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.

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October 20, 2016: Child care: addressing children’s well-being in local planning

October 20, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

A public input meeting on the renovation of the PQ playground, over behind the VFW Hall and the tennis courts, brought together an eclectic group of folks recently in the Butler School cafeteria.  Groups that were represented in the gathering involved not only parents and abutters, but also child care providers who regularly use that playground.

Belmont has a particular need for playground facilities.  According to data published each year by the Kids Count Data Center, Belmont has the highest penetration of young children in our region. While 14.3% of Belmont’s population is age 9 or younger, the next highest penetrations are Arlington (12.4%) and Lexington (11.5%). Watertown (9.5%) and Waltham (8.9%) fall further behind.  The need for playground facilities is not the only need presented by this segment of our community.  Adequate child care is an important resource needed by these families as well.

Adequate child care requires a sufficient supply of child care facilities.  While Massachusetts overall has one of the highest rates of child care facilities in the nation, Middlesex County does not reflect that performance.  Only three counties in Massachusetts have fewer child care facilities per 1,000 children than does Middlesex. In addition, while Massachusetts nearly doubled the number of child care facilities per 1,000 children in recent years, Middlesex County’s rate remained constant. Data for individual communities is not reported.

Adequate child care also requires a sufficient diversity in the types of facilities offered.  Massachusetts, for example, has a shortage of slots available in family child care homes.  Fewer than one-in-five (17%) of all child care spaces in Massachusetts can be found in licensed family child care homes.

This shortage has substantial cost implications to families with children.  In Massachusetts, while the annual cost for an infant in a family care home is $10,679, the cost for an infant in a child care center is $17,082 (2015 dollars).  Similarly, while the cost of a family care home for a four year old is $10,012, the cost for a four year old in a center is $12,796.

Belmont places restrictive zoning regulations on family day care providers.  In Belmont, family day care providers must receive a special permit before they can operate.  No consideration is given to the number of children being cared for in the home. The zoning by-law frequently pits the interests of families, particularly young families, who are faced with the need for two-incomes (and thus regular child care) against the concerns of neighbors about noise and traffic (at times of drop-off and pick-up).  Those who object to family day care providers often argue that such homes are like any other “commercial” enterprise in a residential neighborhood.

Belmont should follow the guidance of the American Planning Association on child care facilities.  APA states that “there is increasing recognition given to the importance of including children’s well-being in our planning practice.”  In addition, APA continues, “child care is seen as a critical support for working parents and their employers.”  The APA says that “just as roads, sewer and water are needed for housing and business development, so, too is child care.”

Progress has been made.  In some places, small family day care providers have been exempted from zoning regulations entirely.  In other places, child care has been made mandatory in new large housing developments.  Whether from the perspective of dual income families, the perspective of promoting economic development, or the perspective of providing for long-term child development benefits, Belmont would be well-served to examine how its planning and zoning supports local child care.  A multi-stakeholder study group reporting to the Board of Selectmen would be a good start.

September 22, 2016: Unbundled parking: Fewer cars from Cushing Village

September 22, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the final up-or-down decision grows near on whether the proposed Cushing Village development will move forward, it is important to consider not only “whether” the development will proceed, but to consider, also, “how” it will proceed.  In a prior Guest Opinion in the Citizen-Herald, for example, Cushing Village developer Chris Starr committed that “residential parking will be ‘unbundled’ from their monthly apartment rent, which will encourage residents to use the nearby public transit and go car-free if they prefer.”  That commitment should be carried forward by the new developers.

One way to manage parking, and thus help control the automobile traffic generated by new developments such as Cushing Village, is to “unbundle” the parking from the living units, such as was proposed by Chris Starr.  According to the Transport Policy Institute at Victoria University, “optimal parking supply is the amount that motorists would purchase if they paid all costs directly and had good parking and transport options.”

“Unbundling means that parking is rented or sold separately,” the Institute explains, “rather than automatically included with building space.”  Rather than rent an apartment with two parking spaces for $2,000 per month, in other words, the apartment is rented for $1,700, with each parking space rented separately for $150 per month.  In this way, residents of the building pay only for the parking they need.  For a development such as Cushing Village, which sits directly on a bus line to significant public transportation options (e.g., the T at Harvard Square, the train in Waverley Square), persons who choose to rely on public transit in lieu of a car are not forced to pay for parking spaces that they choose not to use.  In contrast, people who choose to rely on automobiles are called upon to pay the full cost of parking those automobiles.

The primary community benefit of unbundling the rent and/or sale of parking spaces from the underlying living unit is that the process attracts individuals who choose not to use cars as their mode of transportation.  The ready access to shared automobiles, such as Zip Cars, which will be located at Cushing Village, provides that transportation option when needed.

Unbundling has an unquestioned impact on reducing automobiles in new developments. In a 2013 “review of parking standards” in the Concord (MA) zoning code, Concord was told that “charging separately for parking is the single most effective strategy to encourage households to own fewer cars, and rely more on walking, cycling and transit.”  Unbundling residential parking, Concord was told, “can significantly reduce household vehicle ownership and parking demand.”

Concord was told that the process of unbundling parking makes “the cost of providing parking clear to residential and commercial tenants and buyers, and [helps] them make more informed decisions about their transportation needs.” Typically, the Concord zoning study found, “unbundled parking reduces parking demand by 10 – 30%.” One impact of this reduced parking demand is either that building size can be reduced or that developers can “build less parking and more of the functional building space (whether that is living units, commercial space or office space).”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency of which Belmont is a member, agrees. According to MAPC, unbundled parking “is not only more equitable, but can also reduce the total amount of parking required for the building. . .Communities should encourage developers to unbundle the price of parking. . .”

As Cushing Village moves forward under the guidance of a new developer, Belmont would be well-served if Toll Brothers makes clear its commitment to follow-through on previously-announced plans to unbundle the pricing of parking and building space.

August 25, 2016: Lack of life-cycle housing changes Belmont’s character

August 25, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much has been written in recent times about the need to preserve the “character” of Belmont.  Even a quick ride around the Waverley Square area, or around the Grove Street Park neighborhood, reveals the disturbing trend toward massive newly-constructed housing units that tower over their neighbors and dwarf the homes that surround them.

In addition to these changes with the physical housing in Belmont, however, another equally fundamental threat to the character of Belmont is taking place at the same time. This threat, however, is less visible on a day-to-day basis and, as a result, has gained far less attention by Belmont’s policymakers.  People should take heed.

Belmont is increasingly becoming a community where a person cannot reasonably expect to live out their life, including when they are starting out and when they are aging.  The terminology used by community planners refers to “life-cycle housing.”

The lack of affordable housing certainly contributes to the failure to provide cradle-to-grave housing.  However, an exclusive focus on housing affordability diverts attention away from other factors affecting the supply (or lack thereof) of life-cycle housing.  Addressing the issue requires a consideration of housing types and numbers, not merely an examination of prices relative to income.

Belmont’s supply of rental housing, for example, is in sharp decline amongst our double-and triple-deckers.  In just the past fifteen years, the number of units rented in Belmont’s double-decker homes has declined by more than 20 percent; the number of rented triple-decker units declined by nearly one-quarter.  In 2013, Belmont had nearly 500 fewer rental housing units in two-family homes than existed in 2000, while there were nearly 200 fewer rental units in three-family homes.

The trend in decreasing rental housing is often associated with the increased conversion of two- and three-family homes to condominium units.  Each condo is individually sold, rather than the building as a whole being sold to a single buyer.  Each building that is converted to condos tends to eliminate a unit of rental housing.  Two owner-occupied units replace a one-owner/one-renter situation.

One impact of this decreasing supply of rental housing in Belmont’s double- and triple-deckers is the squeeze it places on Belmont’s aging population.  An older person in Belmont is no longer as able to live in a double-decker home, using the rent from the second unit to help subsidize the operating expenses, including property taxes, for the building as a whole.  If one of Belmont’s aging households no longer wants to live in a four-bedroom single family home, the supply of double-deckers, in which they historically might have lived in a smaller more manageable unit, while using the other as a source of income, is quite simply less available.

It’s also one reason that Belmont’s young adults cannot come back to Belmont to begin their careers.  Consider that the number of households age 34 and younger who rent in Belmont has declined by more than 30% just since the 2000 Census.  The number of Belmont households age 34 and younger, renter and owner combined, has declined by more than 20% in that same time period.

Belmont takes pride in preserving its “small town character.” One aspect of that community character, however, is the notion that one can be borne and grow old in their home town.  That character of Belmont is now slowly slipping away.  The character of Belmont inheres not solely in the physical structures that make up its housing stock, but in the people who live here.  Policymakers who assert their commitment to maintaining the character of our community should devote time to addressing our town’s small, and declining, supply of life-cycle housing.

February 25, 2016: Belmont’s community vision remains viable today

Belmont Citizen-Herald: February 25, 2016

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to. Alice: I don’t much care where. The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”

Where do we want to get to? That same question can be posed to the community of Belmont as much as it was to Alice. To help answer that question, in 2001, Town Meeting adopted a “Working Vision for Belmont’s Future.” According to the subsequently appointed Vision Implementation Committee, the Vision Statement “was to serve as a compass for the town to create an environment that would make Belmont a great place for people to live, work and play.”

In the Vision Statement, the Belmont community made a commitment to three principles: to foster and maintain an open and inclusive decision-making process; to develop and use our human and financial resources wisely; and to engage in comprehensive and integrated local and regional planning. These principles were supported by nine goals relating to “quality of life”; “character of our town”; and “sense of community.”

Just recently, the Vision Implementation Committee released an extensive report, based on a survey of 1,118 residents, assessing how well the community thinks Belmont is achieving its stated aspirations. Given the number of people responding, the VIC thought the survey represented the community as a whole reasonably well.

The community ranked the Vision Statement’s nine goals in order of importance. Of those goals listed in the Vision Statement 15 years ago, the three goals ranked most important today were to ensure an excellent school system; to maintain our public buildings and recreational facilities, while preserving our historic buildings; and to manage traffic to “ensure the tranquility of our neighborhoods and safety of our pedestrians and bicycles.”

Preserving Belmont’s “small town community atmosphere” was ranked sixth of nine, while valuing “cultural enrichment and encourag[ing] local talent and creativity” was ranked ninth. Only this last goal, however, was ranked as being something other than “very important.”

The goal that the community viewed Belmont as accomplishing the best was ensuring an excellent school system. According to the VIC, “this is a favorable result, since ensuring an excellent school system was also ranked as the number one priority for the town.” The goal with the second best performance was preserving our small-town community atmosphere. The VIC reported, however, that what some viewed as maintaining a small town character was often viewed by others as a town “experienced as unwelcoming, exclusive, closed to change, discouraging of new businesses and lacking diversity.” Survey respondents, the VIC said, “noted that we must balance our small town feel with progress in these areas.”

On only two goals did a majority of residents say Belmont was performing “not very well.” Performance was seen to be lagging with respect to maintaining our public infrastructure along with preserving our historic buildings. The town’s performance was also found to lag on managing traffic. According to the VIC, “these results are particularly concerning given that these goals ranked as the second and third [most important] priorities that respondents thought the Town should be focusing on.”

Belmont cares passionately about the question “where do we want to get to,” as evidenced by its adoption of the Working Vision for Belmont’s Future. That Vision Statement is our collectively stated aspiration for what we want our community to be. The recent VIC report shows that the Working Vision remains viable today. Going forward, town officials, both elected and un-elected, would do well to consciously reference the Working Vision in making decisions.

May 21, 2015: Parking for neighborhood benefits

May 21, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Can you remember the last time you intended to stop at Winters Hardware for that household repair need, couldn’t find a parking space, and put it off until “tomorrow”?  But, as Annie so correctly notes, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

Or the time you planned to stop at Arams for a bite to eat, didn’t see a parking spot, and decided “what the heck” and kept on driving?

Belmont’s Board of Selectmen recently took action to address parking issues in and around Belmont Center.  The decisions came as part of the Belmont Center reconstruction that will be progressing over the next six months.

Legislation now pending in the Massachusetts state legislature would ensure that communities like Belmont can address parking issues throughout the town, to the benefit of all, including specifically the affected neighborhoods.

Co-sponsored by, amongst others, both State Senator Will Brownsberger and State Representative Dave Rogers, who represent Belmont on Capitol Hill, the legislation is known as PARC (Parking Advancements for the Revitalization of Communities).  The legislation creates three primary tools for a community, and could provide significant benefits to towns like Belmont.

First, the legislation authorizes the creation of “Parking Benefit Districts.”  Such a district is a geographically defined area of the town in which parking revenues collected there are dedicated to improvements in that area.  The legislation authorizes, but does not require, a community like Belmont to create such districts.  Should Belmont choose to do so, however, it could raise and target funding for specific areas such as East Belmont Street, Cushing Square, Belmont’s Central Square, or elsewhere.

Second, the legislation makes clear that parking fees are not limited by existing law that can be construed to cap fees at the level of “necessary expenses incurred” for acquiring and installing parking meters and regulating parking activities.  Instead, parking revenue could be used, also, for “transportation improvements including but not limited to the operation of mass transit and facilities for biking and walking.”  Sidewalk repair falls within this language.

Finally, the legislation explicitly allows a community such as Belmont to utilize variable, or demand-based, pricing and the latest technologies to implement such pricing.  Just as Belmont Light can choose to price electricity higher at times of peak use, in other words, so, too, could Belmont price its parking.

The real trick with public parking, including on-street parking, is to get the price right.  According to Donald Shoup, a national expert on municipal parking who spoke recently at a parking seminar for local Massachusetts officials, “the right price for curb parking is the lowest price that keeps a few spaces available to allow convenient access.” “If no curb spaces are available,” Shoup says, “reducing their price cannot attract more customers, just as reducing the price of anything else in short supply cannot increase its sales.”

“Short-term parkers,” Shoup notes, “are less sensitive to the price of parking than to the time it takes to find a vacant space. . .[C]harging enough to create a few curb vacancies can attract customers who would rather pay for parking than not be able to find it.”

Being able to use any resulting revenue for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood, whether those improvements involve lighting upgrades or sidewalk repair, is an added plus.

The PARC legislation now pending before the Massachusetts legislature would not mandate that a community such as Belmont do anything.  What the legislation would do is to provide Belmont officials additional tools, should they choose to use them, to address multiple problems (e.g., business center revitalization, parking, sidewalk repair) at the same time.

The legislation deserves Belmont’s support.

February 12, 2015: Belmont 2040: Housing

February 12, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

“Housing diversity.”  It’s a hot-button issue in Belmont.  Some local officials in Belmont recently have sought to conjure up images of housing diversity as a threat to the character of our community.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Increasing housing diversity references the need to create work-force housing in Belmont.  An increased supply of work-force housing is critical to the long-term viability of both our state and local economies.

Consider the December 2014 report of the United States Chamber of Commerce. The CoC noted that improving access to housing “is one of the greatest ways to boost. . .economic growth in America. . .If housing were just about housing, the topic would be important enough. But it’s about more than that.”

The consequence of lacking adequate housing opportunities, according to the CoC, is that “highly productive cities [are] walled off from many of the people who are best able to contribute to the local economy.” “We could do a lot worse,” the CoC said, “than offering job creators and recent grads decent places to live that don’t suck up all their capital or force them into far-off communities.”

The CoC analysis reflects conclusions reached more locally by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).  MAPC is the regional planning agency serving the 101 communities of Metro Boston. MAPC reported in 2014 that its planning region, which includes Belmont, will need to build 435,000 new homes by 2040.  Two-thirds of these, MAPC found, will need to be multi-family units (such as condominiums, townhouses and apartments).

The changing face of Massachusetts supports the creation of additional multi-family housing, MAPC found.  The state’s households, for example, are smaller today, decreasing from an average of 3.5 people in 1970 to 2.5 people today.  Even if a community’s population stays constant, MAPC said, its need for housing units will increase.

In addition, the population will become younger in the next 25 years.  In Belmont, more than 25% of all residents are age 55 or older.  Not only will those aging residents need smaller places to live (if they are to remain in town, while living independently), but their retirement from the workforce, MAPC noted, will deplete “the supply of our region’s most critical asset: a skilled, well-educated workforce.”  An adequate supply of quality affordable housing is essential to attracting new, younger workers.

To continue to attract that new work force, “a community not only has to be special, but it has to be attainable,” according to Don Ensign, one of the founders of the Design Workshop, an international urban planning firm.

Attainability can be measured by housing affordability.  An even more accurate measure of affordability, however, is “location affordability,” a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) metric combining both housing and transportation costs.  For a community to be affordable, HUD says, the combined cost of housing and transportation should not exceed 45% of income.  On average, Belmont’s current location affordability index is 53%.

Belmont residents can sit back and hope that the world won’t really be different in 2040.  We can insist that we like things the way they are right now, and that change represents a threat to our community’s character. Or Belmont residents can help contribute to the viability of our community’s future.

That doesn’t mean that Belmont must have large-scale dense development everywhere.  But to consistently oppose smaller, denser housing anywhere in Belmont is wrong.  We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to our grandchildren to recognize the needs of maintaining a vibrant economy, and a vibrant community, not only in 2015, but in 2040 and beyond.