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The reality of the Riverside MBTA development project in Newton

2012 February 25
by Sean

UPDATED: The developer has been using a one-space-per-400 sq. ft. formula.

It’s time to face reality on Riverside: the neighbors have dictated the volume of traffic they are going to accept. And, they are not all wrong.

It’s tantalizing to think abstractly of what is possible at the intersection of 128, the turnpike, and the Green line. But, the promise of the intersection rests on the slight foundation of Grove Street, which is inadequate to the vision. Grove Street is not scaled to handle the burden; there is no street grid. Compare Grove Street to Washington Street, one exit south. Washington Street has more capacity and Beacon Street as an outlet. Grove Street is much more narrow, without any outlets.

That doesn’t mean that the latest Riverside proposal is good. It isn’t. Chuck Eisenberg is absolutely right in his TAB opinion article: the Riverside site ought to be a “textbook example of smart growth planning.” For all the progress the developers have made, they have yet to offer a proposal that would create an integrated, walkable, environmentally sustainable community. The three major uses — retail, residential, and office — are not integrated at all — what Alderperson Deb Crossley refers to as cafeteria-tray separation. There’s too little development. And, as a result, the amount of revenue the site will generate for the city is much less than the site could bear.

The only realistic* way that this site is going to get any better is if the MBTA and the developer radically reduce or eliminate the commuter parking demand. The immediately prior version of the Riverside plan had 129K more sq. ft. of office space. At one parking space per 250 sq. ft. of office space (as zoning requires) per 400 sq. ft. (as the developers have planned), the grand bargain reduces parking by about 500 325 spaces.

The city and region would be much better off with more office space than more commuter parking. The traffic generated by 500 325 spaces of office parking is roughly equivalent to the traffic generated by 500 325 spaces of long-term, commuter parking. Trade commuter parking for more office space and get:

  • More tax revenue for the city. (Oddly, Chuck doesn’t spell this out. The revenue lost to the city between the prior proposal and this one is likely between $700,000 and 1,000,000 per annum.)
  • More workers in the development, buying lunch and otherwise patronizing the retail in the development
  • More office space directly accessible by T, which translates to more workers using the T to get to work (reverse commuting, using available capacity)
  • A much smaller garage, which would open up opportunities for a more integrated development

The only advantage of the garage accrues to the T: the fees from the spaces.  (I’ll address the green-ness of the commuter parking in another post.)

If the neighborhood has spoken about the intensity of use on the site (as measured by traffic generated), it’s time to think harder about the mix of uses. More office space, less commuter parking.

*It would be wonderful, and create a lot fewer constraints, if the MBTA were to dedicate as much of the site as possible to Smart Growth. Chuck has proposed that the MBTA stop using the site for storage (reasonable) and maintenance (almost certainly a non-starter).

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  1. BOB BURKE permalink
    February 26, 2012 03:54 PM

    @Sean. I like the idea that your plan would increase density and draw commuters to Riverside via the T for work, shopping etc. I had never considered this as a planning option, but it’s an intriguing possibility that doesn’t appear to be unrealistic..

    There is, of course, the argument that eliminating a large number of parking spaces at Riverside would cause more people to drive to work at places along the Green Line heading into Boston. It’s one of the arguments the Newton Highlands Area Council has been wrestling with as it addresses commuter parking on Walnut Street.

    I think there is a possible way around this. One thing we learned in dealing with Walnut Street was that both the large parking facilities at Riverside and
    Woodland are less than 30% full on most workdays. The inbound crunch might be alleviated if some efficient way is found to route inbound traffic to
    Woodland., perhaps by designating it as the “preferred inbound” parking facility. Again,l I’m not certain what this would do to traffic between Grove, Beacon and Washington Street, but in the scheme of things, it would appear to be manageable.

    I should add that this arrangement might not be beneficial for me personally. I get on at Eliot to go inbound and there are always plenty of seats. It starts getting dicey at the Highlands and by Newton Center, it’s getting packed at rush hour. I don’t know what putting a lot more people on at Woodland would do for all of this, but it deserves a whirl.

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