Dense residential -- immediately on the Green line, very green. The substantial residential component is consistent with Newton's Comprehensive Plan and most welcome, setting aside the impact of adding any children to city schools. (The conflict between the green benefit of dense residential around existing T stations and the legitimate concern that Newton can't afford more school children demands a city/state solution.)
  • Retail -- potential benefit. There ought to be more retail, to make it more of a walkable district, where many needs are met without a car. But, too much of the wrong sort of retail could just encourage more traffic. In any case, the retail should be better integrated with the residential and office space.
  • Open space -- pretty good. Apart from the cutesy grove-along-Grove name, the linear park concept is interesting and better than earlier proposals (a sign that the developer is listening and the design is evolving). Frankly, at this site, open space on the site is probably not as important as providing multiple outstanding paths through the site and to the green space around the site. Turn the state-owned green space between Recreation Road and 128 into a park, for instance.
  • Roundabouts. No matter how much traffic is ultimately generated by the development and whether or not there is direct access from 128, properly-designed roundabouts are going to improve Grove Street.

Not only did I lack space to give a comprehensive review, such a review would have been premature. There is an ongoing process where the developer has been presenting -- and will continue to present -- designs as those designs evolve -- in response to feedback from the community. In fairness to the developer and the process, it would not be fair to render judgment yet. Not until there actually is a proposal.

That process is noteworthy. Unlike any developer on any other project I've seen, this developer has included the community in the design process and responded. One notable example: another activist suggested making the stretch from Grove Street to the new back entrance two-way, making it the entrance also an exit -- a substantial, transforming, unorthodox change. The developer subsequently lobbied a reluctant Mass DOT, and that change is now part of the plan and will substantially reduce the load on the Grove Street entrance. I am aware of no developer on any project of this scope that has or would entertain, much less implement, such a significant change to their plans, in large part because the plans they present the community are final and not really open for real input. (As Chestnut Hill Square and Northland move forward, I'd be happy to be proven wrong.)

One only hopes that the developer will push to get rid of the commuter parking!

No comments: