January 18, 2018 — Belmont’s Comprehensive Plan — Much yet to do

January 18, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In this third part of a three-part series that examines Belmont’s ten-year comprehensive plan, I examine aspects of the plan that have not been pursued in the eight years since it was adopted.  The progress taken to implement some aspects of the plan, as considered last week, should not mask the lack of progress elsewhere.

Much of what has not happened involves our local business centers. The comprehensive plan recommended that Belmont “establish a more predictable approval process [for new development] that focuses on design standards and impact analysis.” The plan noted that existing zoning focuses on “height, density and use,” factors which do “not ensure compatibility of new development with [Belmont’s] historic character and development patterns…” These new standards have never been considered.  The plan recommended rezoning Belmont’s business centers to allow “mixed uses,” a combination of residential and commercial uses, an action not taken.  This failure, the plan says, “inhibits an appropriate mix of uses and scaled new or infill development which can enhance the vitality of these districts.”

Re-visioning Belmont’s “commercial centers” was recommended.  For example, the plan recommended defining new business centers, including Central/Palfrey Square, East Belmont and Brighton Street (“Hill’s Crossing”) (nearby Hill Estates), each having its own individual character.  This recommendation has been ignored.

Preserving Belmont’s neighborhoods received considerable attention in the comprehensive plan.  The plan indicated that Belmont first needs to “strengthen [the] physical definition of neighborhoods.”  After doing that, the plan recommended “establishing neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards [that] can reinforce historical character and development patterns.” This has not been pursued.

For historic preservation, the comprehensive plan recommended a by-law to protect “specimen trees,” along with increased use of “scenic road designations.” (Somerset Street is Belmont’s only “scenic road”).  Neither have been pursued.

Increasing the “walkability” of Belmont is one essential strategy for a sustainable community.  The comprehensive plan recommended that “sidewalks should be included in road reconstruction policy.”  That is still not done. Not too many years ago, the Board of Selectmen determined that Belmont’s limited resources should be devoted to road repair and reconstruction, excluding sidewalks.  Perhaps now that there are sufficient resources for road repair, a corresponding sidewalk repair and reconstruction plan should be prepared.

Some things recommended in the comprehensive plan are beyond the direct control of Belmont and have not been pursued.  Improving bus connections to Alewife (such as diverting existing 128 shuttles to/from Waltham) is one example.  Advocacy by Belmont’s leaders is what is needed, not direct decisionmaking.

Some action steps, seemingly reasonably “easy,” have not been pursued.  Improving signage for Belmont Center parking has never occurred.  One certainly does not drive down Waltham’s Moody Street and wonder where municipal parking is located.  Similarly, developing a signed pedestrian circulation plan for the Leonard/Common/Concord intersection, as recommended by the plan, should be manageable.  Why do people feel they must risk their lives to get from Clark Street / White Street / Belmont Center to the Post Office? Is that process more difficult than it sounds?

The comprehensive plan recommended steps increase bicycling to school.  Designating bike routes to school, marked by signage, was one recommendation  not pursued. But who decides? The Selectmen? DPW? Office of Community Development? Similarly, “providing bicycle parking/storage at transit stations” and other public destinations was recommended but not done.

Comprehensive plan recommendations to increase housing alternatives have received some of the least attention.  The plan recommended consideration of allowing accessory/in-law apartments and allowing three-family structures where they have been historically located.  Allowing increased attached single-family housing and townhouse development was recommended for consideration. None of these have been considered, let alone adopted.

The failures identified above, if inaction can even be considered a failure –“failure” may be unduly harsh of a word– cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Selectmen.  Multiple decisionmakers can/should consider what was recommended in the 2010 comprehensive plan and what needs to be done to bring forth those recommendations for decision.  Inaction may simply indicate the lack of resources to pursue all of the plan’s recommendations, even over eight years. Inaction may also simply indicate the inherent difficulty in converting a “recommendation” into a “proposal.”  Ultimately, while much has been done since Belmont adopted the town’s 2010-2020 comprehensive plan, much remains to be done.

Roger Colton has been a Belmont resident since 1985 living in the Cushing Square neighborhood. He is also the host of Belmont Media Center’s podcast, “Community Conversations” and a guest host of Belmont Media Center’s weekly news program, “Belmont Journal.”  He’s a Town Meeting Member and chair of the Belmont Energy Committee.  Colton can be reached at Colton.Conversations@comcast.net.

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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.

December 22, 2016: Shopping locally: not just a Christmas activity

Belmont Citizen-Herald: December 22, 2016

Belmont businesses this year have faced true difficulties.  The reconstruction of Trapelo Road has tied up traffic, posed parking problems, and made the area look dilapidated for businesses in Cushing Square.  Not something that encourages local foot traffic to support our shops. Work to replace the Leonard Street water mains, repave the road, and reconstruct the sidewalks has created real burdens for Belmont Center businesses. Couple that with the reconstruction of the Macy’s building into a space suitable for new tenants, the small businesses that comprise our Belmont Center business community have been hurt.  There’s no way to put too fine a point on that.

I have read during this holiday shopping season the ongoing encouragement for Belmont residents to “shop locally” as a way to support our local business community during the holiday season.  One reaction I have to this encouragement is akin to folk singer Harry Chapin’s ponderings about his fictitious Thanksgiving food drive (“what will people eat next week?”).   The question is not simply where you will finish your Christmas shopping this weekend. The additional question is where you will do your shopping next week? Or in March? Or in June?

Shopping locally is often promoted as a means to “support our local businesses.”  In some ways, that makes it sound like a charitable action by Belmont residents.  It is, however, much more than that.  Shopping locally is very much in the self-interest of every Belmont resident.  That’s not a political opinion.  Repeated research by local planners supports the conclusion that having locally-owned small business is good for a community as a community.

Let me set aside our local businesses who give Belmont High kids employment opportunities.  Walking into Stone Hearth Pizza, or the Toy Store, or Champions, and elsewhere, and seeing our kids have an opportunity to learn the lessons of having a regular job commitment, learn how to deal with the public, and learn how to work collaboratively with fellow employees to cover the work schedule, improves our community.  I haven’t seen research about local businesses hiring local kids, but it doesn’t take too much walking through Belmont Center to see that.

One big impact of shopping locally, of course, is that it keeps money in the Belmont community.  It supports wages for Belmont residents, who then spend those wages in other local businesses, which then become house payments and grocery budgets for other Belmont residents.  According to the American Independent Business Alliance, “independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales than chain competitors.”  The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has found that, on average, 48 percent of each purchase at a local independent business is recirculated locally, compared to less than 14 percent of purchases at chain stores.

A perhaps more interesting study was one headed by Samuel Stroope, a professor at Louisiana State University.  Stroope found that local businesses not only support residential stability, but support property values.  Home buyers are more interested in living in a community that has a “unique personality,” that doesn’t look like Anywhere USA.  Think about how that intuitively rings true. Are you more attracted to a business center with a Terra Firma and a Bells & Whistles, or to one with a Walgreens?

As we all head into the last weekend before Christmas, it behooves us to take a last stroll through Belmont’s squares to shop locally.  But, even more than that, as we head toward the New Year, it behooves us even more to make a resolution that our local businesses merit not only our holiday shopping and dining, but our year-round shopping as well.