Sunday, January 20, 2013

Back to the future: building homes for people, not cars

Image from presentation (source): top-left is a map of parking asphalt vs parks in the vicinity

A developer has proposed an interesting concept for an apartment on 37 North Beacon Street in Allston. The land area is approximately 18,000 square feet and is currently a used car lot and a single family home. His two main stated goals are to provide 18,000 square feet of greenery, and to avoid adding to the traffic congestion in the nearby Union Square. The first will be achieved with an array of courtyards, patio and rooftop gardens. The second will be achieved by not building parking spaces and by attracting car-free tenants.

Although Allston desperately needs more housing units for the growing population, with witheringly low vacancy rates and deteriorating housing stock, there has been some resistance to growth due to concern over traffic congestion and free on-street parking availability. Some of the more influential residents believe that every newcomer will bring more traffic and more competition for parking to the area, and these residents are willing to sacrifice the good of the neighborhood to protect themselves from that perceived menace. They have encoded their fear into a zoning code which requires 2 parking spaces to be built per habitable unit. However, the numbers do not support their case.

As we can see, Allston is one of the major car-free living areas of Boston. The American Community Survey results indicate that approximately 50% of the residents of this area do not have access to a car. In addition, traffic counts have actually declined in the vicinity of this project. This particular section of Allston/Brighton is due for some major changes in the near future: the New Brighton Landing project is already under way. The nearby Guest Street planning corridor was established to consider the future of the currently light industrial zone. The New Brighton Landing at Everett Street commuter rail station is going to be built. It's going to look much different, not too long from now.

In light of those facts, it's positively unfair to the 50% of Allston residents who live without a car to drag them down with zoning strangleholds that prevent the growth of much-needed housing units in the area.

So let's take a look at the plan for 37 North Beacon Street: 44 units, a few retail spaces at ground floor, a public courtyard and garden, and a basement storage area with room for bicycles and a few car-sharing spaces. The developer has pledged to manage the apartment building and to seek car-free tenants. I honestly don't think he'll have trouble finding any such folks, as that market is quite ripe in Allston. The location is pretty good too: 5 minutes walk from a Stop'n'Shop, 5 minutes from the new commuter rail station, 2 minutes from the key bus routes 57 and 66, 2 minutes from the thriving Union Square commercial district, and the Hubway station already in operation there.

I think the concept being proposed is very intriguing and I hope discussion improves it. I noticed several of the long-time residents warming to it, as they began to understand it. It's become clear that we need more residential units in the area, but it's also understandable that more traffic congestion is not desired. If this idea works out, it could become a model for future development which provides local vitality without the cost of increased congestion. It's a return to some of the ideas behind the housing stock which was constructed pre-Depression: a focus on the needs of people instead of the needs of cars.

More info: Floor plans.

Update: From what I've heard so far, looks like the BRA and other unknown forces are attempting to force the construction of 35 parking spaces on-site. Probably in lieu of the bicycling parking.

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