November 2, 2017–Time to revisit McLean senior housing

November 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In 1999, in one of the most contentious debates ever to face Belmont, making recent dust-ups over the sale of liquor licenses and the design of our town green look like pillow fights, Belmont’s Town Meeting voted to approve a comprehensive development package for property that McLean Hospital had proposed to sell for housing development. As part of the compromise that Town Meeting ultimately approved, various stakeholders received something to advance their particular interests.  Substantial land was preserved as open space.  Property was set aside for an affordable housing development.  High-end condominiums were to be constructed on some land. And land for a new cemetery was provided to the town.  All of those projects have since come to fruition.

Another part of the McLean compromise, however, has grown stale over the years. It deserves to be re-opened.  One parcel of the McLean land was zoned exclusively to allow a continuing care facility for over-55 persons. The property was bought by the American Retirement Corporation, which ultimately received a permit to build a “community” with nearly 500 living units (350 independent living, 136 assisted living).  After ARC received its permit, construction costs skyrocketed and the market for continuing care facilities collapsed. The project was eventually abandoned.  The land has gone unused ever since.

The need for additional life-cycle housing in Belmont continues unabated.  Aging Belmont residents continue to leave town when they find they no longer need a bigger home. Perhaps they can no longer physically take care of a single family home with multiple bedrooms (along with the accompanying yard). Perhaps they simply no longer want to do so. There is, however, no place in town for these seniors to move when they decide to downsize their living space. And they leave.

All the while, the McLean property sits vacant.

And the McLean senior housing property will continue to sit vacant because the zoning decision that was made twenty years ago limiting its use to a continuing care facility is out-of-date. The world has changed since that zoning decision was made. Efforts today focus on maintaining independent living for our aging residents rather than on moving our seniors into large-scale continuing care facilities.

Help is available. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, along with others such as the Boston Society of Architects and KPM (a nationally-recognized public accounting and business consulting firm), sponsors an annual competition that develops proposals for places just like the vacant McLean property. The FHLB matches graduate design students from area universities both with mentors from academia and with design and financial professionals in the Boston area.  In its 18th year, the competition develops proposals, including both design and financing, that address a local sponsor’s needs and desires while offering ways in which such proposals can be practically implemented in the real world.  Graduate students from at least two area universities must be on each team.  Participating schools range from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, to Boston University, Tufts University, the Boston Architectural College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

Belmont has both the need for additional life-cycle housing for the aged and a location that, at least in 1999, was seen as appropriate to help address that need.  Given that the FHLB competition provides precisely the type of help Belmont could use, it would make sense for Belmont to ask to be a local sponsor in the FHLB initiative. The real question, of course, is whether Belmont is willing to revisit its 20-year old zoning decision restricting the use of the vacant McLean property given that the rationale for that restriction has long-since expired.

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October 19, 2017: Zoning changes needed in light of increased ride-sharing

October 19, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Planning Board recently discussed what steps could be taken to “revitalize” Waverley Square.  The need to engage in a town-wide conversation about how to attract new development to Waverley Square has long been recognized. One of the first steps that could be taken, however, would benefit Belmont’s other business districts as well.  Belmont should revisit what parking requirements are required by local zoning regulations given today’s world of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

There can be little question that as ride-sharing services expand, both the use of cars and the corresponding need to park those cars, is being reduced.  As one parking analyst notes, “parking is what cars do most of the time.  The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place.”  It is not unusual for a community to devote up to four or five parking spaces somewhere in town for every automobile that is owned.  That, however, will not continue.  Another firm, which specializes in urban parking issues, recently estimated that “current parking needs will be cut in half in the next 30 years.”

Ride-sharing has been found to reduce parking needs for service establishments such as local restaurants in particular.  When one thinks about it, the reason for that reduction is evident. Uber-delivered patrons don’t need parking spaces because the cars in which they arrive (and depart) are never parked.  William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, explains that the only way Uber drivers make money is to keep their cars in motion.  And, as Kinder says, “every Uber ride means one less car in the parking lot.”

Multiple studies agree that the increased use of ride-sharing services is decreasing the demand for local parking. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute, for example, concluded that “if you’re in a big city with a large ridesharing car fleet in operation, there may not be much need to own your own vehicle—after all, getting a ride is only a couple taps away.” Similarly, a survey of 1,200 people in Austin (TX) reported that 41% of respondents increased the use of their personal cars when Uber and Lyft were driven from town by local regulation.

From a climate change perspective, increasing the use of ride-sharing services helps a community reduce its carbon footprint.  Jason Bordoff, a former energy advisor to President Obama explains that even though ride-sharing may expand the total number of miles driven by some cars, “they also improve the economics of electric vehicles, which have higher capital costs but lower operating costs, by sharply increasing the utilization rate of cars.” Bordoff concludes that “all of this matters for energy and climate change.”

Recognizing the reduced need for parking, and incorporating that recognition into our zoning bylaws, would offer two positive impacts to Belmont businesses. First, it would quite literally take less space to operate a business if fewer parking spaces are required.  More locations in Belmont would become economically viable.  Second, providing parking spaces is expensive. Requiring a number of parking spaces that exceeds that which, in reality, is needed by a business imposes an unnecessary cost to operate that Belmont business.

The Planning Board recently reduced the mandatory parking requirements to allow a new restaurant to open in Belmont Center.  It would benefit the town and our local business community if that was not simply a one-and-done decision.  Updating our local zoning to reflect declining parking needs in light of contemporary transportation choices would be sound climate change policy, sound business-development strategy, and a sound first step forward to help redevelop Waverley Square.

August 31, 2017: Cell phones are the new “bouncing balls”

August 31, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As our kids head back to school this week, let’s think again about the safety implications of mixing cars with kids walking to school.

Some lessons you just never forget. I’ve been taught since I was a young driver to “beware the bouncing ball.” I will always carry the memories of those afternoons practicing driving around our neighborhood, gripping the wheel of our family car, my instructor at my side. My mother would lecture (sometimes, perhaps, in louder tones than others), “bouncing balls, and the children who chase them, are the bane of the driver. Watch for them. Notice them.”

The numbers today tell us about a different type of “bouncing ball.” These numbers warn that it is perhaps the teenager that is most at risk as a pedestrian.  According to one report, “Teens on the Move,” every hour of every day a teenage pedestrian in the United States is killed or injured.  According to this study, “while teens account for one-third of children in the United States, they make up two-thirds of the pedestrian fatalities.”

Safe Kids, an organization dedicated to improving pedestrian safety, agrees.  Safe Kids attributes the problem to “distracted walking.”  Safe Kids reports that by the end of 2015, 88% of high school students owned cell phones, up from 45% just ten years earlier.  This trend has safety implications for students walking to and from school.  Safe Kids collected more than 34,000 observations of students crossing streets in school zones.  It found that “one-in-five high school students, and one-in-eight middle school students, were observed crossing the street while distracted by phones, headphones and other mobile devices.”  Indeed, according to Safe Kids, from 2013 to 2016, distracted walking increased from one-in-five to more than one-in-four among high school students, and increased from one-in-eight to one-in-six middle school students.  In today’s world, in other words, cell phones are the new “bouncing ball.” As my mother would have said “watch for them; notice them.”

It is not just street crossings, however, that merit increased attention as our kids go back to school.  Driveways can be deadly as well.  In the United States, 50 children are backed over every week because a driver could not see them.  Every vehicle, I am told, has what is called its “blind zone,” that area behind the vehicle where the driver cannot see even when looking back and properly using his or her rear and side view mirrors.  The larger the vehicle, the larger the blind zone.

Driveways are often made even more dangerous to kids walking to school by bushes and other shrubberies that line the driveway or sit close to the sidewalk and impede sight lines.  In addition, cars like our Prius hybrid are so quiet, they can “sneak up” on pedestrians, both young and old, without being heard.  Situations where the driver cannot see the pedestrian, and the pedestrian can neither see nor hear a car backing out of the driveway, will daily present the potential for tragedy without the exercise of utmost care.

Unlike the teenage dangers of distracted walking, backing out of driveways poses the most danger to younger children.  According to KidsAndCars, a national safety organization, “children do not understand the danger of the slow moving vehicle; they believe if they see the vehicle, the driver can see them.”  The need to protect our kids from our cars, in other words, arises before one’s car ever hits the streets.

Kids, welcome back to school. I hope you find the year both fun and interesting.  Here’s hoping, also, that we all take seriously our responsibilities, as both drivers and pedestrians, to keep the school year safe as well.

August 24, 2017: A question asked far too often

August 24, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s not as though it was strictly a process issue, although the process was terrible. It’s not as though Planning Board members did not have the same opportunity to participate in the public input process for the Library feasibility study that everyone else in town had, though they did.  It’s not simply that the Library Board was on the cusp of beginning a private fundraising campaign, though floating a new “trial balloon” quite foreseeably would undermine that effort.

No.  It wasn’t any one of those things standing alone.

What really bothered me was that, at not inconsiderable cost in time and money, the Library Trustees had just recently undertaken a site feasibility study, backed up by its long-range plan. Based on these studies, the Trustees recommended a course of action based on the solid information and public input received and considered.

What really bothered me by the “Big Idea” that was recently “floated” by the Planning Board was, that as too often occurs, the Library’s feasibility study and long-range plan were both relegated to the back shelf, not because those documents were based on insufficient process, or bad data, or inadequate analysis, but rather because the Planning Board simply chose to ignore them. The Library’s feasibility study and long-range plan were treated as things to be set aside to gather dust.  Are people really surprised that the Library Trustees were somewhat less than thrilled?

Consider not only the conclusions that the Library’s feasibility study reached, after months of study, but consider the Library’s own “long-term plan.”  For example, the objectives that long-term plan had identified for the Library included: (1) the desire to “enhance [the] relationship with the Belmont School Department. Seek opportunities for additional collaboration with administration, school committee, teachers, and librarians”; (2) creating “more opportunities for technology training for seniors”; and (3) increasing “cross generational programming, bringing together people of all ages.”

These were all backed by the observation that the objectives were best served by keeping the Library in the middle of town. They were backed by the conclusion that staying close to as many schools as possible helps. When one looks at the Library’s long-term plan, it seems clear why the Trustees concluded, and why the community input supported, maintaining the library toward the center of the community, and nearby to multiple schools. The Planning Board didn’t even acknowledge the objectives, let alone incorporate them into its deliberations.

What bothers me is not simply that the “Big Idea” floated by the Planning Board seems inconsistent with these findings and conclusions, but that the Planning Board’s action is a symptom of a bigger problem. The following question gets asked far too often in Belmont: “whatever happened to the [insert name of study or plan]?” The following result arises far too frequently. The Town spends money, hires people who have specialized knowledge, devotes staff and volunteer time, solicits public input, prepares the analysis, and then. . .ignores the results.

If the Planning Board’s “Big Idea” moves forward, it should first move forward by a consideration, by those elected to oversee the Library, of whether the idea is consistent with the basic findings and conclusions of the Library feasibility study and the Library’s long-term plan.  These Library planning documents, in other words, should not be an after-thought, but rather should be the touchstone to any future consideration. That’s why they were prepared.

Should the Planning Board choose to advocate its own “Big Idea,” it should be able to articulate precisely how, and why, its own findings and conclusions should stand in lieu of those findings and conclusions that the Library Trustees reached through their own planning processes.

August 2, 2017: Purple Heart Day–Remembering the fallen

August 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

On Monday, August 7, Belmont will observe Purple Heart Day.  The day commemorates those men and women who have received the Purple Heart in service to our country.

First created in 1782 by General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the award was then known as the Badge of Military Merit.  The Badge fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War until being resurrected in World War I.  According to one history of the medal, the Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who, while serving after April 5, 1917, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.  (The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.)  Since then, while the Pentagon does not track the exact number, current estimates are that roughly 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded. The categories of Purple Heart recipients have been expanded in recent years.

Purple Heart Day is not a “holiday.” Neither government offices nor businesses are closed.  No parades are held.  No fireworks are set off. It is a day of introspection, a day to say “thank you” to all those who have served through the military. Residents would be well-served by grabbing the kids and attending the Purple Heart Day morning ceremony at the Belmont Public Library.

I do have one “worry” about Purple Heart Day.  It is the same concern I have with donating to local food drives only at Thanksgiving; or embracing diversity only on Martin Luther King Day.  Appreciation of, and respect for, our veterans should not be something that is taken out and dusted off for a Purple Heart Day ceremony, only then to be returned to the back shelves of our minds to await next year’s ceremonies.

(That’s not to say that such appreciation implies an unqualified buy-in to all military policies. What our men and women serve to protect is the right to think as we wish.  That includes the right to dissent.)

Devoting a special day to acknowledge those sacrifices not only of the men and women who have fallen in service, but those also of the families of the men and women who have fallen, is the right thing to do.  Consider just one type of sacrifice: experiencing a disability.  The numbers are staggering. Of the nearly 1,000 veterans living in Belmont, nearly one-quarter now have at least one disability. (That disability rate is more than three times higher than the disability rate in Belmont’s total adult population). Part of that, of course, is because many of our veterans are aging.  Nearly 40% of Belmont’s veterans are age 75 or older, while more than two-thirds are age 65 or older. This, however, may be a situation where the numbers may get in the way of the story.  The “story” is one of service, and of sacrifice, men and women, generation upon generation.

For those who perhaps want to do more than simply attend a ceremony on Purple Heart Day, learning about Belmont’s Veterans Memorial Committee (www.BelmontVets.com) is worth your time.  That Committee is “dedicated to establishing and preserving Belmont’s memorials to its veterans and those who died in service.” For example, the Veteran’s Committee was the driving force behind restoration of the monument to those who served in WWI.  It is also spearheading the effort to renovate and expand the memorial at Clay Pit Pond acknowledging Belmont residents who have served in all conflicts since the Civil War.

Let us never forget to appreciate those who have fallen in service.  But, let us also not “remember to remember” only on those days that are specially set aside for doing so.

July 20, 2017: Talking today about when savings run dry

July 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s worth saying out loud already.  Even though Belmont has been frugal with its spending in recent years, Town Meeting was told this May that “projected deficits for [Fiscal Year 2020] and beyond suggest that. . .increased revenue (such as in the form of a future override and/or reduced expenditures) may. . .be required in the coming years.”

This message was brought by a group called the Warrant Committee.  The Warrant Committee is charged with being TM’s advisor on financial matters.  The Committee authors a report to TM each year on Belmont’s proposed budget for the coming year and beyond.  While not easy reading, the report is worth paying attention to.

Belmont has used the increased revenue from its 2015 operating override wisely, this year’s report said.  When voters approved the 2015 override, TM created what was called the “General Stabilization Fund.”  The GSF was intended to serve as a “savings account” to hold the override revenue until needed.  The override revenue was expected to help the town balance its budget for three years (2015, 2016, 2017).

In fact, according to the Warrant Committee, Belmont will not need to draw money from this “savings account” in 2018.  As a result, the Warrant Committee said, “we should be in a position to use a portion of [the GSF] to balance the budget in [Fiscal Year 2019].”  It is at that point, however, that the arithmetic catches up with Belmont and the savings account will run dry.  The arithmetic is easy to understand.  While expenditures in this year’s budget will increase by 3.5%, revenues simply don’t increase that fast.  Accordingly, while Belmont can draw down its savings account for several years, eventually those savings will run out.

This year’s budget does what most Belmont residents really want done.  According to the Warrant Committee, “the recommended budget maintains roughly level town services, avoids major cuts in the School programs and addresses higher enrollments, and provides for capital investments (roads, sidewalks, equipment).” The Warrant Committee reported unequivocally that “Belmont’s schools are efficiently run with excellent results.”  The Committee noted that “there has been increasing attention to the state of our roads and sidewalks and the 2015 override devoted more resources in this critical area.”

Schools. Roads. Level services.  Good job, right?

So, given that good news, why talk about 2020 today? The time comes closer, you see, when Belmont will need to seek another override approval from the voters.  When that time arrives, statements will be made about the dire consequences of not approving the override, as well as about the “millions of dollars of waste” that could be removed from the budget (if only we “really tried”).  Letters will be written. E-mails sent. As we know all too well, however, in an election campaign, it is often difficult to separate truth from spin. Competing claims are often intended not to educate, but rather simply to harden the pre-existing opinions of people who already firmly believe one way or the other.

Knowing what we know today about when the arithmetic tells us our savings will run dry, therefore, one process that would be beneficial, whether through the Warrant Committee or someone else, is for a series of public forums to be held over the next two years to allow the public to express their opinions about what specific services are essential to preserve from cuts and, conversely, where specific budget cuts would be proposed by those who believe waste exists.

Engaging in that public conversation outside the context of a campaign, by beginning it before an override is proposed, and hosting it by town officials, would be helpful to all concerned.