Space for skepticism in Allston development’s no-parked-cars vow
New and old Boston are colliding on the crowded streets of Allston over longstanding problems — parking and traffic congestion — with the vanguards losing round one.
Architect Sebastian Mariscal had proposed building a 44-unit apartment building in Allston and replacing the parking spaces required by city code with bike racks, storage spaces, and other amenities, allowing him to build housing more suited for people than cars.
Moreover, the architect said he would rent only to tenants who promised not to own a car. Mariscal argued his bold idea was part of the change sweeping Boston, as a huge influx of young professionals are moving into the city, promising to eschew car ownership for the conveniences of urban life.
But this utopian view of the modern American city clashed with real life in Boston neighborhoods as wary longtime Allston residents fretted that Mariscal’s project would only worsen parking and congestion in the area, as they assumed his tenants would lie and park cars on local streets.
So Mariscal is backing off for now, saying he would add 35 parking spaces to a proposed building on North Beacon Street, drop the storage space, but still seek out carless tenants to prove his point that Boston needs a project like his.
“This doesn’t need to be for everybody, and we don’t need to change the entire city,” Mariscal said. “But the needs of the community are changing a lot. The project wants to address those changes instead of continuing to do the same type of development. It’s a mindset that we have to change.”
Under current city zoning rules, real estate developers in this part of Boston have to provide two parking spaces for every new unit of housing, or get permission from regulators for fewer spots.
For his project, Mariscal wanted no units to have their own parking. Rather, he would provide room for two bicycles for each unit, and then six parking spaces for shared car services, similar to Zipcar. The building would also have considerably more open space than normal— 4,000 square feet of community gardens on the ground level, additional gardens on the roof, and balconies for every unit.
Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association, said residents support Mariscal’s plan for an airy, green building, but said the no-car idea would not fly.
“It’s well-intentioned and it could be successful, but people felt that in that location there was too much of a risk of people having cars and just putting them in front of houses nearby,” he said.
The Allston neighbors’ skepticism is validated by, of all places, Portland, Ore. — considered one of the leading cities for promoting environmentally friendly urban development that looks past the country’s traditional car culture. There, city officials found that many new projects built without spaces on-site — as Mariscal first proposed — threatened to make parking on nearby streets worse. A city survey found residents of buildings without parking were no less likely to own a car than those in buildings with on-site spaces, and most ended up parking on nearby streets.
Next week, Portland will consider new zoning that would require property owners in certain areas to provide a minimum number of spaces on-site, depending on the size of the building.
“A reasonable case can be made that larger multidwelling projects (more than 40 units) without parking pose a risk of overtaxing the supply of local on-street parking,” city officials wrote in support of the proposed regulation.
Mariscal has another meeting with Allston residents Wednesday night, at which he will try to solidify community support for the revised project with 35 parking spaces. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has a hearing on his project next week, and city officials said feedback from the local community will help determine whether the agency approves it.
The architect would still need variances from the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals for the revised parking plan, as well as for other issues related to the building’s size and use.
Mariscal said if he gets city approval to build the project, he will seek out tenants without cars. He said research by his development team found that 45 percent of renters in the city do not have cars. Mariscal said if he proves his point, he would then convert the car parking to storage space for more bicycles.
Norman Garrick, a civil engineering professor at the University of Connecticut who has studied parking issues around the nation, said it is unusual for a single developer to take the lead on changing such a major policy — and lifestyle — issue as parking; more typical, he said, is that cities are experimenting with new rules to make their streets more liveable.
“What he is trying is almost a guerilla action,” Garrick said.
But Mariscal is not alone in Boston. The issue of a carless city is a lively topic of debate among architects, urban designers, builders, and others involved in the rapidly changing face of Boston’s streets.
David Begelfer, chief executive of the real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, said in many ways Boston’s approach to cars — and parking — has not evolved with the times.
“To say that you’re going to need the same availability of car spaces today versus 15 years ago is not correct,” Begelfer said. “Part of the problem here, you’re dealing in essence with the old Boston and the new Boston.”