WalkUP Comment Letter on City Request for Information on Developing the Taft Hill Parking Lot

The Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab (part of New Urban Mechanics) recently put out a “request for information” (or RFI) regarding housing with public assets–a public process intended to “allow the city to explore new ideas without committing resources to a particular concept.” Specifically, the City is interesting in improving its core city assets–libraries, fire stations, community centers, and municipal parking lots–to help address the housing crisis and make a dent in the goal of adding 53,000 new units of housing in Boston by 2030.

The City of Boston owns hundreds of parcels of land and hundreds of buildings that could play in a significant role in achieving this goal. Among these is the Taft Hill parking lot right in Roslindale Square. From our “Walkable Urban Place” perspective, the lot has several attractive features: it is literally yards away from our main street shopping district that would be enhanced by greater density of residents who would frequent the shops on foot, and the only location closer to the commuter rail station is the commuter rail lot itself. Moreover, we’d like to see more land dedicated to housing people and businesses, rather than serving as dead “free” car-storage all day. We are thus quite interested in helping lead dialogue with the city on this idea.

On the other hand, we’ve seen several smaller developments in recent years in and around Roslindale which have gradually increased population and density. While we’ve generally applauded this increase in housing supply, the inescapable fact is that the City has done far more on housing than on transportation, and unless we change course immediately, the lack of meaningful coordination between transportation and land use will take a real toll on livability and likely engender strident community opposition to any further development. In short, Boston can and should accommodate 100,000 new residents, but not 50,000 new cars.

To that end, we’ve sent the letter below to respond to the City’s RFI on developing the Taft Hill lot. The focus here is not any specific development proposal for the lot–a process which is still some a ways off, but rather an urgent call to arms to start putting the right sustainable transportation pieces in place now, so that when it comes time to evaluate specific development proposals, we will have some assurance that these will enhance the neighborhood’s walkability and vitality and not result in increased gridlock, pollution, and harm to the pedestrian environment.

If you share our concerns and our vision, be sure to reach out to all the officials listed below and let them know!

March 29, 2018
BY ELECTRONIC MAIL ONLY (marguerite.cramer@nullboston.gov)
Housing Innovation Lab
City of Boston
Boston City Hall
Boston, MA
Attention: Marguerite Cramer

RE: Comment Letter
Request for Interest – Housing with Public Assets

Dear Ms. Cramer:

I write on behalf of WalkUP Roslindale to offer an unofficial response to your Request for Information concerning Housing with Public Assets. The development of mixed-use structures within Roslindale Village listed in the Request for Interest, with specific emphasis on the Tafthill Municipal Lot, is of great interest to us. We are very excited about the possibility of more commercial space and housing in the core of Roslindale. We urge the city to put the Tafthill Municipal Lot on the top of the list of sites that could be developed through a Request for Proposals, whether as a part of the relocation of existing public assets or independently.

By way of background, WalkUP Roslindale, which takes its name from the international movement to foster “Walkable Urban Places,” is a collaborative group of residents dedicated to making Roslindale the most walkable neighborhood in Boston. We advocate for a dynamic, livable streetscape and we support positive changes to our public and private built environment that strengthen walkability and other forms of active mobility as means toward better personal and public health, safety, social capital, economic development, and environmental sustainability. We are led by a steering group of about 25 residents and have over 500 additional supporters. More information about WalkUP Roslindale and our initiatives can be found at walkuproslindale.org. We recognize that no single group of people can be said to speak for our entire neighborhood – instead, please take these comments as representing the collective, specific viewpoint of our steering group members (some of whom are indicated below) and offering what we see as the analysis that results from our mission and principles. We also think our support for the development of these sites will facilitate broader community receptivity during public vetting.

Over the past few years we have commented in support of various projects, including 20 Taft Hill Park (19 units), 874-878 South Street (9 units), 32 Cummins (9 units), and 4281 Washington Street (12 units) and, though it was before our organization was formed, many of us spoke out personally in favor of Parkside on Adams (43 units). We supported all of these developments because we think these projects largely advance our aim of making Roslindale a more dynamic, walkable urban landscape. Density in these locations has the clear benefit of increasing foot traffic, supporting the local businesses (which have long suffered from limited daytime patrons), augmenting the pedestrian experience and providing much needed housing in an area with high proximity to a public transportation network (even though it is a network in great need of improved service in part as a result of increased demand and utilization).

We note, however, that density is not an end in and of itself. Rather, done properly, density is a means to achieve our vision of a vibrant, safe, and walkable neighborhood with more housing options for people who want to live here. For that reason, we do not support high-density developments that fail to advance our core mission. In each of the projects we’ve weighed in, we’ve commented in ways we think the projects can be improved. For example, we’ve encouraged developers of each of these projects to make investments in the pedestrian landscape outside their buildings, consider a wider range of unit sizes, reduce the number of parking spaces, incorporate bike infrastructure, and provide free public transportation passes as well as credits toward car-sharing for new residents (e.g. ZipCar or Lyft). We have also successfully pushed developers to alter massing by adding articulation of building envelopes in order to end up with a more attractive building. Our pushing for these incremental improvements reflects our belief that density successfully adds to neighborhoods when it is integrated with streetscape and mobility improvements.

While our efforts (and those of allied organizations) with individual developers have generally yielded marginal improvements in walkability, we are very concerned that the City and the Commonwealth are not doing enough to insure transportation planning keeps up with development. This concern cannot possibly be addressed on a “one-off”, project-by-project basis. We anticipate tens of thousands of new residents moving to Boston in the coming years, hundreds, if not thousands, of whom will reside in Roslindale. We should welcome these new residents seeking opportunity with open arms, but we cannot welcome thousands or tens of thousands of new cars into our neighborhoods. To this end, it is imperative that the City do more to enable those who seek a car-free or car-light lifestyle to do so. There are many Bostonians—both old and new—who would much prefer to get around with a combination of walking, biking, taking the T, and the occasional ZipCar or TNC/taxi ride. Yet major gaps in these options currently make these alternatives impractical for many. Once someone has paid the large sunk cost of private car ownership, it is often rational for that person to maximize utilization of the car since it’s already paid for and offers convenience when compared to unpredictable and sometimes inefficient and unsafe more public modes of transport. This dynamic needs to change: as we move further into the 21st century, our neighborhoods need to be built (and rebuilt) for people, not cars. We see our neighborhood of Roslindale as an ideal Ground Zero for this long-needed transition to a modern city. We implore the city to take the leadership necessary to ensure this happens.

In this vein, while we welcome a major development at the Taft Hill Lot – and very much hope it will rise to the top of the city’s list of potential new sites – we urge the city to consider the “public assets” it seeks to combine with housing to be those that relate to the city’s transportation network and the increase in public and park spaces. We think that for the increase of density to add meaningfully to our neighborhood and to gain wide community support rests squarely upon simultaneous infrastructure improvements many of which the City can achieve on its own, the rest of which it should be able to advance in collaboration with the Commonwealth. These include:

  1. Full implementation of the Arboretum Gate Path in the next two years, providing a safe and attractive walk/bike route between Roslindale Village and Forest Hills while also improving access to the Arboretum for Roslindale’s economically and racially diverse residents;
  2. True and permanent Bus Rapid Transit along Washington Street between at least Roslindale Village and Forest Hills, as well as related improvements to bus service such as greater frequency on off-peak periods;
  3. Improved parking management for Roslindale Village, including:
    1. demand pricing for city spaces;
    2. a bar against any new residents of a building on the Tafthill site obtaining street parking stickers;
    3. significantly limiting any additional off-street parking on the Tafthill site – the already congested area around the central business district (which increasingly experiences gridlock during the day) would benefit significantly from more people living nearby, but would suffer if each of those new residents brings another car;
    4. increase in the area requiring parking permits along with an increase in the cost for the permits, the revenue of which should be made available exclusively for streetscape improvements in Roslindale.
  4. Complete street redesign for all of Roslindale Village with a focus on pedestrian and bike improvements;
  5. Making Roslindale a Zone 1A commuter rail stop (which we recognize is not in the direct control of the city but must be a priority).

As a matter of massing design, we think developers ought to be encouraged to consider set-backs in upper levels in taller projects.

We also encourage the city to consider that any projects in Roslindale Village also include a sizeable amount of new commercial office space because in combination with housing it will increase urban vitality more hours of the day.

We very much appreciate your careful consideration of our comments and would be happy to discuss any questions you may have on them.

Sincerely yours,

Adam D. Rogoff, Resident @ 28 Ashfield Street, Roslindale, on behalf of
the WalkUP Roslindale Steering Group, including:
Ricardo R. Austrich, Resident @ 843 South Street, Roslindale
Lisa Beatman, Resident @ 180 Mount Hope Street, Roslindale
Steve Gag, Resident @ 631 South Street, Roslindale
Matt Lawlor, Resident, 15 Basto Terrace
Liz Graham-Meredith, Resident @ 6 Crandall Street, Roslindale
Mandana Moshtaghi, Resident @ 12 Arborough Road, Roslindale
Robert Orthman, Resident @ 69 Walter Street, Roslindale
Adam Rosi-Kessel, Resident @ 36 Taft Hill Terrace, Roslindale
Rachele Rosi-Kessel, Resident @ 36 Taft Hill Terrace, Roslindale
Mark Tedrow, Resident @ 169 Sycamore Street, Apt. 1, Roslindale
Greg Tobin, Resident @ 1 Sheldon Street, Roslindale
Alan Wright, Resident @ 98 Birch Street, Roslindale
Rick Yoder, Resident @ 180 Mount Hope Street, Roslindale
Copy to:
Mr. Daniel Murphy, Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services
City Councilor Tim McCarthy
City Councilor Michelle Wu
City Councilor Ayanna Pressley
City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George
City Councilor Andrea Campbell
City Councilor Matt O’Malley

2 thoughts to “WalkUP Comment Letter on City Request for Information on Developing the Taft Hill Parking Lot”

  1. While i understand that you are seeking to use the Taft Hill municipal parking lot ‘dead space’, I believe that it is a vital asset to the Roslindale. Parking is at a premium in town and while I live in walking distance, my frequent guests do not, and visiting one of the local restaurants and shops is an important part of that visit-the Taft Hill parking lot makes a convenient place to meet and then shop. Also, there is the Registry and Social Security offices as well as other businesses nearby that would suffer from a loss of available parking. The events held at Adams Park would also suffer such as the Farmer’s Market.
    I think Roslindale would be better served to improve pedestrian safety, traffic flow and in village accessibility.
    To erect another housing structure would be a bad idea for Roslindale.

  2. Just a few clarifications in response to Tod’s comment:

    • The idea of developing city assets (such as municipal lots) is coming from the city. It’s not WalkUP that is seeking to use the lot — rather, we are providing feedback in response to a city request as to what it will take to make these sorts of developments work. Namely, unless and until the city stops developing mainly for cars, much needed growth is going to be strangled.
    • Nothing is concrete yet, but the proposed framework we’ve seen would not substantially reduce the amount of public parking.
    • We believe strongly that Roslindale does not suffer from a lack of parking, but rather from a lack of parking *management*. The two MBTA lots, for example, are never full, and the Taft Hill lot comes close to capacity only on rare occasions–typically during the summer farmer’s market (when free parking also happens to be available in the MBTA lots). If we had a modest price for parking in the village and better enforced time limits, we could insure there were always available spaces right in front of the businesses for people making a quick visit; adequate space in the three lots (Taft Hill and the two MBTA lots) for longer term visitors; and take the revenue generated and invest it in making Roslindale more pedestrian, bike, and transit-friendly, thus further reducing the need to drive here.
    • We acknowledge that for the foreseeable future there will always be a need for parking in Roslindale and we should accommodate that need, but there is no justification for adding parking or limiting development. Adding more parking will induce more traffic (potentially gridlock), pollution, and make it harder to get to the neighborhood. Managing the existing parking will have the opposite effect. Responsible, well-designed, walkable housing development will enhance the vitality of the neighborhood and help the village shopping district, as those stores need more foot traffic to survive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.