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.

1 comment:

  1. This was a super helpful recap! I missed the meeting and found your blog through googling the project - your coverage of Boston/Brighton issues is fantastic.