May 3, 2018 — McMansions are out: What’s next?

May 3, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting will address this month whether to make permanent the regulations designed to protect our General Residence neighborhoods from the continuing construction of out-of-scale housing. In the past few years, too many homes were built which, even if in compliance with the four corners of Belmont’s zoning by-law, inappropriately dominated homes around them, casting shadows and infringing on surrounding properties.

In 2014, Town Meeting imposed temporary restrictions on the construction of such housing in the General Residence zoning district.  This year, it will be asked to remove the time limit that would bring those restrictions to an end.  The proposal has wide support and Town Meeting is expected to approve that change. Accordingly, now it’s time to move past the issue of what we don’t want (McMansions) in order to address the far more difficult question of what we do want.  Here are three suggestions.

First, the Planning Board should move Belmont into an era where the focus of review is on neighborhoods, not on zoning districts.  This can be accomplished in two steps.  Step 1.  As recommended in Belmont’s comprehensive plan, the town should “strengthen [the] physical definitions of neighborhoods.”  Without trying to define precisely what constitutes a “neighborhood” in the brief space I have here –there is significant planning literature on how to define “neighborhoods”—it seems self-evident that there are many distinct neighborhoods in the General Residence zoning district that differ one from another.  For example, East Belmont should surely be seen to differ from the neighborhood that borders PQ Park. Despite both areas being in the General Residence zone, they are dramatically different.

Step 2.  Having defined the neighborhoods, the town should then establish neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards that can reinforce historical character and development patterns. Again without proposing specific standards here, one can easily see the tremendous differences within the General Residence zoning district. For example, many areas around Waverley Square lack substantial front yards in a way not evident elsewhere.  For example, the General Residence area incorporating Warwick Road and Raleigh Road (and environs) has a mix of single-family and two-family homes not in evidence elsewhere.  The character of the two areas differs. What would be appropriate to construct in the two areas would differ.  The notion that Belmont should base its development review on neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards seems well-founded.

Second, General Residence areas that are along Trapelo Road, Belmont Street and Concord Ave. should be rezoned to allow new housing alternatives, increased mixed use, and additional business.  For example, located along Trapelo Road are a number of residential areas which have homes partially or entirely converted into commercial service, medical, and office uses. Called “transition areas” in Belmont’s comprehensive plan, these areas are mostly zoned General Residence. As even our town’s comprehensive plan noted, the current zoning of these areas “does not reflect current uses, or historic development patterns and dimensional standards. Re-zoning of these residential areas would both foster their protection and allow for modest changes in keeping with the character of these neighborhoods.”

Finally, the town should adopt new regulations to affirmatively promote the preservation of small open spaces.  We too often lose sight of the fact that the terms “open space” and “parks” are not synonymous. Open space can be privately owned. For example, Belmont has not traditionally adequately considered the role of “yards” in pursuit of open space preservation.   One proposal advanced in the past that deserves at least a public conversation today is the recommendation that on-street residential parking be allowed in selected higher density neighborhoods to prevent the loss of yards to accommodate parking.

It is always easier to say what we don’t want than to engage in the required effort to develop positive forward-thinking proposals on how we want to shape the future of Belmont. Indeed, some proposals might require having those uncomfortable conversations where, unlike controlling McMansions, we might not all agree (e.g., allowing on-street parking in some higher density areas of town). It’s called “planning.”  Now that the General Residence McMansion restrictions have been made permanent, here’s hoping we can now move on to that next task.

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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.

January 11, 2018: Looking at all that has been accomplished

January 11, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Now that Belmont is eight years into its ten-year Comprehensive Plan, community members might wish to think about which recommendations from that plan have been accomplished and which have fallen by the wayside.  It would be unreasonable to expect that all recommendations would be pursued.  There is never sufficient staff, time or money to pursue all recommendations.  Those action steps that are taken, and those that are set-aside, however, do reflect the “high” and “low” priorities of Belmont’s decision-makers.  It seems reasonable, therefore, to review those decisions to allow community members to assess for themselves whether the priorities pursued by the town’s leadership comport with the priorities residents believe to be most important.

The reference to Belmont’s “leadership” is not a reference exclusively to the Board of Selectmen. Rather, Belmont relies heavily on volunteer committees to assert leadership in the areas that are within their charge.  Indeed, much of the progress that Belmont has made in pursuing the recommendations of the Comprehensive Plan originates from the Town’s committees.  Town Meeting Members, too, have a role to play in asserting leadership. They should not simply react to the proposals of others.

In this week and next, I will examine those Comprehensive Plan recommendations that have and have not been pursued.  I begin with some of the more notable accomplishments since the Comprehensive Plan was prepared.  They are considerable.

Preserving the character of Belmont was key to the Comprehensive Plan.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended consideration of a demolition delay by-law to help protect the historic nature of the community.  Under the leadership of the Historic District Commission, that by-law was adopted by Town Meeting. The Comprehensive Plan recommended “adoption of energy efficient building code standards and incentives.”  At the behest of the Energy Committee, Town Meeting adopted the Stretch Energy Code (an energy efficient building code).  The Comprehensive Plan recommended adoption of the Community Preservation Act.  Town Meeting approved the CPA, as did the voters.

Addressing financial issues received substantial attention in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont “undertake planning for the next phase of public building projects.” Just last year, for the first time, Town Meeting approved short- and long-term plans to move forward on the library, the DPW Yard and the police station.  A high school building committee has been appointed, and is working diligently toward a new school.

Supporting our commercial districts was an important element in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended “improv(ing) the physical appearance of commercial areas.”  Not without considerable pain in the process, Belmont Center and Cushing Square both received complete facelifts since that recommendation.

Open space was a critical Comprehensive Plan element.  The plan recommended taking steps to “preserve and enhance active and passive recreation areas.”  At the behest of the Conservation Commission, Clay Pit Pond has been subject to a master planning process with implementation steps now occurring.  Through the leadership of neighborhood groups, the Grove Street Park and PQ Playground are both being subject to renovations, and Joey’s Park was completely rebuilt.  Town Field is next in line for approval by Town Meeting, perhaps even this spring.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended steps to “expand off-street recreational trails that interconnect. . .to inter-town trails both to the East and West.”  The Board of Selectmen just recently approved a route for Belmont’s community path.

Energy and sustainability were addressed in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont should “reduce the Town’s energy budget.”  Belmont became a Green Community and has been receiving state funds ever since to reduce energy usage in town buildings. The BHS Building Committee has made sustainability one of its priorities for the new school.  The Plan recommended new “zoning for by-right alternative energy equipment/installations.” Town Meeting approved a new solar zoning by-law and more than 250 residents have since installed rooftop solar units.

The list could continue.  Frequently, it seems that complaining about what the Town is not doing is a favorite past-time among some Belmont residents.  However, while there are certainly elements of the Comprehensive Plan that have not been pursued as aggressively as they should be (and should have been) (a topic I will consider next week), assertions that “nothing ever gets done” in Belmont are demonstrably wrong.

December 21, 2017–Time to revisit Belmont’s 2020 comprehensive plan

December 21, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

In April 2010, the Board of Selectmen and the Belmont Planning Board both approved a “comprehensive plan” for the town, to cover the period 2010 through 2020.  Given that the plan took nearly two years to develop, a new ten-year planning process should soon begin.

The comprehensive planning process was a massive undertaking. Under the direction of a 14-person oversight committee (full disclosure: I was a member of that committee), the planning process actively engaged more than 60 community members in “working groups” that addressed multiple facets of living in Belmont.  A series of public workshops was organized to discuss overlapping concerns and strategies, and to identify ways to bridge conflicting interests.  An initial public survey identified community concerns, while a second survey obtained responses to the recommendations and priorities set forth in a draft plan.

The topics covered by Belmont’s 2020 comprehensive plan ranged widely: historic preservation, commercial development, open space preservation, housing, transportation and energy, and public facilities and finance.  The 2020 comprehensive plan identified a series of short-, medium- and long-term actions the Town should take to address issues identified in each sector. The conditions underlying Belmont’s 2020 comprehensive plan have changed over time.  It’s now time to undertake the process again to look ahead for the next ten years (through 2030).

Over the next few weeks, I will examine various aspects of the 2020 comprehensive plan to see where Belmont followed-through and where it did not.  Before undertaking that conversation, however, I posit for your consideration several fundamental observations about the comprehensive planning process.

First, comprehensive plans are valuable only to the extent that they are used.  For example, in the past year, considerable verbiage has been directed to the question of revitalizing Waverley Square.  At no point in those discussions, however, has reference been made to Belmont’s comprehensive plan. This failure is puzzling given that the 2020 comprehensive plan specifically included elements that addressed commercial development, housing, transportation, and neighborhood preservation, all of which are relevant to what could/should occur in Waverley Square.  If planning decisionmakers do not seek to use the town’s own planning documents, one might question why we spend the town’s money, and the volunteers’ time, in developing such documents in the first instance.

Second, while comprehensive plan recommendations clearly impose no mandates, they are nonetheless intended to provide a roadmap for future decisionmaking.  When a plan identifies a list of short-, medium- and long-term action steps, the town may choose not to take some of those action steps. Still, it is reasonable to expect policymakers to at least use the plan as a reference point capturing what the community wants to occur.  The plan should, at a minimum, be a routine touchstone in future decisionmaking.

Finally, a comprehensive plan is not intended to eliminate future policy debates. Nor is a comprehensive plan intended to be effective only if it generates unanimous approval.  Rather, by its nature, a comprehensive plan should surface issues and balance conflicting interests.  Such a process is at the heart of good governance.  To argue, however, that recommendations in a plan should not be pursued unless everyone agrees with each recommendation is a poor excuse to ignore the planning and public input process that has occurred.

If we, as a community, can agree on these basic principles, then it is time to start the process of preparing Belmont’s 2020 – 2030 comprehensive plan. If we cannot, we will find ourselves for years to come wondering why it is that decisions always seem to  be ad hoc, and never seem to part of a broader coordinated strategy to create and maintain the community we would like to have.

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.

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 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.