Greater Boston needs a mayor for Route 128

Wellesley Office Park

There has been a lot of press about Greater Boston’s housing shortage and growth pains. The suburbs are over-restricting development. Home prices are escalating. And still, traffic is stealing family dinners and putting jobs at risk.

What has garnered less attention is Greater Boston’s plan for growth — what the plan is, and what it should be. No place in Greater Boston is aching more for attention — for leadership and a plan — than the Route 128 corridor, the thrumming artery of Greater Boston’s geographic center.

Greater Boston’s current, de facto plan for growth is primarily to add housing incrementally to the region’s many dowtowns and village centers, which are walkable and well-served by public transportation, and to toss larger projects to the municipal peripheries, especially to parcels that are fenced in between highways, tracks, and water. If it were feasible, we would be building in the highway cloverleaves. Route 128 runs along municipal edges.

It is estimated that Greater Boston needs hundreds of thousands of new homes to shelter everyone who would like to live here and to stabilize home prices. Our current plan is not getting us there, or to a less car-dependent layout.

Take Needham as an example. Approximately 15 years ago, people in Needham began planning to allow more housing in Needham Center. Their plans originated in a movement that promotes transit-oriented development (TOD) — building in walkable, vibrant, connected places, where it should be nice to live, and where you do not need your car for every excursion from your home. Needham Center has a train station, an excellent selection of restaurants, an old-time hardware store, a brick Georgian Revival town hall, and a white steeple church. On its green, you will find frolicking kids, perhaps some real ones and definitely the sculpted bronze metal ones.

The view from the Kendrick, in Needham, by Route 128

A decade ago, the Town of Needham revised its zoning to allow more housing in the center. Since then, the Town has permitted one project, with ten units, in the center. Meanwhile, in the last few years, Needham has permitted three projects on the edge of town, bordering Route 128, with 52, 136, and 390 dwelling units. The 390 apartments, at the Kendrick, are on the far side of Route 128 from the rest of Needham.

This pattern of development is seen throughout the region, and particularly along Route 128. In recent decades, Wellesley has permitted one residential project, with 30 apartments, in Wellesley Square. Wellesley’s 2018 Draft Unified Plan recommends rezoning the office and industrial districts by Route 128 for more development including apartments and condos: “Because of their location, they have little impact on the residential community.” Wellesley is now deliberating on a proposal for a few hundred dwelling units in Wellesley Office Park, Greater Boston’s premier mid-century corporate campus, hidden between highways and the Charles, on the far side of Route 128 from the rest of Wellesley.

Wellesley Square

We should be allowing even more housing in our historic centers — which is a relatively straightforward task, to grow places that already function well. The layout of our downtowns and village centers came from an era when the scale of lives, of communities, was primarily walkable.

Redevelopment of the Route 128 corridor is less straightforward. The original buildout, from the 1960s to 1980s, was oriented for automobiles; now the corridor needs new infrastructure to connect development to the region via pedestrian paths, bike lanes, train lines, bus routes, boat launches, and roads. Moreover, development along the corridor affects multiple municipalities, and involves coordination across levels of government, divisions of government (related to housing, economic development, transportation, and environment), and sectors of the economy, including residential and commercial. The Route 128 corridor is calling out for a team captain and a game plan.

Route 128 is not the hinterlands. Route 128 is already a major job hub, where office workers gather in dated buildings surrounded by epic pavement, now ripe for redesigns. Train stations dot the corridor, in Woburn, Waltham, Newton, Dedham, Westwood, and Quincy (where Route 128 becomes Route 93). The 128 corridor runs close to a dozen, or more, Colonial-themed village centers, and their ivy-dressed public libraries and indie restaurants. Also, the Charles River flows with potential along much of 128. If you live and work along the 128 corridor, you really should be able to kayak to work. Or at least ride a bike along the river, the whole way from Dedham to Waltham, and then onward to Cambridge and Boston.

University Station in Westwood

Many of the recent redevelopments along Route 128 have represented an upgrade from the original single-use, stand-alone office parks, strip malls, and apartment buildings. Developers have been combining uses at lifestyle centers, for example at Westwood’s University Station on Route 128, but these developments are still designed primarily for car-access; they are isolated projects with hard edges.

Some people might think that we can no longer build functioning downtowns from scratch, as Greater Boston has not seen it done in our lifetimes. The last coordinated, sustained, and well-funded attempt at urban planning involved bulldozing entire gritty, thriving, working-class neighborhoods and assembling mega-parcels for private, car-oriented redevelopment. Mid-century’s bold solutions yielded to a visual migraine of monumental concrete and modernist hubris, the silencing of architectural songs composed in the regular rhythms of windows, doors, and front steps. The governmental action gifted the region with the guttural homesickness and despair of forced uprootedness. Then the reckoning brought a new era of cautiousness, visceral preservationism, and development quarantine that has made for a housing shortage, a traffic crisis, social isolation, and charmless new places.

Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant

Better land use planning should be in our wheelhouse. Greater Boston is a superpower in innovation, and real estate itself is one of our economy’s engines. Plus, Greater Boston has several large-scale planning successes to anchor on, such as the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant that keeps the Atlantic from being a cesspool and the HarborWalk that stretches 43 miles along Boston’s shoreline. The Route 128 corridor is crying out for the same kind of public leadership that made such marvels possible.

Such leadership is necessary to guide public investment, to coordinate across municipalities and sectors and governmental departments, and to harness the market for place-making and broadly beneficial growth.

We need a pro-growth agenda for Greater Boston. We should be adding even more housing to our charming historic centers, and building new centers, along Route 128, that are worthy of our heritage.

[This article appears in CommonWealth Magazine.]

Public policy research: housing and land use, data use in public management, and environmental issues. Greater Boston. Instagram, Twitter: @amydain

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