Standing up for car-free development in Boston
Architect and builder Sebastian Mariscal offered Allston a building that seemed tailored for the neighborhood. He wanted to create all the benefits that flow from new development, like much-needed housing, new green space, and community-oriented retail, without the impacts that normally come hand-in-hand with new development. Mariscal would pull off this trick by skipping the most contentious aspect of any Boston development — parking. His proposed 44-unit apartment complex on North Beacon Street would have included a half-dozen parking spots for car-sharing rentals, but wouldn’t include any parking for Mariscal’s residents. This was, he said, because his residents wouldn’t own any cars.
Unofficially, Mariscal is still working toward constructing a car-free Allston building. It’s just that, to do so, he’ll have to build 35 parking spaces to accommodate the cars his tenants won’t own.
Every developer building in Boston has to seek neighborhood blessing before the city will sign off on a new development, and Mariscal’s neighbors got heartburn over his plans to center his development around bicycles, the MBTA, and Zipcars. The bar Mariscal is trying to clear isn’t nearly as high as it sounds. City Hall could have backed him and pushed back against the development’s doubters. Instead, Boston officials made a point of refusing to put some muscle into an issue they say they believe in.
Mariscal wants to build a car-free apartment building topped with a community garden because there are definite limits to any city’s ability to grow while remaining oriented around the automobile. He wants his building to add to Allston’s community, not its traffic congestion or its parking shortage. “We need to start making more community decisions that benefit the community,” he argues. Plenty of people are already getting around Boston by bike, train, and foot, and they’re already growing vegetables in small shared plots. All Mariscal is doing is bringing these strands together in one building.
Mariscal isn’t picking a fight with City Hall. He gets along with the neighbors who predicted his development would flood Allston streets with cars — cars that, without any on-premises garage parking, would compete with existing residents for scarce on-street parking spots. He wants to prove them wrong. Agreeing to erect empty parking spots in a car-free development is the fastest way of doing this. “In the end,” he says, “if we can rent to an all-car-free community and prove it, everybody will be happy.”
Officials in Boston City Hall talk a big game about their efforts to green the city. They celebrate environmental entrepreneurs and force large commercial builders to meet minimum energy-usage standards. Mayor Tom Menino is fond of slinging hackneyed phrases about making Beantown into Greentown. He’s gone so far as to declare that the car is no longer king in Boston. Mariscal’s proposed Allston project is the embodiment of the environmental philosophy Boston’s government is supposed to believe in. It was a chance to innovate, to embrace leadership, and to bring real traffic relief to the residents around North Beacon Street who do use cars to get around town. But the city acted like it’s afraid to lead.
Nearly every developer who has ever tried to build in Boston has run into neighborhood interference over parking. Bostonians will shiv anyone who threatens to dilute the supply of free on-street parking. It’s the city’s job to calm these fears, and strike a balance between neighbors and developers, who cover the astronomical costs of building off-street parking by collecting inflated rents. This balancing act shouldn’t be as delicate as it once was, since city-dwellers are now far less married to their cars. But it’s still up to the city to make parking regulations catch up to the market.
Mariscal’s Allston development isn’t overreaching at all by zeroing out cars entirely. It’s in a part of town that will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next decade, thanks to New Balance’s New Brighton Landing development. Mariscal’s building site is three blocks from a planned commuter rail stop. It’s a 10-minute walk from the Green Line. These are hardly insurmountable distances. And the market for car-free housing is far greater than Mariscal’s doubters believe. More than half of Boston residents currently take the T, bike, or walk to work. There are now 27,000 more car-free workers living in the city than there were a decade ago. Gathering 44 of them in one building should be a layup. Getting the city’s blessing to do so should have been, too.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.