ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood

February 13, 2013

While the Seaport gets all the headlines, of Boston’s traditional neighborhoods it is Allston that is about to undergo the most dramatic change physically, economically, and demographically.  As a result, it is an important case study and indicator of how the city will be implementing its commitment to Complete Streets, walkability, traffic calming, and the Mayor’s core statement that “the car is no longer king.”  The good news is that there is no doubt that transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities will be included in future plans.  The question is whether they will be treated as secondary, or as equals, or even (can we hope?) be given priority over Single Occupancy Vehicles – meaning cars.

Allston will change because of the impact of Harvard’s massive (multi-hundred acre) campus and sports facility expansion, New Balance’s intensive 14-acre New Brighton Landing (NBL) mixed-use development (including another major sports complex), and a new Framingham/Worcester Line Commuter Rail station.  Even Boston University is planning to expand its sports complex over 3 or 4 more blocks behind the Shaws supermarket between Commonwealth Ave. and the Mass Pike. Some of the ripple effects are already happening.  For example, driven by the fact that nearly half of the neighborhood’s residents don’t own cars, new developments are being proposed that include much fewer than the zoning-standard 2 parking space per unit, which lowers construction costs and can help keep rents affordable.

The increased commuter and shopping traffic potentially created by the Harvard and NBL developments – up to tens of thousands of additional daily car trips – has provided leverage for the city and community advocates to demand significant “mitigations” from the larger developers.  In line with New Balance’s intention to create a “health and wellness district,” it’s developer has promised the $10 million Commuter Line train station along with road and intersection improvements intended to both facilitate car traffic and encourage transit, bicycle, and walking.  In contrast, despite the huge increased in Allston/Cambridge traffic it’s expansion will create, Harvard has promised relatively little help on transportation, and it is now seeking to “recalibrate” its other contributions over a longer time-frame if not drop them entirely.  As always, it’s the details that count and there is lots of room for negotiations, both with the current big players and those yet to come.  But no matter what mitigations – physical, policy, and financial – are secured from developers, the city (primarily through the Boston Redevelopment Authority, BRA) will be ultimately in charge of deciding on street designs and will inevitably have to make changes even beyond the negotiated concessions.

From an active transportation perspective, the issues include (a) commuter, event, and shopping trips from outside the area, (b) getting around within the neighborhood, and (c) connections with the immediate surroundings (especially the Charles River roads, paths, and parks).  The foundation requirement for dealing with all three transportation issues is requiring that every new developer and any current commercial property owner seeking to expand implement a very aggressive Transportation Management Demand program, with specific Single-Occupancy Vehicle maximums and challenging transit-bike-walk goals, with actual performance measured for at least the first 4 or 5 years. 

TRANSIT

From a commuting and sports-event attendance perspective, transit is the most important alternative to cars and has appropriately received the most attention.  The New Brighton Landing (NBL) development will require tenants (including New Balance) to subsidize transit passes, facilitate car-pools, and offer both car and bicycle sharing.  Both Harvard and NBL will create shuttles, although the city needs to make both developments find ways for non-employee/student residents use the shuttle service to fill in the routes and parts of the area that public buses don’t cover.  NBL also needs to be required to pay for the MBTA to increase service on existing bus lines and create direct connections between the Commuter Rail station and  both the Red Line (at Harvard Square) and the Green Line (at Packard’s Corner or Kenmore Square).  (These upgrades should also provide easier access from the T-stations to the Community Rowing facility on Nonantum Road in order to facilitate access for the huge numbers of Boston Public School students who attend each week.) In turn, the city needs to create sidewalk-extensions at consolidated stop locations that allow quicker and more convenient and safe bus entry/exit.  And there should be crosswalks very close to every bus stop so passengers can safely cross the street.

PARKING

Transit improvements are the big carrot, but avoiding car grid-lock also requires some sticks.  NBL intends to create parking space for 1,750 vehicles in two garages.  Harvard will have enormous parking as well – its new draft Master Plan proposes a gigantic “Harvard Permit Parking Lot” of nearly 5 acres on the current site of the Charlesview Apartments (along with lots of academic, administrative, and even retail space).  At a minimum, all developers should be required to separate parking space fees from basic rents for their commercial and residential tenants, and charge market rates for the parking spaces (handicapped spots excepted). All employers in those developments (if not in the entire area) should be required to offer parking cash-out incentives to employees, in essence paying people to not drive their own car.

Allston currently has unmetered, two-hour free parking, which of course ends up with people (often store employees) letting their cars sit for hours at a time, forcing shoppers to loop around searching for already sparse spaces.  If the city wants to be really aggressive, it should start raising the on-street parking rates as well, which will help local businesses despite their probable initial opposition.  It might even invest in a large municipal garage and then eliminate all the non-handicapped on-street parking, creating space for currently nearly non-existent loading zones needed by local businesses.

Residential developers should be encouraged to follow the example of new developments at Barry’s Corner (a Harvard-related project) whose 325 units will have only 180 parking places, and even more dramatically a 44-unit building at the corner of North Beacon and Everett (two blocks from the proposed new RR station) where (assuming it gets the needed BRA “special hearing” permission) will have none – it will have six car-sharing spots and nearly 60 bike racks – the no-car-ownership provision will be written into the leases although it’s not yet clear how it can be enforced!  (see: http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/allston_brighton/2013/02/proposed_eco-friendly_apartmen.html)

PED AND BIKE SAFETY

The other way to reduce car traffic, partially for commuting but primarily for getting around inside the area, is to make it extremely inviting for as many people as possible to walk or bicycle.  For the protection of car occupants as much as for cyclists and pedestrians, major improvements are needed at every place that Western Avenue, North Harvard, Everett, North Beacon, and Market Streets cross. (There are also horrible pedestrian/bicyclist dangers along Commonwealth Ave and Harvard Streets, especially at their crossing.)  Crosswalks need to be expanded and crossing times increased.  Where possible sidewalk extensions should be installed and all “Walk” signs should give pedestrians a 5-second head-start before cars (called a Leading Pedestrian Interval or LPI). The North Harvard-Western Ave. location is particularly tricky with the obtuse angle crossing possibly requiring a non-standard and very large triangular cross walk. (This is one of several situations that could have been better dealt with – perhaps by physically restructuring the intersection – if the city had an appropriate long-term master planning process for the district.)  And the new “Smith Field Drive Extension” that Harvard is creating nearby should have raised sidewalks to make it clear that priority goes to pedestrians crossing this private road.

In addition, protected bike lanes (physically separated or at least buffered from traffic) should be installed where possible on the major streets with “bicycle priority” markings on the remainder.  The bike facilities must be continuous across the area, including through the intersections with dashed lines or solid-color markings.  If necessary, car parking should be eliminated and even some bus stops moved to make room for the expanded pedestrian and cycling safety improvements.

If the car really is no longer king in Boston, the city should explore the possibility of declaring the entire area a “Safety Zone” with an aggressively enforced maximum 20 mph speed limit.

It’s not just the roads that matter, it’s the surrounding environment.  As the American Public Health Association has noted, “Improved lighting has been shown to reduce nighttime pedestrian fatalities at crossings by 78 percent. When protected bike lanes are installed in New York City, injury crashes for all road users (drivers, pedestrians and cyclists) typically drop by 40 percent and by more than 50 percent in some locations. Increased walking, cycling and public transit travel tends to reduce crime rates by providing increased monitoring of city streets and transit waiting areas.”

AFFORDABILITY AND SAFETY

New Balance may be creating a “health and wellness district” and Harvard may be creating the worlds’ greatest activity center, including a greatly expanded 4.5 acre Skating Club facility, but not everyone will automatically have access.  (And by putting the low-density Skating Club complex immediately across from the new Commuter Rail stop, instead of higher density housing or mixed uses, the Harvard/Skating Club land swap also violates just about every Smart Growth principle!) The city should demand that all the NBL, Skate Club, and Harvard facilities provide reduced-price passes to local youth and low-income families.  Harvard’s “Education Portal” initiative has provided valuable services to Allston-Brighton families, but its expiring Community Development Grant program should be extended.

And, as development continues rents will inevitably rise.  A broad program of rent vouchers, incentives for middle-income housing construction, and scattered-site public housing needs to be instituted if the current population is not to be totally displaced. The state-owned Speedway property is a prime site.  Allston, in fact the entire city, would be well served by a real estate tax surcharge on abandoned or derelict property, similar to what has been done in Washington, D.C.  (For more, see: IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?)

KEEPING THE BORDERS OPEN

Allston borders one of our region’s most wonderful resources, the Charles River parklands with its playgrounds, paths, sports facilities, picnic areas, and scenery.  A completed “Lower Charles River Basin Circulation Study” has numerous ideas about improving access not only from Allston but along the entire area – its release has been stalled, for some reason, somewhere inside MassDOT.

In the meantime, the fact remains that all the routes from Allston across Soldiers Field Road are discouragingly perilous. DCR the state agency that “owns” the road has been working on improvements for some time, but has lacked the needed funds.  Now is the time to push – the intersection of the Arsenal Street bridge with Western/Market/Solders Field Road is a nightmare, only exceeded in danger by the nearby intersection of the Beacon Street bridge with Nonantum/Birmingham Parkway/Soldiers Field Road traffic circle – which is itself a catastrophe for anyone trying to walk or bike (or sometimes even drive a car) and isn’t properly handicapped accessible.  The other riverbank access crossings are just as desperately in need of attention – the crumbling pedestrian bridge at Telford Street, the stop lights at Everett Street (which lack crosswalks and walk signs), and the accident-waiting-to-happen at Smith Field (which doesn’t have anything to help walkers despite its being an obvious and heavily used desire line from the playing area to the river-side Herter Park area).

Perhaps the most dramatic improvement would occur if these crossings were combined with effort to create a Herter Park–Greenough Boulevard loop around the river.  The Solomon Foundation has already paid for preliminary engineering drawings for such a project and local political leaders such as state Representatives John Hecht and Kevin Honan, Senator William Brownsberger, and City Councilor Mark Ciommo have been pushing for its implementation.  Maybe the city and state can convince New Balance to throw in some money to make their “health and wellness district” an even larger reality!

Finally, even though the Charles River is the most attractive border area, the other side of Allston faces Cambridge Street with the treacherous confusion of the entrances/exits to the Mass Pike and the approach to the River Street bridge (which will, hopefully, be improved through the Accelerated Bridge Program).  The pedestrian bridge leading off Cambridge Street over the Mass Pike is another inadequate structure. And way on the other side of the neighborhood is Lincoln Street along the Mass Pike, a lonely outlier beyond the scope of any current developer’s concern.  And some creative thinking is needed to stop the traffic-congestion escalation caused by all the people who get off the Pike in Newton to avoid the tolls, but then drive through Allston to get into the city.  In all of these, leadership will have to come from the city or state.

The coming five to ten years will see enormous change in Allston-Brighton.  Whether they result in a transportation nightmare or a more livable and healthy neighborhood depends on the decisions and negotiations that are happening right now.

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Thanks to Harry Mattison, Galen Mook, and Herb Nolan for insightful feedback on earlier drafts.

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Related previous posts include:

>MODE SHIFT AMPLIFIERS: The Importance of the Out-of-Vehicle Experience

> IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

> SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

> COMPLETE STREETS AS AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY: The Green Beyond The Paint

> PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

> REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

> LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice

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posted in STREET LIFE & LAND USE by Steve Miller

10 Comments to "ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood"

  1. Matthew wrote:

    Very nice article, I just want to make a comment on one thing: I don’t think it’s a good idea to replace the on-street parking of Harvard Ave with an off-street municipal lot.

    Why? Because I guarantee you that the BTD will demand that Harvard Ave be converted to four lanes of travel instead of the current two. And that will seriously hurt Harvard Ave as a neighborhood center.

    The blizzard inadvertently provided a look at Harvard Ave as a street with no parking: it was just as jammed up, if not more so, despite the fact that nobody was able to park. The businesses that were open were all crowded with people that had walked there. The traffic on that road which causes the problem is thru-traffic to the Mass Pike and Storrow Drive, not local traffic to the businesses. And the BTD’s response to that jam will be to widen the road. They already tried to quietly widen Cambridge Street from Union Square during the New Balance process, and that was stopped. But they will have a lot more leverage if they can dangle a multi-million dollar parking facility as bait.

    All your other proposals have been about ways to reduce the number of car trips generated except for this one. Not sure why this is different. Also keep in mind that the proposed parking facility I have heard about would demolish a building and create a gap in the Harvard Ave streetwall with heavy car traffic going in and out of it. That’s not good either.

  2. James wrote:

    These are fantastic ideas. Do you think it’s possible to get increased neighborhood support for less than 1 spot : 1 unit parking ratios?

  3. Anne McKinnon wrote:

    Before everyone goes goo-goo over the New Balance project, realize it will generate almos 6,000 new vehicle trips per day. Vehicle trips. Not all trips. Cars.

  4. Steve Miller wrote:

    I got the following message (via email):

    “I read your article on transportation changes in Allston, and wanted to point out an error; You state that current zoning is 1 parking space per unit, when it is actually 2 parking spaces per unit.”

    “Typically, the community and BRA works with the developer and approves variances that allow for either 1 parking space per bedroom, or 1.6 parking spaces per unit. In rare instances, such as the green building zone over on Commonwealth, the concession has been in the 1:1 range.”

    “You may find this excessive, and I understand your argument about lowered rent costs for units without parking, but your article fails to recognize the number of already existing housing stock that does not have parking, and why this housing stock (already a bit older) isn’t affordable.”

    > So….thanks for the correction. I’ve corrected the blog text. Two points: (1) it will take serious community and advocate effort to get the city to repeat these “pilot” and “experimental” total eliminations of parking; (2) the commenter is correct in saying that housing costs are shaped by a lot more than parking, or by extension the cost of construction. A smart businessman once told me that you should always “set price according to user value, not producer cost” — meaning that the seller should try to capture some of the monetized total benefit that the buyer will gain. So, in addition to the “supply-demand” dynamic, the cost of renting or buying in an increasingly desirable area will increase — which is why preserving neighborhoods requires subsidies and counter-market interventions such as rent control.

    Steve

  5. Steve Miller wrote:

    Anne: You are correct — New Balance’s New Brighton Landing (NBL) development is full of contradictions, including massively increasing car congestion. But that is exactly why we need to demand the maximum possible amount, type, and scale of mitigations. I acknowledge that unless the entire nature of the development is radically changed, even if we get every amelioration that’s being asked for, and more, car trips will significantly increase. Given the real estate market right now, and the eagerness with which the city wants this level of private investment, I don’t think we’re likely to be able to successfully force the developer to totally redesign the project — although it might be worth a try. We should push as hard as we can for as much as we can. And we should hope that the traffic doesn’t turn out to be as bad as it could be — and if it does, that drivers give up in frustration and start using alternatives. Steve

  6. Steve Miller wrote:

    James: In a car-dependent built-environment, where so much of our culture makes us value personal convenience and ties personal identity and status to the products we own, getting people to see a car as merely a functional option is hard. I something think that people feel that a nearby parking spot is a constitutional, if not divinely, guaranteed right. And if you throw in the general anxiety about change (current reality may not be perfect, but people feel they know how to deal with it), any proposal to change (much less to eliminate) parking is bound to elicit opposition from residents and businesses. We have to push for incremental “pilots” and “experiments” — like replacing a parking space with a “bicycle parking corrall” — to show people that the disasters they fear won’t actually occur, that the changes might actually improve things. (This is the classic dynamic with Rail-to-Trail projects which are almost always initially opposed by abutters and then ends up raising property values.) -Steve

  7. Steve Miller wrote:

    Regarding the proposal to create a no-private parking building at 37 N. Beacon Street: I’ve just heard that the developer has gotten pressured by a small group of nervous neighbors to include 35 parking slots — 1 handicapped space and 4 car sharing, with the remaining 30 spaces will be privately owned and guest parking. It’s nearly as many slots are there are units. But still better than 1:1 or 2:1. Steve

  8. Steve Miller wrote:

    Another good comment:

    “Ultimately, the problem here is Boston’s absurdly under-priced street parking. As I wrote in October:

    “Boston has set aside a ton of spaces for resident-only parking in neighborhoods, and it charges nothing for the permits to use them. And what happens when it doesn’t cost anything to keep cars parked on the street? They stay there. Today more than 311,000 vehicles are registered in Boston, and more than 87,000 of them have residential parking permits. Each of those cars takes up around 160 square feet—the size of a street spot—of prime city real estate.“You have some of the most valuable land on earth, and you’re giving it away for free to cars,” says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “It’s preposterous.”

    “Boston’s cheap street parking results in a bad case of trickle-down parking economics: Since the city charges nothing for resident spaces, you can justify having a car because it’s free to keep it on the street—even if your building doesn’t provide a space.”

    “If, however, the city started charging a fair and accurate price for street parking, then we’d see far fewer cars on the street, because it’d be far more expensive to keep them here. In that case, Mariscal’s building would make total sense: If you really want to have a car, pay up. Our streets aren’t free.”

    < http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2013/03/06/allston-no-parking-apartment-building-is-a-great-but-terrible-idea/>

  9. Mike Dorgan wrote:

    As an Allston resident, I agree that the development is oversized and not too scale with the neighborhood. However, that battle was lost. I don’t agree with changing or waiving the parking provision of 2 to 1 for a unit. Until their is a valid enforcement mechanism to prevent cars from being owned by residents of no-car pledge units, it won’t work. Better approach is to go after the residents with cars licensed in other states. They aren’t on the streets, but would free up driveways or at least collect the excise tax for the city. I would advocate seperation of the cars from bike traffic, for instance the median put in a few years ago on Brighton avenue could be converted to a 2 way bike path, might also be able to create underpass or overpass for the bikes to avoid crossing streets. Key is to not take away from an already difficult traffic and parking situation by removing space from cars for bikes. Also, resolution of the transit time required on the Green Line would help a lot. Currently takes nearly an hour to get downtown. Should run a reduced stop route during rush hour. This would get more people on the train versus driving. Also, getting more on campus housing for college students and not allowing cars would be a big help as well and much more enforceable.

  10. Steve Miller wrote:

    Mike: Simply allowing developers to no longer include parking in their new, relatively small, buildings is not enough. In addition, as you suggest, it would be good to more strictly require Boston residents to register their cars locally. And that should be combined with imposing a fee for the now-free Boston residential parking permits — creating a revenue stream for additional road improvements, including the separated bike facilities you espouse. The big new garages that Harvard and New Balance are creating in Allston-Brighton should be open to all residents — which will help pull cars off the (no longer free) on-street parking. In fact, it would be good to find ways to incentivize any property owner with off-street parking to make it available to others, which would also help remove parked cars from the curb. Requiring more on-campus student housing and the bulk-purchase of U-passes for the MBTA for all students would make a huge difference, even if student’s weren’t forbidden to have cars (assuming that such a regulation could be imposed at all). And the Green Line definitely needs upgrading. So, yes, one piece does not solve a puzzle. But leaving out the development piece — not changing from a minimum number of parking places required per new unit to a maximum number allowed — would also leave us short of a solution. Steve

 
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