For the past 20 years, development in Boston has happened in a disjointed, unpredictable manner. Mayor Marty Walsh took office promising to smooth out construction approvals for both developers and residents. Boston has a lot of catching up to do on this front, and Walsh’s team should start by looking outside City Hall. Here are four good ideas from other cities that Boston planners should steal.
■ Make upzoning easy. Boston isn’t Houston. It can’t grow by loosening its belt and spilling outward. If Boston is going to keep growing, that growth will have to come around subway nodes. Transit enables developers to build far more densely than they would be able to in, say, West Roxbury. But for every Jackson Square or Downtown Crossing, where developers have successfully harnessed subway access to launch transformative housing developments, there’s an Andrew Square or a Forest Hills or a North Station, where residents have pushed for development parameters that minimize or ignore the subway stop next door.
Chicago successfully linked transit to development across the city in one swoop. Chicago’s transit-oriented zoning gives automatic height and density bonuses to new developments close to any subway stop. The zoning bonuses reward larger developments on main streets, and limit incursions onto smaller side streets. And by kicking in automatically, upzoning around transit means that the easiest building to construct is the type of building the city most wants to promote.
■ Ask for help. High-stakes, bare-knuckled battles tend to break out when residents see development as something that happens to them. So Cambridge’s redevelopment authority is trying to change the way residents interact with new development, by bringing them in at the beginning of the development process. The agency is asking residents to tell it which potential projects most need its attention. By crowdsourcing its priorities, Cambridge hopes residents will use development as a tool for improving their neighborhoods.
Boston could drain much of the acrimony from neighborhood development if it got residents into the habit of driving development forward, rather than reacting to it. Is the Seaport more receptive to ambitious housing projects than the Back Bay is? Does Allston-Brighton need a big push on bike lanes, or on rapid rail service to Kendall Square? What’s the bigger impediment to development in Roxbury, a glut of publicly held real estate, or the snarled concrete moat of Melnea Cass Boulevard? The easiest way to know is to ask.
■ Put math before politics. No issue divides developers, municipal bureaucrats, and neighborhood residents like parking. When these three sides come together in peace, it’s usually by saddling new developments with the requirement to build far more off-street parking than anyone needs. Over-building parking is bad for everyone. It’s wasteful, it worsens traffic congestion, and it drives up the cost of housing for drivers and non-drivers alike. Boston regularly requires developers to over-build parking because residents often refuse to believe how little their neighbors actually drive.
This same dynamic led King County, Wash., to map residential parking usage two years ago. The county published its data in a map that shows actual car ownership levels, down to the city block, in Seattle and its close-in suburbs. The map is a tool for both residents and developers to understand the actual impacts of new development. It grounds parking regulations in hard data, and makes outlandish parking demands much tougher sells.
■ Get competitive. European governments love design and development competitions because good things happen when groups of smart people converge on a single issue, and are asked to one-up each other. Design competitions generate long menus of solutions to thorny development problems. Somerville is currently auditioning developers for its ambitious Union Square redevelopment effort, but American governments don’t make developers and architects compete nearly as often as they should.
Boston is currently wrestling with its response to sea level rise. The city owns a decrepit parking garage in a prime downtown spot. It has more land than it knows what to do with around Dudley Square and along the Fairmount Line. It’s staring at a huge blank slate at the former Beacon Park railyard in Allston. City Hall doesn’t need to know what to do with any of these sites; it just needs to cast a wide net among others who do.