City Councilors Andrea Downs and Jake Auchincloss have drawn a line at the Northland Development: 1,050 spaces, not 1,450, as is currently planned. In a letter to the developer (full text below), they argue persuasively for the lower number.

The City Council’s Parking Caucus (for now just Downs and Auchincloss) have it exactly right. If we want less private automobile traffic generated by the Northland site, the most effective throttle is parking. As Downs and Auchincloss put it, “If you build more parking, we will all get more driving.” Like night follows day.

There is a curious tension between the level of parking and the work being down on both sides to ensure proper levels of private automobile use. I’ve been in a few meetings discussing what the developer’s obligation should be — private shuttles, with loops to residents’ final destinations or to village center T stops; payments to the MBTA to increase route coverage on Needham St.; multi-million dollar payments to study the feasibility of the Green Line extension, &c. — and how city staff will monitor automobile volume to and from the site and sanction the developer for failure to hit targets. At 1,450 spaces, the city is basically granting Northland a traffic-generating monster and then saying, let’s figure out together how to restrain it.

Everybody says that traffic is a or the top concern about the Northland (or, really, any) development, but City Councilors (except Downs and Auchincloss) don’t want to take the obvious steps required to actually prevent too much traffic. It’s crazy.

The current plan, whatever the Traffic Demand Management (TDM) mechanisms are, is destined to fail. Either the work to measure and monitor traffic and negotiate strategies to adjust to inevitable non-compliance will consume city staff or the city will quietly take the path of least resistance and let things slide. 

Better, as the Parking Caucus puts it, “if [Northland] finance[s], market[s], and operate[s] in a parking-constrained format, the city can be assured that we have a partner committed to other modalities, including the shuttle service.” At 1,050 spaces, Northland’s interests and the city’s are aligned. To be successful, Northland needs people to live in the housing, to work in the offices, to shop in the stores. If 1,050 spaces is not enough parking to generate the demand Northland needs, it’s up to them to figure out how to get people to and from the site by means other than private automobile.

Maybe, Northland will have to get really creative to market to and find the 800 households in the Greater Boston area who want to live car-free or car-lite on Needham St. Or, they will have to provide a super robust car-sharing program to meet resident demand for occasional trips. Certainly, they will have an incentive to maintain an effective shuttle service or figure out another, more efficient system to get residents to work and office and retail workers to the site. At 1,050 spaces, the city will not need to invest as much in “measure, monitor, and enforce.”

We desperately need more housing in Newton, for economic, social, and environmental justice reasons. And, we need to make sure that we’re not adding proportionally more carbon-emitting traffic to our streets. We need to stop thinking that it’s not possible to live car-free or car-lite in Newton. It’s not what most of us are used to, but we need to make it possible and Needham St. isn’t a bad place to start. There are lots of people, especially Millennials, who would rather have walking- or biking-centered lifestyle.

Downs and Auchincloss talk about how “Northland has three critical stages to go: financing, leasing, and then operating.” Sustainable parking numbers have to be built into each of those three stages, to ensure the right path-dependency. Downs and Auchincloss conclude:

Northland and the city must bake into this project, during its very conception, the economic incentive to plan & develop away from the car.

Ideally, the Parking Caucus represents swing votes that will be able to set a sustainable parking limit, to plan and develop away from the car.

Big question to those City Councilors not yet in the Parking Caucus: why not?

Text of the Downs/Auchincloss letter:

City Council
2018-2019 City of Newton

31 May 2019

Larry Gottesdiener
Chairman and CEO
Northland Investment Corporation
2150 Washington Street
Newton, MA 02462

Mr. Gottesdiener:

This letter is in regards to petitions #425-18 and #426-18, your proposal to develop 14 buildings varying in height from 3 to 8 stories with a total of 800 housing units (123 of which will be affordable), 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of commercial space on a 22.6 acre site at Needham and Oak Streets.

Much about the project is to be commended. The lot is under-developed; Newton needs the housing; and the site design is well-considered. Additionally, Northland is proposing an ambitious program of transportation demand management, the keystone of which is a privately funded, publicly available shuttle service.

However, Northland’s parking allotment undermines its commitment to its own transportation demand management program. Northland has proposed 1,450 parking spots, with additional capacity to flex up during holiday season. This breaks down to 800 parking spots for the residential units, a 1:1 ratio, and 650 parking spots for the commercial tenants. We recommend 1,050 parking spots, retaining the 650 parking spots for the commercial tenants and lowering the residential ratio to 0.5, or in another configuration that you propose. You could retain the holiday flex parking capacity at your discretion. We also recommend closing the Oak Street entry/exit to all vehicles but shuttles and emergency vehicles.

Reducing the parking-spot allocation, in tandem with the planning department’s ‘measure, monitor, and enforce’ initiative to cap car-trips, is the city’s best assurance that you are committed to traffic mitigation in the long term. Traffic is the neighborhood’s most severe concern and deserves special consideration. Traffic is also a regional vexation that is getting worse. We must plan and develop away from the car.

Northland has three critical stages to go: financing, leasing, and then operating. At each stage, your incentive is to internalize the benefits of more parking while externalizing the costs of more traffic. By the time the city starts measuring and monitoring, Northland will have signed covenants with your creditors, marketed to your tenants, and established standard operating procedures with your managers. All these activities are path-dependent on your parking allotment. If you build more parking, we will all get more driving. In contrast, if you finance, market, and operate in a parking-constrained format, the city can be assured that we have a partner committed to other modalities, including the shuttle service.

Northland and the city must bake into this project, during its very conception, the economic incentive to plan & develop away from the car.

Jake Auchincloss
Andreae Downs

1000 Commonwealth Avenue ▪ Newton, MA 02459

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