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.

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January 4, 2018: 2017 brought a year of progress for Belmont

January 4, 2018: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Remember when the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004? That feeling of “I never thought I’d live to see the day”? That was 2017 in Belmont.

But first, some things never change.  One of those things is the pride our Belmont High School students bring to the community.  Special kudos in 2017 go to the BHS girls rugby team. In an historic first, their state championship was not merely the first in Massachusetts. Rather, the 2017 Belmont team was the first ever, in the entire country, to win a championship in girls rugby as a state-sanctioned varsity sport.  Well done, girls.  Well done, Coach Kate McCabe.

The community as a whole won when Town Meeting decided to proceed with major capital projects that have long languished.  Under the leadership of Anne Marie Mahoney, chair of the Major Capital Projects Work Group, decisions were made to proceed with short-term solutions, and a long-term plan, to address the abysmal conditions of our police station and DPW yard. While challenges yet remain, for the first time, there is now a clear path forward to replace these essential public facilities. Now, let’s talk about the name of that committee, the MCPWG!

Speaking of paths, after 25-plus years of debate, the Board of Selectmen approved a route for Belmont’s community path.  Based on an incredibly inclusive public input process, the path’s route will connect our town into the larger regional network of paths going both east and west. Completion of the community path –as with the DPW and police station, many obstacles still remain—is expected not only to be a boon to walkers/runners/bikers, but is expected to bring considerable business benefits to Belmont Center as well.

No new business generated more excitement than the opening of Belmont Books in Belmont Center last spring.  Along with the in-store Black Bear Café, Belmont Books contributes to the essence of community, having quickly become a destination place to shop, browse and/or meet friends and converse. Belmont has long missed having a book store.  Belmont Books has brought one back with class and style.

New thinking, new designs, new grade configurations and a new school appear to be the future for classes for many of our students.  During 2017, one could hardly turn around without being solicited for input about a new Belmont High School by the BHS Building Committee and chair Bill Lovallo.  What do you want a building to look like? What grades should be there? What kinds of spaces should exist, both inside the building and out? Natural light? Technology? Solar power? We’ve been asked about it all.

You “may” have noticed a new building going up in Cushing Square this year. After the multi-year debacle of a permitting process, the structure of Cushing Village (nay, The Bradford) finally began to rise this year.  What you will not notice is a new Library in Waverley Square.  Efforts by the Planning Board to consider such a proposal, strangely without ever consulting the Library Board of Trustees, were quickly shot down this past summer.  Instead, the newly appointed Library Building Committee will seek to implement the recommendations developed by the Library feasibility study.

And finally, while not needing a new building, under the tutelage of News Director Fredrique Rigoulot, the Belmont Media Center (located in Waverley Square) is now producing the Belmont Journal, a weekly news show focusing on hyper-local news specific to Belmont. You can watch it on television or stream it on-line, on-demand.

As we remember 2017, and wonder what 2018 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

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 16, 2017: The “gift of presence” for hospice veterans

Belmont Citizen-Herald — November 16, 2017

It was cold that day. The day before Christmas in the Midwest usually is. The black hearse wound its way down the narrow lane to the grave site. A veteran was gone, to be buried with full military honors in a national cemetery in rural Iowa.

The bugler raised his instrument. Taps echoed through the trees and rolled over row upon row of headstones. The 15-member military Honor Guard from Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) fired its 21-gun salute. The head of the Honor Guard solemnly took the flag, having been removed from the casket and properly folded. He delivered it to. . .

No-one.  Nobody was there.  No family. No friend.  No neighbor or colleague or former roommate.

And the head of the Honor Guard that day, Belmont High graduate Bill McEvoy, realized right then and there that this was not the way the world should be.

The image from that lonely rural cemetery remained seared in McEvoy’s mind over the years. When he retired, McEvoy decided it was time for him to pull out that memory and finally act on it.  He began to volunteer at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Bedford (MA).  He quickly became involved with the No Veteran Dies Alone program.  He’s volunteered there ever since, more than eight years now.

The program is directed toward veterans in hospice care at Bedford’s VA hospital. (No Veteran Dies Alone is a national program through many VA hospitals.)  Some veterans are in the hospice care beds at the Bedford hospital.  Others are admitted for hospice care, but remain in the general population. The vast majority of veterans McEvoy has worked with are Vietnam veterans or older.

The No Veteran Dies Alone program, McEvoy says, has two components to it.  The first component involves “socialization visits.”  Through this part of the program, a volunteer sits with the veteran. Sometimes they talk; other times they listen to music.  As a volunteer, he may read poetry or do nothing at all other than to hold the person’s hand.  The point, he says, is simply to “be there. To get to know them.” What you provide, McEvoy says, is the “gift of presence.”

The second program component is directed toward veterans determined by the VA medical team to be “actively dying.”  Sometimes these veterans don’t have anyone. Sometimes, it has been a long process and the family simply needs the ability to take a break. Sometimes geographic distance makes a family’s presence impossible. McEvoy’s role through No Veteran Dies Alone, he says, is to “stand in the place for those who aren’t there.”

That’s not to say he’s present whenever someone passes.  He eventually learned, however, that “it is not so important to be there at the end of the journey, as it is important to walk with them along the way.”

“Be sure to emphasize,” McEvoy urged me when we sat down together, “that the story is not about me. It is only about the veterans.” In fact, he says, there are no limits on who can be a No Veteran Dies Alone volunteer.  “Every volunteer has their own reasons for being there. Anyone can do it. All you need is a good heart, a capacity for understanding, and the ability to be a good listener.”

One need not stand in a cold Iowa cemetery on the day before Christmas to appreciate the importance of the No Veteran Dies Alone program.  Persons who might want to volunteer for No Veteran Dies Alone should call Laurel Holland, 781-687-3074.  Persons who know a veteran they would like to receive hospice care through the VA hospital should call Karen Budnick, 781-983-9170.

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.