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City planner and urban designer Jeff Speck is the lead designer of the soon to be proposed designed for the Riverside MBTA station (and also the guy behind this vision for Washington Street). He submitted this guest blog post.

As the lead designer of the proposed development at the Riverside T Station, I have been asked to write a post explaining the thinking behind the plan. While I believe that the principles and goals outlined here are shared by the entire development team, the thoughts that follow are my own

As seen below, the site is a special one, adjacent to the Charles River greenway, flanked north and south by open space and golf courses, east and west by mostly low-density development at some distance, adjacent to a major highway interchange and—most significantly—at the end of the Green Line’s Riverside branch.


This location—largely isolated from surrounding properties, yet at a nexus of transportation infrastructure—makes the site ideal for the sort of development that will allow the City of Newton to meet its clearly-stated planning goals of smart growth, transit-oriented development, walkability, housing attainability, and increased commercial tax base. But to meet these goals, it must be designed as a mixed-use, walkable neighborhood of a density appropriate to the terminus of an important streetcar line.

Each of these characteristics, individually, matters. A proper balance of uses allows the neighborhood to capture car trips, so that people working there can choose to get coffee, run errands, eat a meal, and even find a home a short walk from the office. A walkable streetscape, in which an embracing public realm shelters and gives interest to strolls throughout the neighborhood, provides the framework necessary for the bonds of community to form. And a significant density—with most buildings of a height that can be found at the other Green Line termini of Cleveland Circle, BC/Lake Street, Lechmere, and Heath Street—is essential to enable housing affordability and to power the increased transit ridership that will enable greater investment in Green Line service. This density also supports the transportation improvements and site amenities that will make it a welcome neighbor to its surrounding villages

As with any new suburban development, the greatest concern one hears about from neighbors is traffic, in this case the additional car trips that it might contribute to Grove Street, which passes along the project’s southeast boundary. Currently, congestion can occur here at rush hour due to MBTA patrons entering and exiting the large park-and-ride facility currently on site. It is natural to worry that placing additional uses on site would only worsen this traffic.

For this reason, a key feature of this plan, currently under negotiation with MassDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, is a rebuilt interface with I-95 that brings highway traffic directly into the western end of the site, allowing it to bypass Grove Street entirely. As designed, this ramp system would allow the development to limit its Grove Street access dramatically, likely removing from the street its greatest source of congestion.

As illustrated below, the current site plan is organized as a collection of mostly mid-rise (5- to 7-story) buildings that shape a series of amenitized public spaces. These include a transit square to the east, a hillside amphitheater garden just west of center, and a hotel square to the west. This last square frames a new hotel on the site of the current Hotel Indigo. About 660 housing units—many below market rate—and 350,000 square feet of office space fill buildings shown. The existing MBTA park-and-ride lot, which currently occupies the majority of the site, is consolidated into a parking structure that hides the rail yard to the north and is itself hidden behind rowhouses and ground-floor shops along its southern edge.

With a limited amount of locally-serving retail, this development is imagined as a new destination, not for the region, but for Newton, especially for the residents of Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls, who could drive, bike, or even walk there to enjoy its restaurants, public spaces, and street life.

The goals identified in the Newton’s recent planning efforts reflect the fact that this city of mostly single-family houses is not fully equipped to serve the needs of its current residents, nor those that it wants to welcome. Older homeowners who wish to unburden themselves of larger properties have trouble finding apartments near local friends and family, so important to aging in place. Meanwhile, single millennials, a demographic that every city hopes to attract, do not give Newton a second look, and attainable workforce housing is the scarcest of all. A new Riverside neighborhood of mostly apartments, supported by a major office development, all with great access to transit and open space, and largely hidden from surrounding properties, would go a long way towards following the course that Newton’s citizens have mapped for the City’s future

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