News & Resources

Smart Growth Spotlight: Tension in the Burbs

Our region may indeed be the Hub of the Universe (who’s to say?), but we trail many other metro areas in the U.S. and the world when it comes to building interesting, dense, and lively development in the suburbs.

In some ways, we’re learning. On October 26, Concord officials and community members celebrated the opening of Brookside Square, a mixed use development close to its commuter rail station in West Concord village. The 74 apartments and 36,000 square feet of office space built by Oaktree Development will add to West Concord’s luster. It is a highly walkable village, with a mixture of restaurants and retail shops and—perhaps surprisingly—a small business incubator space. 

Concord has been thinking about this moment for years—Brookside Square replaced a fading commercial complex that, sooner or later, would have been redeveloped. Concord knew what it wanted and got it. There is more foot traffic for local merchants.  There are amenities to help draw young professionals, including a “pocket park” built by the developer that will be accessible to the public via a network of walking trails along the banks of Nashoba Brook and Assabet River. The property will connect with the regional Bruce Freeman Rail Trail and Bike Path when it is completed.

In another local example, the Town of Winchester re-zoned its Center Business District in June. Although Winchester has a very walkable town center and commuter rail station, it has not grown in years. Now it has an opportunity to double the amount of housing in its town center, bring new customers for their local businesses and restaurants, and diversify its tax base.

Although Town Meeting approved the re-zoning by an incredible Town Meeting vote of 136-9, it took many years of hard work, visioning, and organizing to get there. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance was pleased to partner with and support the Town through this process as part of our Great Neighborhoods program.

With appropriate zoning in place, the Town’s parking lot next to the commuter rail station becomes a prime location for a mixed use building that could add housing, jobs, and an active streetscape in addition to parking. In a savvy move, the Town realized that residents needed to visualize what change would look like, so it invested $30,000 in hiring three different architectural firms to design alternatives for the site. The result was that residents weighed in about what they liked and didn’t like regarding each scenario. Not only did excitement build for the possibilities, but the feedback helped the Planning Board develop a set of design guidelines for the entire town center.

Winchester will now take the next step by hosting a “LinkUp” to introduce smart growth builders to the town’s vision. This meeting will be convened by LOCUS, a national organization of private smart growth developers, and it will help establish a frank conversation about the cost of construction, permitting process, and other issues that will help inform the Town as it moves forward.

Similar re-zoning examples include Newburyport, which in September passed a Chapter 40R smart growth district around its commuter rail station, as well as Andover and Mansfield, which also re-zoned around their commuter rail stations this past year.

Affluent communities are fortunate that they can proactively attract private investment to deliver smart growth development that will position their town centers or villages for the future. But sometimes residents see a threat instead—usually a perception of more people, kids and cars (why these may be perceived as threats is a whole other blog post). Between those two perspectives is the challenge of visualizing how developing a parking lot or vacant commercial property will make a difference in our daily lives. 

This challenge of visualizing change is currently being played out in Newtonville, one of Newton’s “villages.” The site is a city-owned parking lot across from a commuter rail station and the famous Star Market that hangs over the MassPike. A community process that started eight years ago led to unanimous votes to re-zone the parcel and offer the land for sale or lease. After considerable study, the City put out a request for proposals in February 2012 that attracted six bids.

The winning bidder proposed 80 apartments (since reduced to 68), 5,000 square feet of street-level retail, and a new public plaza. Austin Street Partners, which (coincidently) includes the developer who just opened Brookside Square in West Concord, is also returning 127 rebuilt parking spaces to Newton and adding 90 underground spaces. 

Unfortunately, it is not clear yet whether the Newtonville story will end like the ones in Concord and Winchester. The Board of Aldermen is expected to vote in the next month and it is likely to be a close vote. 

How did an easy decision become controversial?

Highly vocal opponents don’t visualize the future the same way as the project’s community proponents. Where proponents see new life on the street, opponents visualize auto gridlock.  Where proponents see 17 units affordable to a police officer or teacher, opponents see school costs.  Where proponents see 51 market rate units that will allow young professionals or downsizing baby boomers to stay in Newton, opponents see unwanted “luxury” housing and gentrification. 

With two-thirds of Millennials desiring to live in walkable, transit-accessible places at the same time that seniors shift to apartment living, suburban communities have a real test before them.  Communities like Newtonville need to decide between planned growth and unplanned growth. For its peers like West Concord village, Winchester Center, Andover and Newburyport, the future is already happening.

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Newtonville’s Austin Street muncipal parking lot on left, proposed development on right.