Charles River Foot Bridge

To housing activists, 40-R zoning is considered “Smart Growth.” Its best practices include high-density housing, nearby public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle access, and less reliance on gas automobiles, the chief contributor to global warming. 40-R projects usually contain energy-efficient buildings that rely on electricity produced on site by solar panels or purchased from green energy sources or both.

On Thursday, January 9, a roomful of Waban residents listened to a presentation given by representatives of the Wellesley Office Park Development. Their project, an exemplar of Smart Growth, involves replacing an office building with 350 residential units and a handful of complementary businesses. It lies across the Charles River, on William Street. The representatives came at the invitation of the Waban Area Council, on which I serve.They were under no obligation to participate since both Wellesley and the Commonwealth have already signed off on the project. We were, thus, duly appreciative. They did, of course, take some heat from local residents, especially concerning fears of worsening traffic on Chestnut Street, Ellis Street, Quinobequin Road, and Route 9.

            To be sure, this congestion predates the Wellesley Office Park’s project. Entering Route 9 heading westbound has been hellish since time immemorial, and recent efforts to improve safety have fallen short. Cars zoom down the highway from the Elliot Street light at speeds approaching 60 miles per hour, endangering drivers trying to merge. Imagine, in addition,  immediately having to cross three lanes of traffic to make a left turn for Route 95 South…yikes!

            Problems also exist for drivers on Route 9 trying to reach William Street to enter the Office Park. With all the crossing traffic, accidents occur frequently. In the evening, as cars exit the office park, congestion worsens even with police officers on hand.  

These intersections are a traffic engineer’s nightmare, which the representatives acknowledged. They argued, however, that residential traffic from the project, intermittent by nature, will cause less congestion than the office traffic it replaces.  In the near future, they added, a new left-turn signal on Route 9 might allow traffic heading eastbound to turn directly onto Williams Street. For now, though, the presentation failed to allay the fears of many in attendance.

The project makes perfect sense from Wellesley’s perspective, which explains why the town approved a Chapter 40-R development on the site. With the residential housing created, Wellesley will meet its goal of 10% minimal subsidized housing units and avoid less desirable 40-B projects (sound familiar, Newton residents?). This phase of the development will generate about $1.34 million per annum in tax revenues as well as one-time bonus payments of over $1 million.

In one respect, Thursday’s presentation was misleading because the representatives insisted on discussing only phase 1 of the project, the 350-unit residential building.  In the near future, more residential developments may be built in the same office park, with additional tax benefits of $1 million per annum. The presentation last year to the Board of Selectmen in Wellesley included replacing four of the eight existing office buildings with up to 600 apartments, 75,000 square feet of additional office space, and a 150-room hotel! Despite the additional residences and hotel rooms, the overall office space would remain stable.

This future development may well fall short of being truly “Smart Growth.” On the plus side, electricity purchased from green sources will power the project’s heating, and solar panels may eventually be sited on the rooftops. Yet William Street’s lack of transit and remoteness from amenities mean that residents will be driving frequently. Even the shuttle bus service to and from the Green Line, part of the plan, will not prevent the increase of traffic in the development park, given the new residents and hotel guests in the later phase of the project.  

It falls short in other ways.  Pedestrians and cyclists have to navigate  the dangerous intersection of William Street and Route 9. The service road along Route 9 is one-way, with no opportunity for cars or bikes to go eastbound. Those walking along the side of the road up the hill to the Eliot T-stop must use a narrow sidewalk with cars speeding by. It’s scary.

To improve the project’s safety and decrease reliance on buses and cars, Dr. Srdjan Nedeljkovic, a bicycle activist, presented a proposal at the meeting for a pedestrian and bicycle bridge that crosses the Charles River into Newton. It would extend from a point near the project to Quinobequin Road near Larkspur. From there, the T stop at Waban Square lies less than a half-mile away. Waban Square has a post office, café, grocery, hardware store, restaurant, bank, shoe repair, and other businesses. This bridge, then, would make the village accessible to cyclists and pedestrians wanting to shop or dine or travel elsewhere by public transit. It would, alas, undoubtedly cost up to $1 million.

John Hancock Real Estate, the owner of the Wellesley Office Park, might also consider creating an expanded sidewalk for  pedestrians and cyclists heading to the Eliot T stop. It could stretch from William Street to Cragmore Road, a third of a mile away, leaving an equal distance via Cragmore  to Eliot. Either this route or a bridge would ease the challenge for those on foot or on bike. Now that would be smart growth! 

Listening to the representatives from the Wellesley project, I couldn’t help but wonder about Newton’s looming big developments. In theory, projects at Northland and Riverside have already addressed many of the same “Smart Growth” concerns: access to transit; pedestrian and bicycle accessibility; diminished reliance on the automobile; and safe entrances and exits to nearby roads and highways. City government must be vigilant that growth engendered by 40-R developments is truly Smart.

*Thanks to Srdj Nedeljkovic for providing information, feedback, and the photograph.