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sit vacant because the zoning decision that was made twenty years ago limiting its use to a continuing care facility is out-of-date.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 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.

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.