The star power of TOD, in Greater Boston

This article appears on CommonWealth Magazine.

For a couple of decades, planners, environmentalists, and housing advocates have been singing the praises of Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Mixed use development by public transportation is good for the climate, commutes, the economy, quality of life, and human sociability.

The people of Greater Boston have heard the chorus, and responded. In the last two decades, approximately half of 100 cities and towns in Greater Boston have permitted multi-family housing in a historic commercial center. Even more municipalities have rezoned to allow housing in such centers. Our historic centers were originally built as TOD, before cars. Where the old train stations have been shut down, the historic centers are still conveniently situated for bus service. The centers already contain a mix of uses, cafes and stores, libraries and town halls, parks and offices.

Most of the residential development in the centers is happening at a scale of tens of units, but several cities such as Walpole, Waltham, Malden, Framingham, Lynn, Cambridge, and Quincy have permitted hundreds. This represents a tremendous amount of work in re-zoning and permitting, a success to anchor on. Yet all of the new units in old centers add up to a small portion of demand for housing, projected to be for hundreds of thousands of dwelling units.

Meanwhile, our cities and towns have been permitting even bigger projects at municipal peripheries — often by train stations! The development at the edges is often at the scale of city-building, with a mix of uses, such as stores, housing, and offices. By the book, much of it is TOD. Yet when you visit these places, they feel nothing like the historic centers of greater Boston. They are different in part because many buildings have been built at once and are under single ownership, but they are also different for their isolation. Even if a train station, highway on-ramp, and major arterial roads are nearby, the new places are not connected to the region the way the historic centers are.

Our new little ‘downtowns’ have been failing the critical star test: Is the little downtown the nucleus of a star whose rays connect to many other stars? The rays are routes that you can take, conveniently, by foot, car, bus, train, boat, bike, or other means. Old development formed constellations; new development forms archipelagos of buildings, in seas of pavement.

As the new edge city ‘downtowns’ fail the star test, we are not gaining the full benefits of TOD. If you live, work, or shop in a new ‘downtown’, you might walk to get coffee or lunch, but mostly you are coming and going by car. We are actually capable of creating new connected hubs, but it will take some planning and focus. Our attention should be devoted to a few priority places, such as along the 128 corridor, and at the intersection of the Mystic and Malden Rivers by Route 93.

Here I will explain the concept of the ‘star test’, based on a few historic little downtowns that pass it, and discuss the benefits of ‘star power’. Then I will review our historic and current approaches to building on municipal edges. I will wrap up with a glimpse at ideas for future star development worthy of Greater Boston’s history.

By the 1850s, railroads had significant reach across eastern Massachusetts. By 1900, Greater Boston covered a ten-mile radius, from Weymouth in the south, to Waltham in the west, and Lynn to the north. Beyond the immediate region, other cities thrived, such as Salem, Hudson, and Maynard, which are now a part of the Greater Boston metropolitan area. In the decades before the introduction of the car, wonderful little downtowns grew, and were connected to each other, all across eastern Massachusetts. The roads of historic little downtowns, first of all, radiate out to residential neighborhoods. In general, our historic centers were established such that people could walk from their homes to the train station or streetcar and to shops and a house of worship. The little downtowns now rise at the crossroads of many arteries, including potentially streets, pedestrian ways, bike paths, riverways, bus routes, and train lines, that reach varying distances to diverse destinations. The numerous well-connected little downtowns are our heritage.

There are several historic centers that today ‘have it all,’ a train station, charming residential roads radiating outwards, an enviable selection of restaurants, handsome civic and religious buildings, and even a book store and toy store (in the age of on-line shopping): Concord, Newton, Wellesley, Belmont, Winchester, Brookline, Salem, Gloucester, and Manchester-by-the-Sea.

You don’t have to have it all to be great, though. You do need to pass the star test, which many of our historic centers do. So, I include in my count of great little downtowns unassuming places like Cambridge’s Inman Square and Belmont’s Cushing Square that, ironically, don’t even have train stations. Inman is fun. You might see a jazz show there, or admire a minimalist display of glass-bottled spices, or maybe overhear a young couple, in the invitation shop, discussing the linguistic merits of pleasure versus honor. But also, from Inman Square, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure through pleasingly textured neighborhoods to Harvard Square and Central Square, of the Red Line, and Union Square, soon to be of the Green Line.

Seen on the walk from Inman Square, Cambridge, to Union Square, Somerville.

In a similar way, from Cushing Square, you are nicely connected, by sidewalks, roads, and in some cases bus routes, to Belmont Center, Waverley Square, Watertown Square, and Harvard Square. From Cushing, you don’t have to cross any eight-lane highways or oceans or commercial strip hellscapes to get to these great places, where you can either do stuff or travel on, to other destinations.

Newtonville is also a category winner. Back when I was in high school, we were sure that Newtonville was in the eventless outskirts. To have a life, you had to go somewhere, and somewhere usually meant Harvard Square. We would go by T or bus. One time my best friend and I rode little-kid bicycles, which we could no longer fit, to Newton Corner’s Bertucci’s, and returned home carrying too-big pizza boxes on our too-little bikes. Back then I also commuted, on a right-sized bike, along the trail that hugs the Charles, to my lifeguarding job at Mem Drive’s Magazine Beach Pool.

From Newtonville, it is not far to Waltham’s Moody Street (for Indian buffet) or Newton’s Riverside Station, where you can get the GoBus to Manhattan. I still live in Newtonville, and I often walk to Down Under Yoga, CVS, and the commuter train.

Now I see that downtown Newtonville is central.

Newtonville

In our modern world, we live in regions as much as, or more than, in villages or neighborhoods. Our work, interests, and friends take us far and wide from home. Still, our city and town centers give us grounding, protection from isolation and alienation, a sense that we belong in a specific place, while the region gives us opportunity, a setting for our ambitions, and also chances for anonymity and experimentation. If you live near a center, and go frequently, you might come to know the people who work there, and see neighbors, and learn the names (Fonzy and Pinky) of the two fluffy dogs who get walked there by a nice lady whose name you might never learn. Far from home, out in the region, we have A) fortuitous meetings with strangers and B) planned meetings with acquaintances and friends, but very rarely C) fortuitous meetings with acquaintances and friends; those happen frequently in our nearest centers.

Some people enjoy more time at home, and others thrive most when they are out and about. Overall, though, it helps our collective well-being to be settled in ways that enable us to live in a neighborhood where various amenities are at hand, and also where we have many options for escape.

Dense settlement in such places also has environmental benefits, as per-capita energy consumption is generally lower in them. In particular, they generate less per-capita traffic, which is a big deal when many of our asphalt arteries are maxed with cars and we need to protect our atmosphere that contains us and sustains us. Plus, not everyone can drive, and everyone has a right to get around. Allowing more housing in mixed use centers is also a way to keep them vital when Amazon is shaking down storefront retail.

A new building with retail and residential uses in Lexington Center.

We might take for granted the layouts of our historic centers, and their connectedness, because the places and their transportation networks were first build before we were born. We might assume such place-making is now impossible, as we have never seen it realized in our lifetimes. Perhaps we appreciate the walkable and connected layouts the way we admire fancy hand-laid brickwork, as historic artifacts. But, as a civilization, we are still capable of engineering connected, walkable places on municipal edges that have yet to be built in that way.

It is important because the major movement in Greater Boston’s development right now, much larger in scale than the push to allow housing in historic centers, is to permit hefty housing and commercial projects on the municipal peripheries. In general, if you find a parcel of land sandwiched between highways, tracks, and water — that is where you will see hundreds of new apartments and condos going up.

  • Somerville’s Assembly Row is between Route 93, the Orange Line, and the Mystic River, on the edge of Somerville.
  • Medford’s Station Landing is between two highways, Orange Line tracks, and the Mystic, on the edge of Medford.
  • Medford’s River’s Edge is between tracks and the Malden River, also on the edge of Medford.
  • Wellesley is now considering permitting hundreds of dwelling units at Wellesley Office Park, fenced in between Route 9, Route 128, and the Charles River, on the edge of Wellesley.
  • Needham recently permitted a project with 390 dwelling units, on the far side of Route 128 from all of Needham.

The pattern is region-wide.

The push to the edges and to parcel-islands works politically, because there are no (or few) residential abutters to launch an anti-building campaign. From the developer’s perspective, these projects are less risky, as there are few residential abutters to take them to court.

There are three models of place-building on municipal edges, two of which have been realized, and third of which is aspirational and possible. The first model is classic edge city development of the 1960s to 1980s, isolated retail islands, office islands, and residential islands, in seas of parking, accessible only by car. We built archipelagos of box buildings. Think of Route 128 in Waltham. We are all familiar with these now-tired office parks, shopping malls, and apartment buildings. It is well reported that companies are relocating from isolated office parks to more bustling mixed use hubs; people are paying premiums to live near walkable little downtowns; and the old shopping malls are gaining housing.

Classic “Edge City” in Waltham, by Route 128.

The latest movement, the second model, in edge city development, encouraged by municipal zoning for mixed use, is the lifestyle shopping center that includes housing on site. Many of the lifestyle centers are located by train stations, as encouraged by TOD policies. If you live or work at the lifestyle center, you can walk to a restaurant or grocery store, but the site itself is mostly car accessible, even when a train station is nearby. Take for example, Westwood’s University Station and Dedham’s Legacy Place, both commercially successful lifestyle centers. University Station’s central feature is a parking lot that unfurls like a field of poppies before Emerald City. The parking lot makes for convenient access to Michaels, Marshalls, Homegoods, and a series of smaller shops. At one end of the parking is Gables — 350 apartments. To hop over to the station, you cross the highway. Just down Route 128, Dedham’s Legacy Place lifestyle shopping center also faces inward to the parking; on the street side (of many-laned traffic) you can see the backs of shops that lack backdoor public access. The shops of Legacy Place are nestled at the nook of highways, right next to approximately 600 dwelling units in two apartment complexes, and a train station.

New lifestyle center, University Station, in Westwood.

Despite containing the mixed elements of village life, Legacy Place and University Station function nothing like old-time village centers. They lack intricate webs of connections to other destinations, even though they are near each other and near Islington Center, Dedham Square, and Norwood Center. Even Somerville’s Assembly Row, a best-in-class lifestyle center, which has a very accessible Orange Line station right on site and wide sidewalks, is poorly connected to the centers of Malden, Everett, Medford, and Somerville near it, or to any pre-existing neighborhoods, or to other brand new developments right near it. Assembly Row looks like a traditional downtown, for a few blocks, and then it ends abruptly.

Assembly Row, Somerville
The back side of Assembly Row

The lifestyle center imitates historic commercial centers in some ways, by throwing off the mall roof and bringing the storefronts to street-level, where there are sidewalks or walkways. Some, such as Assembly Row, have grid streets and parallel parking. They differ from historic downtowns, for being built-all-at-once and under single-ownership, but also for having hard edges.

The challenge for Greater Boston is to create diverse, vital, walkable hubs along municipal edges that are well connected to the region, with multi-modal options for mobility. This is the third phase of edge city development, the aspiration. The zoning is not in place and the planning is not happening to achieve the aspiration. The region has many proving grounds for aspiring edge city builders, for example, by the Mystic and Malden Rivers at Malden, Everett, and Medford, and in locations along Route 128, from Woburn to Waltham to Wellesley to Dedham. These opportunities are at the edges of municipalities, but still at the center of the metropolitan area; they are close to existing train stations, historic centers, and job hubs of Greater Boston.

We need a new paradigm for planning our edges, so that our people can flow to the opportunities that Greater Boston affords — not only by car, and sometimes with the kind of pleasure that two teenagers feel riding too-small bikes while lugging too-big pizza boxes. Center-building is about planning whole districts, with connections to bike trails, boat launches, sidewalks, bus routes, trains, and roads. It is about creating stars in the metropolitan constellation.

In our new centers, we should create pedestrian cut-throughs and pedestrian bridges that let people walk and bike from neighborhoods to the new developments, and from the new developments to the amenities in and beyond abutting neighborhoods. In new lifestyle centers, we should consider adding thousands of dwelling units, and not only hundreds, to gain the scale of neighborhoods. We should also think about our rivers in new ways. Today, it is easy to forget that the Charles River runs along a good section of Route 128, it is so hidden and inaccessible. If you live in a new apartment building near Route 128, you should be able to take a bike or a kayak to work, along the Charles. Finally, we should devote more attention to enlivening the connective corridors between new hubs and the historic centers, for example the corridors that run from the new hub of development at the Mystic and Malden Rivers to Malden Center, Everett Square, and Medford Center.

To plan and build at the scale necessary to create connected places, we need for leaders at the local and regional levels to devote attention and resources to it. Who is the team captain of 128? There should be people whose careers are devoted to making the Route 128 corridor into hubs of connected activity. Leadership could be housed in the Governor’s Office, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, or a new quasi-governmental agency or independent non-profit. Right now the municipal edges are places to toss unpopular development, without much attention. Instead they should be new centers where we invite development, by plan.

We also need new funding models, and in some cases regional ‘mitigation funds’, which could be called ‘placemaking funds’. Some of the funding for new infrastructure will come from the public purse, and some can be captured from new development as well as properties that benefit from the improvements.

Town centers serve as fulcrums for balance in our lives, as launches and as destinations, and as places for social gathering both planned and unplanned. We can expand our great little downtowns, and build new ones. We should prove that we can still build great little downtowns.

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