Friday, September 21, 2012

The Cleveland Circle Cinema site public meeting

Current conditions at the Circle; Reservoir station is behind the camera

Thursday night was a very packed public meeting with the BRA and the developers from BDG. The initial presentation was fairly flat and boring, same as before, mostly a presentation of the PNF. The transportation presentation was especially blithe. Apparently, they feel that even level-of-service is too informational, so they have reduced that to a 3-color system. The lady presenting it asserted that the study did not show significant traffic impact on the area, which received a chorus of boos from the audience. There was no mention of how the 3 nearby MBTA stations figured into their plans.

I did learn that they believe the cost of the project will be $75 million, that they have made some changes including increased residential space and underground parking, that they will widen sidewalks, and that they are intending to create a crosswalk at the lower entrance to the Reservoir station area.
The busway at Reservoir station in front of the site;
existing crosswalk is to the right, proposed crosswalk is to the left.

The questions started out innocuous enough, with some questions about visual impact, how they would make it more inviting, whether the terrace had seats, how the height compared to nearby buildings, and would they address issues of light pollution. Then a local resident from the Waterworks began some heavy fist-waving at the developers. It was hard to follow, but the gist was mostly that he did not like anything: not the amount of floor space, not the amount of parking, not the look of the building, etc. He went on for a very long time and refused to yield the floor even when asked nicely. Sadly, he got a good amount of support from the audience despite the fact that he was making little sense. One notable claim he made was that "nurses won't ride the subway" which I thought to be a particularly snotty statement, especially given Longwood Medical Area a few stops away.

I attempted to keep my comments shorter than originally planned, due to time constraints. The main focus for me was impressing upon BDG the importance of incorporating the use of the MBTA and walking access into their plan; to take advantage of the unique context of Cleveland Circle having the confluence of the "B", "C" and "D" branches of the Green Line available at their doorstep. I also noted that MassDOT traffic counts at Chestnut Hill Avenue there have measured a remarkably flat, slightly declining trend since 2003 (but there was an uptick in 2011), a fact that BDG also confirmed later that evening. I told them that if they are interested in maximizing the potential of the site without running into the basic geometric constraints of automobile infrastructure, they needed to leverage the MBTA as much as possible. I made some suggestions which might help:

  • learn from Kendall Square and their success in reducing traffic while growing,
  • additional walking improvements to help attract local residents as well as transit riders,
  • consider adopting a walking/biking/transit mode share target with measures to enforce it,
  • and consider finding a consultant with expertise in developing transit access, much like they already have hired someone to do traffic studies and driveway design.
The final point I made was that increasing the amount of parking is going to increase the amount of traffic coming to and from the site.
Looking towards Cleveland Circle along Chestnut Hill Avenue

After that, people went off on various tangents, mostly negative. A major focus was the secondary access road behind the site. The developer has agreed to make use of it to try and take load off of Chestnut Hill Avenue. But many local residents are angry and want the road to be effectively closed. 

Other residents went off about the parking, that it was still insufficient, even though the developer has already increased it from previous plans. One man even stood up and yelled something about that they were planning to open 14,200 s.f. of retail with 6 parking spaces! The plan actually calls for 90 parking spaces to be available to those retail shops, which is far too many, in my opinion. Another local woman was upset that she already has difficulties finding parking in Cleveland Circle, and that she is "forced to walk" to the businesses there. It apparently did not occur to her that if there were more parking spaces, and if she did drive, that would constitute a perfect example of an "induced automobile trip" causing additional congestion on Chestnut Hill Avenue.

If they weren't complaining about the lack of parking, then they were upset about the possible traffic impacts of the development. One woman claimed that the traffic model was dishonest. She's probably right, but only because all traffic models are dishonestly oversimplified and overly certain in their projections. Sadly, nobody else seemed to notice the contradiction of demanding more parking space at the same time as demanding more congestion relief.

One resident inadvertently invoked the spirit of Yogi Berra by claiming, based on his 30 year experience of riding the Green Line, that nobody would ride the T because the trains are too crowded at rush hour. Another insisted that the shops would be upscale and upscale customers simply do not use public transportation.
Abutting the tracks

There was some concern about the medical offices. One man pointed out that there was a glut of medical office space on the market, though I am not sure if the properties he listed are as convenient to Longwood Medical Area as this would be. I found it rather striking that people would be so heated about medical offices, actually. Well, I also find it a little silly that the zoning code forces medical office into a separate category than any other kind of office, but it's far from the silliest thing. On the topic of zoning, we had some input from the local guy who always seems to show up at these meetings to demand excessively large (40+ foot) setbacks to every project. I shudder to think of the damage he may have done to this community over the years by inspiring this kind of wasteful setback. Hopefully the BRA doesn't cave on this; the lack of setbacks is one of the more positive things about this project as it is currently.

There was also a palpable fear of density in some folks, the kind you might expect in a suburban area, but really strange in Cleveland Circle which has census blocks on the order of 100 dwelling units per net acre, and has had so since the 19th century. Not everyone was completely unaware: one woman absurdly complained that the project was "too large for a dense neighborhood." There were other, repeated demands to scale down the project, despite the constraints of the site, financing and zoning.  One particularly strange aspect of the zoning laws is that the portion of the site in Brookline must have 40 hotel rooms. Since that portion is small, the building must be at least 4 stories to meet that requirement. I am actually hoping that means there will be no lowering of the height any further, but we'll see. Apparently, there was some recent talk of waiving that requirement over in Brookline, just to appease this fear of "tall" buildings.

After a night of contradictions and strange demands, perhaps the most ridiculous moment of all came when a man requested the the BRA reject the current plan and that BDG should abandon hope of finding profit in this site. Instead, they should work diligently to design something that made everyone in the community happy, and proceed with that. Then, once that occurred, they should return to the community and the residents would try to find some changes that made the project minimally profitable. Frankly, even if this meeting didn't prove it impossible to make the community happy, I highly doubt any sane businessman would take up that kind of risk.

Not all reaction was negative. A few people did chime in that they liked the project, or that they liked the idea of bringing more business and residents to the neighborhood, and maybe could stand to see a few minor changes. In particular one local businessman was excited about the possibility of bringing more customers into the area. And notably, no local business owners mentioned a word about lack of parking.

The main conclusion from the BRA at the end was simply: this is still just the beginning of the public process. I think they understand the importance of getting these vacant spaces in the community filled. But it seems like this one will remain empty for a long time to come, at this rate. This is unfortunate, and extremely irresponsible on the part of the community. Land this close to Cleveland Circle, this close to T stations, and this accessible, needs to be put to use, and needs to help bring additional variety and life to the neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Redevelopment of Cleveland Circle Cinema

Proposed structures shown with nearby MBTA stations marked. (source: PNF)

Update: notes from the meeting.

Boston Development Group has put forward a PNF to redevelop 375-399 Chestnut Hill Avenue, a site that was formerly occupied by the Cleveland Circle Cinema which closed in 2008. The site is currently dominated by the derelict structure, a large parking lot, and an Applebee's. Part of the site is in Boston and part is in Brookline. BDG is planning to raze and rebuild the site with combined facilities for a hotel, medical office, retail, apartments and a parking garage. Here are my thoughts for the upcoming public meeting, addressed to BDG:

I am glad that BDG is working on improving the neighborhood and that they are coming to talk to the community. I'm really happy that BDG is interested in improving the walking experience around the site, by bringing the building to the street edge, and by adding a mix of uses. I hope you are serious about these intentions.

The plan is for 181 hotel rooms, 82 residential units, 19000 s.f. of medical office space, 14200 s.f. of retail/restaurant space, and 228 parking spaces (of which 141 are underground). My estimate is that the underground parking garage will cost between $5-8 million to construct.

The residential units come in a variety of sizes: the smallest is 750 s.f. (1BR), then there's a range of other sizes including 957 s.f. (1+ BR), 1099 s.f. (2BR), 1242 s.f. (2+ BR), and the largest is 1311 s.f. (2 BR). The distribution seems to be fairly even. I like this aspect, the smaller apartments seem targeted towards single professionals, but there are also a substantial number of larger apartments which seem to be adequate for families as well.

The parking space distribution is broken down into 60 hotel, 78 residential, 60 medical/retail, and 30 shared between commercial uses. This seems excessive. The PNF shows that this provision is larger than BTD's guidelines require, and it is well known that BTD's requirements are already too high. Would BDG be willing to consider reducing the number of parking spaces, or alternatively, adding another floor of residential units?

The reason I ask is that the excessive provision of parking spaces causes additional car trip generation and therefore traffic congestion on Chestnut Hill Avenue. I think it is in the interest of both BDG and the community to seek an environment which is more conducive to people and not one that is clogged with vehicles.

Along those same lines, will you do more to promote the use of the MBTA, walking and bicycling from this site? You have the unique position of being situated nearly on top of the "D" branch Reservoir station, one of the most heavily utilized stations on the surface Green Line. Residents and guests can almost literally roll out of bed and onto a trolley heading downtown. In addition to that already great access, you have the "C" branch just another few steps away, and the "B" branch a short walk down the street. Are there any additional steps that BDG can take to make transit access as convenient as possible, in order to encourage people to use it, and to reduce the number of vehicular trips to and from the site?

This seems to be one of the biggest selling points of the site to potential renters (and in the future, buyers). By comparison, just down the street at the Riverside Station, you have a major development project going on inside Newton, all because of the "D" branch. But this Cleveland Circle site has even better access to the Green Line than Riverside. For instance, I believe homes here will be extremely attractive to staff at Longwood Medical Area, people who work in Allston/Brighton, in Brookline, as well as downtown commuters. You can reach most major areas in Brighton and Brookline (as well as Back Bay, downtown, etc) from the trolleys that stop at Cleveland Circle.

Would BDG be willing to set some transit/walk/bike mode share targets for residents, employees and other users of the site? Can they implement demand management programs to actually reduce traffic congestion in the area, much the way Kendall Square has succeeded? Can they work on other ways to make walking access to/from Cleveland Circle easier?

In conclusion, I think this development is a great opportunity to grow the community in a sustainable way without impacting traffic congestion too greatly. I hope that BDG chooses to take advantage of the incredible public transportation resources that the cities of Boston and Brookline have made available to this site.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The front door jam

Riding the 57 bus, as I often do, I noticed that we easily caught up to a Green Line train that was travelling along the same road. The bus stopped at the light just at the right position to frame this picture, showing why the "B" line is so slow compared to the 57 which parallels it along Commonwealth Avenue. Riders were stuck while alighting from the train, attempting to push out at the same time that riders were boarding and attempting to pay their fare. It wasn't even that busy, but the front door was not designed to handle this kind of two-way access. Then the bus took off, leaving the Green Line train behind, hobbled by management that punishes riders and refuses to modernize stations and operations.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Commonwealth Avenue

It's hard for me to believe, but it's been exactly a year since I started writing on this blog. Time goes faster the older I get, it seems. By sheer coincidence, my published count is currently 99: so this will be the 100th article I've written in a year. I never expected that I could write so much when I started. It's been fun. I'm going to take this opportunity to write about the past and the future of Commonwealth Avenue, which is a widely-known Olmsted boulevard through the heart of my neighborhood of Brighton.
Commonwealth Avenue at Packard's Corner
Commonwealth Avenue is often touted as a green boulevard, but in fact, it is greatly degraded by the 4 to 6 lanes of automobile traffic along it, as well as the additional parking lanes. There is nothing elegant about a boulevard being turned into a racetrack in the heart of Brighton. Commonwealth Avenue was designed by Olmsted long before high speed automobile traffic became a reality. In his world, horse-drawn carriages shared the streets with all kinds of users. Streets were public open spaces for all. He could never have envisioned the extent to which it has become a nasty near-highway with 4 to 6 lanes devoted to speeding traffic and largely kept off-limits to other uses. I've noticed that some people don't like the trolley that also runs down it. But by far the biggest and most negative impact on the Commonwealth Avenue corridor is the presence of highway lanes, destroying the potential of the park. The vehicle right-of-way occupies approximately 65% of the width of the boulevard. This nearly matches the layout of the 1890s plan, which devoted 120 feet out of 200 feet to roadway. But when that plan was created, Commonwealth Avenue was envisioned as a peaceful boulevard serving upper-class residents riding in sedate horse carriages.

If it weren't for the trolley, Commonwealth Avenue would be in much worse shape, because currently, far more people use the Green Line to commute than there are cars driving along Commonwealth Avenue. The transit mode share of the surrounding census blocks is greater than 50% in many cases. Without the trolley, I can only imagine that an otherwise similar Commonwealth Avenue would be piled high with parked cars and gridlock. Instead, with the help of the Green Line, the boulevard only needs to handle amounts of traffic that are well under the capacity of 4-6 lanes.

Alternatively, Commonwealth Avenue may have never developed properly without the trolley. According to the Brighton Allston Historical Society:
As the Brighton Item editorialized dejectedly on April 4, 1890, a year and a half after the completion of the costly new thoroughfare: “Commonwealth Avenue has been built at an expense of nearly half a million dollars, and there is not yet a house upon it from old Brighton Avenue [Packard Square] to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.”

Allston-Brighton’s Commonwealth Avenue was laid out between 1885 and 1888, but the building of this grand boulevard did not lead to the large scale, high-quality development that its projectors had envisioned. Development of the Commonwealth Avenue would not occur for another two decades.
Commonwealth Avenue by Wallingford Road as it appeared in 1900* (source)
 Further on:
Despite improved economic conditions by the late 1890s, the Commonwealth Avenue still lagged developmentally. Beacon Street was the focus of development. The existence there of electric streetcar service was enormous advantage. Until such service was instituted on Commonwealth Avenue, in 1909, little development occurred on the Allston-Brighton roadway. 

Trolley along Commonwealth Avenue, mid-century (source)
In modern terms, Commonwealth Avenue would be considered a fine example of "Transit Oriented Development" as it was built through the "the least populated section of Allston-Brighton" (BAHistory). Once the electric streetcar service was established, many apartment buildings were built along the edge of the boulevard, starting around 1916.
Also, the developers [of the Avenue] did not foresee the rise of apartment buildings along the Avenue. What they visualized at this stage was the construction of large-scale, high style detached houses in the Colonial Revival, Shingle, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival styles, the sort of development that was occurring in the Aberdeen Section near the Reservoir.
Luckily for us in 2012, the city did not have the legal authority to stymie development on behalf of their particular aesthetic prejudices, or else the growth of Commonwealth Avenue and the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton may have been permanently stunted.

More recently, MassDOT traffic counts reveal that the average daily traffic is 14,049 vehicles using Commonwealth Avenue near Boston College. And that is reduced to only 11,880 vehicles near Harvard Avenue. By contrast, the "B" branch of the Green Line is estimated to have approximately 30,745 weekday boardings on the surface stations alone, with Harvard Avenue being by far the busiest surface station in the whole Green Line system, at 4,077 weekday boardings. And also consider in comparison that Harvard Avenue sees upwards of 18,112 vehicles in average daily traffic handled by only two lanes. So, it seems clear that the 4-6 lanes on Commonwealth Avenue are massive overkill, dangerous to the local residents, and only serve to degrade the corridor in its current state.

When the eventual reconstruction of Commonwealth Avenue between Packard's Corner and Washington Street takes place, they will be working on moving the MBTA reservation to the center of the road and updating the intersections to modern safety standards. I hope that they take into account the fact that Commonwealth Avenue has much more value as a green boulevard than as the highway that it currently resembles, and that there are and will be more people moving by foot, bike and trolley than by motorized vehicle. So the accommodations for each should be laid out more equitably in light of that fact. And perhaps we can even reclaim some of Olmsted's vision for the corridor, updated for the realities of life in the 21st century.

*I am not sure that this could be 1900 because I see the presence of trolley wire infrastructure in the picture and the Comm Ave article as well as the Cleveland Circle article claim that this wasn't available until 1909. But I think it is safe to say that the picture was taken prior to 1915.