In the last hyperkinetic days of the Janey administration — sandwiched between dance parties and ribbon cuttings — comes a strategy for future development in the city so remarkably sensible, simple, and transparent that it must not be abandoned when the next mayor takes office.
Two years in the making, the newly announced guidelines for major building projects — those over 50,000 square feet — would make them subject to a transportation demand point system aimed at encouraging cheaper housing and the use of commuting alternatives to cars.
The broader concept is a simple one: The fewer parking spaces included in a development — at a cost estimated by the city at $50,000 per space — the less expensive the overall cost of the project, a savings that can be passed on to its future tenants, and the more space that can be devoted to additional housing units or green space.
And by etching this policy in stone, instead of leaving parking rules up to ad hoc negotiations for each large project, the city can assure that every developer knows up front what the rules of the road are.
“By reducing the number of required parking spaces in areas well-served by transit, we can lower the cost of new housing and decrease the amount of traffic in our neighborhoods,” said Brian Golden, head of the Boston Planning and Development Agency in a statement issued by the mayor’s office.
According to the city’s website, “The new ratios are site-specific. We want the amount of parking that is built to better reflect the area the developments are in. Proximity to subway stations, bike share, car share, key bus routes, and the commuter rail, grocery stores, and walkable amenities lead to lower parking ratios.”
Some are aimed at developers of new office or lab space, for example, assigning more “points” if a developer commits to charge market rate parking fees for all or most of a building’s spaces. However, free bike parking spaces “above minimum guidelines” also get points — so do subsidies for T passes.
The system brings more predictability to what has been a somewhat inscrutable process. The BPDA has long included a review of the transportation plans for major developments in the city — to a greater or lesser extent, again depending on the neighborhood. That review can also include sign-off by the city’s Transportation Department. But look no further than the pre-pandemic traffic jams in the city’s Seaport District to see how that worked out.
It can also seem arbitrary. The 15-acre mixed-use development at 766 Summer Street — at the far end of that waterfront area, the site of an old Boston Edison plant — was approved by the BPDA last January. More than four years into its approval process, the project — which will include both market rate and affordable housing — is also slated to include 1,214 parking spaces with a specific commitment to one space for each residential unit. That was largely intended to assuage the South Boston community, which didn’t want those newcomers parking on city streets. But is it the right number? Is it okay given the developer’s $10 million commitment to the MBTA (to be paid out over 15 years) to improve transit in the area along with plans for bike parking and bike paths? Who knows?
These guidelines are designed to answer questions just like that and take some of the guesswork out of the process.
As the new city guidelines put it in a triumph of understatement: “In practice, there is confusion among developers and residents on whether underlying zoning parking minimums are applicable to large developments.”
The guidelines, developed by the city with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge, will be only as good and as useful as the commitment of the planning professionals assigned by the next administration to enforce them.
There has been a good deal of discussion during the current mayoral campaign, and among candidates for City Council, about leveling Boston’s current planning and development process — and hardly for the first time. When the Boston Redevelopment Authority was “rebranded” in 2016 as the BPDA by then-Mayor Marty Walsh, the idea was also to rebuild trust.
The challenge ahead will be to keep the good — like these new transportation development guidelines — and reform that which has proved unworkable — like the myriad small projects subject to cumbersome and antiquated zoning regulations. And to accomplish all of that without major disruptions to the economic engine that is Boston.
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