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

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 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 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) a building with 44 units 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!

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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