Housing solutions that improve health

MSGA announces grants to 8 community organizations in Massachusetts

May 18, 2020

Last week, we shared with you how the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance will restructure and evolve. This week, we’d like to share an example of how the work will continue using a collaborative team approach.

In the fall, we launched a two-year project to implement housing solutions that improve health. Our work is supported by an award from the Kresge Foundation’s Advancing Health Equity and Housing initiative and will focus on the following goals:

  1. Maximize the role and voice of resident-led organizations in low-income and immigrant communities and communities of color to advance health equity through housing.
  2. Strengthen the connections between grassroots health, housing and environmental justice groups and statewide policy organizations.
  3. Advance state and local policy to:
    1. Increase housing stability by strengthening our tenant protection laws and systems so we can reduce evictions and displacement;
    2. Improve housing quality, especially in the Commonwealth’s aging housing stock in our Gateway Cities, to reduce negative health impacts caused by poor housing;
    3. Increase investment in affordable housing that meets the needs of families, individuals and seniors with low or modest incomes; 
    4. Increase the supply of well-designed mixed income housing located in walkable, vibrant, resilient communities with good access to transit and other amenities.

The pandemic makes the need for safe and secure housing for all Massachusetts residents even more critical. Residents understand the problems better than anyone, and community partners make sure that residents are part of the solution.

We committed $90,000 of our grant award to support local grassroots organizations leading important housing campaigns that can improve health. The COVID-19 emergency motivated us to accelerate the release of these funds so that they can support immediate efforts to help address the impact of the virus on the hardest hit communities.

Eight resident-led organizations will receive $11,250 each:

  • Alternatives for Community and Environment, Roxbury
  • Arise for Social Justice, Springfield
  • Boston Affordable Housing Coalition (MA Alliance of HUD Tenants), Boston
  • Coalition for Social Justice, Southeastern Massachusetts
  • Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, Dorchester
  • Green Roots, Inc., Chelsea & East Boston
  • Lawrence CommunityWorks, Lawrence
  • Worcester Interfaith, Worcester

Project descriptions can be found here. This initiative is led and supported by MSGA members, including the Massachusetts Public Health Association, Citizens Housing and Planning Association, Conservation Law Foundation, LISC Boston, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and Massachusetts Association of CDCs.


COVID-19 has shown us that where you live can determine how long you live. Safe, stable, and affordable housing is the cornerstone of physical and mental health. 

We’ve known this for some time. A 2012 study of Boston found that some parts of Roxbury had a life expectancy under 60 years old, while a mile away in the Back Bay, life expectancy was above 90 years old. Data from 2015 reflects this in Massachusetts as a whole: residents of a low-income neighborhood in New Bedford have an average life expectancy of 68 years old while residents of a wealthy neighborhood in Newton can expect to live beyond 94 years old.

Our communities are responsible for these unfair health differences far more than any individual behaviors. These larger conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age are called the social determinants of health.

In other words, the choices we have are shaped by the access to opportunities around us in terms of food, jobs, health care, schools, transportation, parks, safety, clean air, and more. Housing stability, safety, quality, cost, and location are the main pathways through which housing determines your health.

MSGA works to improve the built environment so that all residents can survive and thrive, but the housing crisis has made it much more difficult for everyone to stay healthy. Over the last few years, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has pursued a healthy aging agenda with grant support from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation. With this new project, that work is expanded.

“Decades of discriminatory housing, transportation, land-use policy and economic disinvestment have resulted in residential segregation by income, race, and ethnicity and created disparities that impact the health and well-being of people living in America’s cities,” said Stacey Barbas, senior program officer with the Kresge Foundation Health Program.

MSGA is a coalition comprised of the Conservation Law Foundation, Massachusetts Public Health Association, Citizens Housing and Planning Association, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, American Society of Architects-Massachusetts Chapter, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Local Initiatives Support Corporation-Boston, and Environmental League of Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance works to protect critical natural resources and working landscapes; increase housing and transportation choices; promote healthy environments and climate resiliency; and support equitable community development. Our principal goal is to create more vibrant, racially diverse, mixed-income communities with good access to jobs, transportation, and open space. We believe that low-income and minority residents should have the power to shape the future of their community and benefit from its development.

Transition at the MA Smart Growth Alliance

Dear friends and supporters:

I’m writing on behalf of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance staff and Steering Committee to let you know about some important changes at the Alliance.  For some time now, our member groups and staff have planned an organizational transition starting June 30th of this year. 

COVID-19 has made our path stranger and more unsettling, but it also underscores the ongoing need to confront the housing crisis, racial inequity, and the climate emergency. All of our member organizations remain committed to these issues, and we all pledge to continue working on them within a new framework.

Let me give you the headlines and then I’ll go into more detail below. As of July 1st:

  1. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance will continue to exist as a state policy coalition coordinated and staffed by its member organizations. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) will host MSGA for the next year.
  2. Our Great Neighborhoods program, with Anabelle Rondon’s ongoing leadership, will have a new home with LivableStreets Alliance.
  3. MSGA’s remaining staff, including myself, continue to explore new directions and employment opportunities. Our plans have been complicated by COVID-19, but I know our incredible team members will find ways to deepen their impact in the world.
  4. Over the next 12 months, MSGA member organizations will consult among themselves and with outside allies and funders to determine the appropriate path forward beyond June of 2021.

A sustainable Smart Growth Alliance

The Alliance includes eight member organizations: American Institute of Architects-Massachusetts, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental League of Massachusetts, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC-Boston), Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, Massachusetts Public Health Association, and Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). 

Over the years, these organizations have built trust and shared learning. They value the opportunity to dialogue and collaborate on issues that cross the natural and built environments. Many times along the way, they recommitted to the Alliance, including during this time of transition. The Alliance will return to its roots as a tight-knit coalition managed and staffed by its members, which we hope will enable it to be financially sustainable for the long-term.

One example of the kind of collaborative project that will continue under MSGA is a recently launched two-year initiative on health equity and housing funded by the Kresge Foundation. In addition to policy work and engaging healthcare institutions on housing issues, the grant is supporting local grassroots organizations leading health-housing initiatives in communities across the state. You’ll hear more details from us soon.

Great Neighborhoods

We take a great deal of pride in our Great Neighborhoods (GN) program, which launched ten years ago to support community-driven planning and development in key locations around Greater Boston with funding from the Barr Foundation and the Ford Foundation. 

Since then, GN evolved into an organizing and advocacy platform that made zoning reform a top-tier policy issue, built a network of local activists fighting for better development in their communities, and has been bringing together housing, transportation, and climate advocates for networking and fun. We feel strongly that this great work should continue.

Anabelle and Great Neighborhoods have found a wonderful new home at LivableStreets Alliance. At LivableStreets, the program will have the support of a like-minded team of organizers that will help them to grow and flourish. We are grateful to the Barr Foundation for their support of GN in its new home.

New staff ventures

During my 12 years as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, I’ve worked passionately to reform land-use policies that drive economic inequality, housing scarcity, and pollution. 

Going forward, I seek opportunities to help communities and institutions confront these problems directly. This summer, I had hoped to help launch an antiracism consortium of planning schools with partners at Tufts, MIT, and elsewhere, but the COVID-19 crisis postponed those plans. We will continue to seek funding to revive it because dismantling the painful legacy of racism is essential to achieving inclusive decision-making and better development outcomes. In the meantime, our Planners of Color Network will live on with Great Neighborhoods and continue to move that agenda forward.

My colleagues are also actively pursuing their next steps. Larry Field hopes to continue working at the intersection of land use, transportation and climate policy. Dottie Fulginiti, as an elected Selectperson herself, would like to support local officials around the state in planning and executing successful smart growth campaigns in their communities. 

The depth and breadth of expertise in such a small team has been extraordinary.

Initial reflections and appreciation

I’ve been privileged to work with an intelligent and passionate group of nonprofit leaders and advocates for more than a dozen years. Between now and June 30, we’ll release stories about some key smart growth achievements as well as hopes for the future.

Through changing administrations and circumstances, MSGA successfully hardwired smart growth principles into many of the Commonwealth’s laws, programs, and investment decisions—something that was a radical notion in 2003 at the height of sprawl. It’s what we set out to achieve. We hope the organizational changes we make today will set the stage for new projects and partnerships to evolve.

We’ve had a great group of funders. The Barr Foundation supported the planning that led to our launch in 2003, and they have been our largest and most consistent funder ever since. We’re very grateful. And as I mentioned above, the Ford and Kresge Foundations have supported important multi-year projects.

Local foundations have been among our closest partners. The Tufts Health Plan Foundation made our initiatives on healthy aging and accessory dwelling units possible. The Boston Foundation supported policy work on zoning reform and expanding housing choices. The Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation was one of our most dedicated funders for many years, providing valuable operating support. The Garfield Foundation ensured that community development was at the smart growth table, and funded a Great Neighborhoods initiative in New Bedford. The Island Foundation and the Hyams Foundation both funded MSGA projects aligned with their missions.

This has been an exciting journey. While reflecting on my experience with MSGA and compiling information about our accomplishments over the years, I can say that I’m proud of all that we’ve done, the integrity with which we’ve done it, and most of all, the personal and organizational connections that we made.

We wish the best to you and your families. MSGA will continue to communicate with timely updates and we thank you for your ongoing support.

André Leroux

Executive Director

Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance

The Other Housing Choice

More than a bill, it’s a program that supports communities building housing
by Andre Leroux, Executive Director, MA Smart Growth Alliance

During the course of my work life, I’ll occasionally run into a consultant who helped draft a plan in a community I know well.

“I worked there about 15 years ago,” they might say. “It was a great process, lots of creative ideas, good engagement from the community. What ever happened to that?”

To which I’ll often respond: “You did a plan for that area?”

Over the last 30 years, Massachusetts policies have often encouraged and rewarded cities and towns for making plans to build housing. Unfortunately, many of the documents sit on shelves forgotten while the housing fails to get built. Given the bitter opposition of many homeowners to new apartments, good intentions haven’t translated into enough real homes outside Boston.

Origins of the Housing Choice Initiative

We at the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance have worked for years to modernize our state’s zoning laws, last updated in the mid-1970s. A key piece of that strategy has been to establish an incentive program for cities and towns to move beyond planning and build the units. In fact, the State Senate debated and passed a comprehensive zoning bill in June of 2016 that included this language:

“The secretary of housing and economic development… shall develop a municipal opt-in program to advance the state’s economic, environmental and social well-being through enhanced planning for economic growth, land conservation, workforce housing creation and mobility. The program shall include guidelines and criteria to evaluate municipal applications. Applications meeting program guidelines and criteria shall receive status as a certified community. Certified communities shall be entitled to certain privileges and powers and shall be required to provide certain incentives to benefit persons seeking local permits and local land use approvals.”

The comprehensive zoning bill didn’t survive the legislative session of 2016, but Governor Baker’s administration went ahead and created a similar program—the Housing Choice Initiative, launched in December of 2017. This was a major accomplishment.

Designation of communities

Since then, 79 cities and towns have become Housing Choice communities. Because the designation lasts for two years, the 69 municipalities that helped launch the program the first year in 2018 must now re-apply along with any new communities. The 2020 application period for HCI designation has just opened, and you can see here for details about how to apply.

One of the most appealing benefits of becoming a Housing Choice community is having exclusive access to the Housing Choice Capital Grant program, which makes awards of up to $250,000 from an annual pot of about $5 million. To address the different needs of rural communities, 20% of the total funding is reserved for towns with a population under 7,000 (max award $100,000).

In addition, Housing Choice communities receive special consideration for 9 other state capital programs: Clean Water Trust loans, MassWorks, Seaport Council Grants, Complete Streets, MassDOT capital projects, and Executive Office of Environmental Affairs programs including Planning, LAND, PARC, and Gateway City Park grants.

The Clean Water Trust perk is especially beneficial, since HCI municipalities obtain a discounted interest rate of 1.5% rather than 2.0% on their water infrastructure loans. By the calculations of HCI program director Chris Kluchman, the Housing Choice communities that have already taken advantage of this benefit will save an aggregate of $13 million over the life of their payments.

Kluchman has been pleased to find that most of the communities that have qualified for HCI designation have done so by increasing their housing stock at least 5% or 500 units over the last 5 years. Other communities may also qualify by having a 3% or 300 unit increase in the last 5 years in addition to meeting a certain number of best practices (including some that advance affordability).

The impact

“There’s been a huge amount of energy around housing,” says Kluchman. “The Boston Globe and regional papers have had a lot of coverage about housing issues. Regional Planning Agencies and communities have been creating housing production plans. There are beefy conversations around housing and the Housing Choice program participates in those in a helpful way.”

To help communities access the resources they need to be successful, Kluchman leads an interagency working group to coordinate technical assistance. Meanwhile, she herself has made over 85 presentations to local audiences around the state to educate them about the HCI, best practices, and state housing resources.

Governor Baker has set a state goal of 135,000 new homes from 2018-2025, which comes out to an average of 16,875 each year. The first year’s numbers for 2018 came to 17,044, which met the target by a whisker. The housing permit data comes from the Census, although those figures may not be entirely accurate because of variations in the way communities report their data as well as human error in counting. Kluchman’s own testing of the numbers suggest an undercount of 10-15%, which could indicate that we’re doing a little better than the Census numbers suggest.

“I think we’re doing okay,” says Kluchman. One concern is that despite the historic housing market, we’re barely hitting the average number, so any economic slowdown may make it difficult to achieve. Even without newcomers to the state, we need additional housing units to accommodate older residents who are downsizing, new families looking for their first home, and to halt rising prices.

During the first two years of the Housing Choice Initiative, 61 capital grant awards totaling nearly $10 million have been made (including 21 to rural towns) and have helped create 800 housing units. The funding can support improvements not covered by developer mitigation fees. For example, many projects use the awards to improve sidewalk connectivity and pedestrian safety around the new housing. Other uses have included park improvements, public safety equipment, water and sewer upgrades, design and engineering services, and even a community visioning process.

Next steps for the program

When I ask Kluchman what would make the HCI program more impactful, she brings up the Governor’s Housing Choices bill, which has languished in the Legislature for two years despite support from the Mass Municipal Association, real estate trade associations, Chambers of Commerce, and affordable housing and environmental advocates like the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

“I would love to see the legislation passed,” she said. “I think that would help communities across the state think more about housing, increase conversations, and enable them to enact solutions more easily.”

The Housing Choices bill has no municipal requirements, but makes it easier for them to adopt nine best practices by a simple majority vote rather than a super majority. The best practices include multifamily zoning in smart growth locations, accessory dwelling units, reducing parking requirements, and clustering development to preserve open space. The bill would also make it easier to approve mixed-income housing projects that include at least 10% affordable housing.

Email us if you’d like to advocate for the Housing Choices bill.

There are other ways to extend the impact of the program. Additional support and funding for local planning and zoning improvements, which could be provided by the Legislature, could help cities and towns direct growth to sensible locations. There are some existing programs (including some for which HC communities receive priority consideration) but more is needed.
Finally, a peer support network of planners around housing issues could help increase capacity, knowledge, and savvy of housing laws and regulations across the Commonwealth. This could be combined with access to training opportunities and technical assistance.

Which communities are proactive?

I was curious to know where the Housing Choice communities are located and what it could tell us about housing around the state.

“It was really clear when we first put out the map that I-495 is where it’s at,” said Kluchman. “There’s a lot of growth, solid school systems, lot of demand in variety of ways. But that belt includes many revitalizing Gateway Cities as well.”

In terms of absolute numbers of units, Boston and surrounding communities continue to produce the majority of the state’s housing units, particularly apartments. But the 495 belt is experiencing the highest rate of growth. Other clusters of Housing Choice communities indicate that Worcester and its suburbs are a strong market, as are the college towns in the Pioneer Valley. Towns on Cape Cod and the Islands are adopting many best practices since those communities struggle to provide year-round housing that is affordable to their residents.

One part of the map stands out for what you don’t see. The band along Rte 128 looks almost empty of Housing Choice communities. Those communities have a lot of jobs, well-financed schools, and are not far from Boston. But there’s not a lot of housing production.

Apply for Housing Choice

The online application for designation as a Housing Choice Community is open from now until 3:00 p.m. on Monday, March 23, 2020. 

Here is the link to the ONLINE application form. You can also find a .pdf copy of the application on the web page that you can use for planning purposes. The application must be submitted through the online form.

Housing Choice Community (HCC) designation status lasts for two years, so if your community was designated in 2018, you must re-apply in 2020 to maintain your designation status. Most communities will need to re-apply this year.

The advantages of being designated as a Housing Choice Community include:

  • Eligibility for exclusive Capital Grants
  • Special consideration for 9 other state capital programs (Clean Water Trust loans, MassWorks, Seaport Council Grants, Complete Streets, MassDOT capital projects, Energy and Environmental Affairs Planning, LAND and PARC and Gateway City Park grants)

To find out more about Housing Choice Communities and past grant awards,visit the Housing Choice web page. The Fiscal Year 2021 grant process will begin in spring/summer 2020. If you have any questions about your community’s eligibility or the application, please contact Housing Choice Program Director Chris Kluchman at 617-573-1167.

Donate to MSGA

Community Benefit Districts

With a team of three State Senators and three State Representatives negotiating the final version of the Economic Development bill, it is worth looking at an important item that could make its way into Massachusetts law: Community Benefit Districts (CBDs).

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has made passing Community Benefit Districts one of our top priorities because it addresses a unmet need: with smart growth and walkable areas booming, how will communities manage these vibrant places?


Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) can be a solution.

The CBD proposal empowers communities to solve their own problems based on their unique characteristics. Some examples of how it could work:

  • A downtown district that cleans snow from the sidewalks, empties trash receptacles every day, provides extra security, landscapes and maintains plantings, manages special events, works with agencies to improve transportation, implements a shared valet parking program for restaurants, recruits new businesses, and identifies possible locations for affordable housing.
  • A cultural district (like a Little Italy or Chinatown) that provides cultural programming and art, offers outdoor seating, tells the story of the neighborhood families through plaques and banners, helps develop design guidelines that accentuate the unique character of the neighborhood, works with property owners to support family businesses instead of chains, works with other cultural communities across the region and even internationally to strengthen and renew the heritage of district, and attracts new entrepreneurs and investment from that cultural group.
  • A Main Street CBD that markets itself as a destination for visitors with a website, events, and social media, manages a farmer’s market, provides technical assistance to small businesses, helps the municipality review new development proposals and develop rules to encourage food trucks, and raises funds for small plazas and a new dog park.
  • An arts district that creates a way for artists to directly participate in managing public spaces, organizes festivals, supports public art projects, and works with property owners to develop long-term affordable live-work spaces for artists so that they do not get pushed out by rising prices.
  • A series of suburban town centers connected by a shuttle service, with shared regional marketing and coordinated events.
  • A historic district that develops maintenance plans for aging structures, implements painting or other improvements on a regular schedule, repairs and manages neglected properties, hosts events, researches, documents, and preserves local history, coordinates works with tourism boards and historic sites, and integrates the story of the community in contemporary development.


The fact is, local governments need additional capacity to develop and manage busy areas like downtowns, Main Streets, and village centers. These special places need extra services (such as cleaning, branding, cultural programming, landscaping, supporting local businesses, etc.) that the municipality cannot provide.

Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) can help solve the problem by establishing a local public/private/nonprofit partnership managed by a 501c3 nonprofit, which could be either an existing organization or a new one.

To establish a CBD, a community would work with local property owners to develop a management plan and assess themselves a fee (like a condo fee) to pay for implementing the plan. The private and nonprofit property owners, municipality, businesses, and the community at-large would oversee the nonprofit management organization, and could dissolve it if desired.

CBDs are similar to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), but offer advantages that could make them more attractive to many cities and towns.

For example, Community Benefit Districts:

  1. Explicitly require the engagement of residents, nonprofits, and municipalities in addition to private property owners and businesses;
  2. Are easier to establish and dissolve even while increasing public accountability and transparency;
  3. Do not require districts to be renewed every five years;
  4. Must be managed by a 501c3 nonprofit organization;
  5. Require a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipality to prevent privatization of municipal services;
  6. Offer a streamlined process for amending the district boundaries and management plan;
  7. Allows a ramp-up period of up to three years;
  8. Includes protections for small property owners, such as a cap on representation by large property owners when forming the district;
  9. Provide communities tremendous flexibility in terms of services, governance structure, and revenues to accomplish their goals;
  10. Bring districts in line with state nonprofit oversight; and
  11. May link multiple districts or municipalities.


The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has spoken to groups across the state who have already expressed an interest in learning more, including from cities and towns as diverse as: New Bedford, Lowell, Worcester, Boston, Andover, Salem, Somerville, Plymouth, Beverly, Melrose, Cambridge and Lawrence.

If would like to discuss Community Benefit Districts or would like to schedule a presentation to your group, please contact me or Larry Field.

Supporters include: Massachusetts Municipal Association, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, MassCreative, Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, and LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors, among others.

Lead sponsors of CBD in the Legislature include Senator Eileen Donoghue (Lowell) and Representative Brendan Crighton (Lynn).

Maximizing the return

It would be short-sighted for the City of Boston to approach 115 Winthrop Square as a one-off fiscal transaction rather than part of a long-term strategy to make the downtown socially and financially sustainable.

A Boston Globe article last week reported that the six developer bids for 115 Winthrop Square—a closed public garage in the heart of Boston’s financial district—range from $50 to $151 million. None of the bidders are being cheap. Each offers a different bundle of public amenities, whether it be 40% affordable and workforce housing units, new public spaces or street connectivity.

Yet one sentence in the Globe article raised a red flag: “But some at City Hall see the project as a rare chance for Boston to reap tens of millions of dollars in one swoop and are pushing the BRA to maximize the return.” If maximizing the return focuses solely on dollars, then Boston risks losing a major opportunity and we oppose it.

Everyone agrees that this is a strategic location between South Station and Downtown Crossing and this is an opportunity to strengthen the sense of place in an emerging mixed-use downtown. With Millennium Tower and other recent housing proposals, an exciting 24-7 downtown is on the way. That elevates the need for public amenities that align with the “new” downtown, that argues for increasing the walkable connections, and that increases the need for affordable housing so that downtown is not just for the super-rich.

The open house for the six proposals, which was a novel, praise-worthy approach for the city, demonstrated that we have six different contributions on offer for downtown. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance strongly urges the BRA to evaluate each proposal in terms of its public value, rather than dollars. The City needs to manage its downtown like a portfolio, and a healthy long-term return requires diversification, a blend of products and projects that are not all tied to same segment of the speculative economy.

This issue is not limited to the BRA’s sale or lease of 115 Winthrop Square. The Governor last fall announced an initiative to dispose of state-owned property, including some developable parcels close to public transit. The same question facing the BRA is faced by the Commonwealth: do you sell assets to the highest bidder in order to maximize the money you can plow back into the MBTA or even the general fund?

With a state budget over $38 billion or city budget nearing $3 billion, even a hundred million dollars can disappear pretty quickly. But long-term neighborhood sustainability, priceless.

The MBTA Report: Reform and Revenue


The Governor’s Special Panel to Review the MBTA is exactly right about a fundamental point: it rejects the ‘reform vs revenue’ debate because “the MBTA needs both.” The report recognizes that Massachusetts requires a strong public transportation system, including increased capacity and expansion.  We need public transit for future economic prosperity, to maximize access to jobs and services, improve quality of life in our communities, and improve our environment.  While we don’t claim insight into whether the panel is right about how to operate a well-managed transit system, it also deserves credit for focusing attention on ways to cost cuts, increase revenue within the system, and improve accountability. We welcome efforts to be more creative and efficient in how we think about public transportation.

Nevertheless, we have reservations about the implications of three important recommendations in the report.  First, from a smart growth perspective, it is short-sighted to make maximizing system revenue our overriding goal. We do not ask our roadways to maximize revenue! Instead, we should be guided by the goal of ensuring that the people of Massachusetts can get where they need to go, safely and efficiently. For example, the panel recommends using “real estate assets strategically,” and we agree. But that does not mean maximizing proceeds from selling T parcels and maximizing parking revenue.  Rather, it means using those assets to bring about the best outcome for Massachusetts.  Transit-oriented development has a multiplier effect in our economy and can be transformative in weaker markets.  Many TOD strategists think that surplus state parcels—including those owned by the MBTA—should be sold at below-market prices in exchange for affordable and middle income housing. In this way we can leverage our transportation system to address our housing crisis. We need to think outside the transportation silo.

Second, we are concerned about the panel’s recommendation that the current fare cap—restricting increases to 5% every two years—be lifted. Fares were raised an average of 23% in 2012, and the fare cap language was adopted in the last transportation reform bill to guard against future dramatic increases. Fares were raised again 5% in 2014. Eliminating the cap would undermine another of the panel’s key recommendations that the MBTA focus more on increasing its ridership. We favor retaining the fare cap, which keeps the T affordable for our low-income residents, which are its core ridership. Finally, with housing prices out of control for many families, riding the T is one of the only ways to make ends meet and reduce costs in Greater Boston. As former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi says, “To ask people to pay more for lousy service before you improve it is just completely wrong.”

Third, while we appreciate the nuanced way in which the panel handled the issue of system expansion, a “temporary moratorium” sends the wrong message and is potentially counter-productive to the state’s economic and smart growth development goals. The panel made the key distinction between increasing system capacity and expansion, wisely recommended that long-term planning proceed, and carved out certain essential expansions like the Green Line extension.  However, if businesses and developers lack confidence that Massachusetts will invest in public transportation, there is risk that they will focus on states that are creating 21st century infrastructure. It is clear that we need to not only fix the transportation system of the 1980s, but create a transportation system for 2030.

We thank the Governor for making public transit a top priority and look forward to a robust debate within the Administration, and within the legislature, on the panel’s recommendations.

Download the MBTA panel report here: http://www.mass.gov/governor/docs/news/mbta-panel-report-04-08-2015.pdf

Learn about Transportation for Massachusetts here: http://www.t4ma.org/

The Route to Growth

April 2, 2015


Yesterday, business leaders and local officials stood behind a new report called The Route to Growth showing that our state’s economic growth depends not only on reforming and modernizing the MBTA, but targeted expansion.

Here’s an example. Merrimack Valley Planning Commission Director Dennis DiZoglio highlighted a segment of the Haverhill commuter rail line where there is only one track, creating a bottleneck for trains. Building double tracks in that location will cost about $35 million, but will instantly double the capacity of the commuter rail line serving a large swath of the Merrimack Valley. That’s expansion, but it’s also a smart investment that leverages our existing system better.

Another recent example: Building a new Orange Line station at Assembly Square cost the state about $29 million but is leveraging private investment of more than a billion dollars and creation of thousands of jobs. That’s smart expansion.

Similarly, the Green Line extension will drive new investment to under-served areas and bring tens of thousands of residents within walking distance of rail. Expansion of South Station seems like another expensive Boston project, until you realize that it is needed to improve rail service throughout New England. There is simply no place to put the trains that need to run through Boston.

More controversially, South Coast Rail is a $2 billion proposed expansion project. Expensive, yes, but it will help connect an entire region of our state to the global economy. Is it worth it? The residents and leaders of Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton, and surrounding communities think so.

Perhaps the bigger question is: why do we spend less than 4% of our state budget on transportation ($1.6 billion out of a total $41.4 billion), when it is so key to jobs, housing, the environment, and quality of life?


Read the Report:  The Route to Growth

Placemaking Project: ReImagine A Lot, Salem

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance recognizes placemaking initiatives across the Commonwealth. This project is one of many that were featured at our 2013 conference. See other placemaking examples

The “ReImagine A Lot” dynamic participation project seeks to engage residents to imagine what an abandoned lot could be. The project consists of two parts that reinforce each other: a physical component that provides the space for civic-social events; in turn, these social events provide the workforce to create and maintain the physical component. Over the course of eight weeks, various stakeholders helped build a mural, a community bulletin board, and a suggestion board. The civic-cultural events included: the Point Neighborhood Association meeting in the open air, Recycling Presentation and Games and Community Barbecue with local band The Dejas. The project collected community supported suggestions for the permanent transformation of the space.

Contact: Claudia Paraschiv, Salem Public Space Project, salempublicspaceproject@gmail.com

Sprawl Research: Smart Growth Makes Us Healthier and Wealthier

Yesterday, our friends at Smart Growth America released a report called Measuring Sprawl 2014 that ranks the most sprawling and most compact areas of the country.

Here are a few of the most interesting findings:

People in compact, connected areas have longer, healthier, safer lives. Life expectancy is greater in compact, connected areas, and driving rates (and their associated risk of a fatal collision), body mass index, air quality and violent crime all contribute to this difference.

People in compact, connected areas have greater upward economic mobility than their peers in sprawling areas. That is, a child born in the bottom 20% of the income scale has a better chance of rising to the top 20% of the income scale by age 30.

People in compact, connected metro areas spend less on the combined expenses of housing and transportation. Housing costs are higher in compact, connected areas, but these higher costs are more than offset by lower transportation costs. People in compact, connected metro areas also have more transportation options. People in these areas tend to walk more, take transit more, own fewer cars and spend less time driving than their peers in sprawling areas.

This is why the Alliance tackles difficult issues like zoning, which is the blueprint for either livability or sprawl in our cities and towns. And brownfields, so we can grow from within our communities rather than sprawl outward. (Take a moment and a few clicks to help us win.)

One more note. If you look at the data, you’ll notice some strange things, like:

  • Why is Washington, DC ranked 91st while Miami is 8th and Detroit 12th? And
  • Where the heck is Boston and Massachusetts? (You won’t find them!)

You’ll have to wait till tomorrow to get the answers to those questions. It will make sense. Trust me.

Andre Leroux
Executive Director, MA Smart Growth Alliance

Placemaking Project: Cambridge Parking Day

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance recognizes placemaking initiatives across the Commonwealth. This project is one of many that were featured at our 2013 conference. See other placemaking examples

PARK(ing) Day aims to encourage the creative re-use of parking spaces in an attempt to demonstrate just how much space cars take up, and what could be programmed in their place. In Cambridge, PARK(ing) Day began in 2010 as the takeover of one parking space. In 2012 we took over 16 spots and created such diverse programming as bicycle-powered spin art and mini city-building. In 2013 we decided to up the ante, and worked with 20 entities to take over 36 parking spots. We created a mini-golf course, a micro-model house, outdoor yoga classrooms, Corn Hole courts, voter registration booths, and much more. Building community was the name of the game, and the game was won this year.

PARK(ing) Day is an annual international event where residents, artists and activists come together to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.

Contact: Jennifer Lawrence, City of Cambridge, jlawrence@cambridgema.gov

Placemaking Project: City of Boston Parklet Program

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance recognizes placemaking initiatives across the Commonwealth. This project is one of many that were featured at our 2013 conference. See other placemaking examples

On September 12, 2013, local businesses and residents attended a ribbon-cutting of Boston’s newest Parklet with Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin in Mission Hill. Boston’s Parklet pilot has started this fall in the Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods, and will be expanded to Allston and Fort Point this spring. The city’s newest outdoor spaces were enthusiastically received with its partners, Lily’s Pasta and Mikes Donuts on hand to dish out a smile and a pastry. Other attendees included Mission Hill Main Streets, fellow business owners, neighborhood students from the Mission Grammar School, the Mayor’s Office and representatives of city agencies. The pictured parklets have been designed, fabricated and installed by local firm, Kyle Zick Landscape Architecture, Inc.

Each of the new parklets has been developed and implemented based on suggestions garnered by neighborhood residents and business representatives through a public process and community meetings. Local businesses volunteered to become “parklet partners” and agreed to provide day-to-day maintenance of the space as well as to dismantle and store the structure during the off-season.

Contact: Rachel Szakmary, City of Boston, rachel.szakmary@cityofboston.gov

Placemaking Project: First Street Common Public Park, Pittsfield

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance recognizes placemaking initiatives across the Commonwealth. This project is one of many that were featured at our 2013 conference. See other placemaking examples

Located in the heart of the downtown Pittsfield – and within a designated Commonwealth Urban Center Growth District – the First Street Common public park is the largest and most critical open space/recreational park area in the center city. In addition to serving the surrounding neighborhood’s need for public open recreation space, this park also serves an important role as a downtown, community wide and regional park and public gathering area. Numerous and varied public events are held at this park each year ranging from outdoor movies, youth bike races, art shows, concerts and festivals, all accessible by public bus transit. The City has long desired to make substantial improvements to the park and to create a stronger connection to the downtown residential and commercial community and the surrounding neighborhood. In 2010, the City received Gateway Cities Park Program funding support to begin a master planning process for a significant, multi-year park rehabilitation project. Following numerous public input sessions and focused stakeholder meetings, the VHB designed master plan was endorsed by the Park Commission. The Phase 1 improvements were completed in the summer of 2011 and included new paved pathways, lighting, children’s playground area, and a promenade with ample seating and new lighting along First Street. Phase 2 improvements will be completed in November 2013. It is the desire of the City to continue the momentum toward full build-out of the phased, fully ADA accessible master plan.

Contact: James McGrath, Community Development Department, City of Pittsfield, jmcgrath@pittsfieldch.com

Placemaking Project: Greenway Carousel, Rose Kennedy Greenway, Boston

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance recognizes placemaking initiatives across the Commonwealth. This project is one of many that were featured at our 2013 conference. See other placemaking examples

On Labor Day weekend, after three years of planning, design, fabrication and installation, the one-of-a-kind Greenway Carousel opened to the public. This project combines vibrant horticulture, seating, shade and other site amenities with a playful and dynamic attraction and has transformed an underutilized plaza and ancillary open space into a hub of activity. The carousel includes 14 different animals native to the land, sea, and air of Massachusetts, all of which were inspired by the imaginations and drawings of Boston public school children. These characters were brought to life by Massachusetts based sculptor Jeff Briggs and now appear to prance, swoosh and splash as they rotate round in their fanciful poses to the delight of children and adults.

The carousel is set in a landscape designed in partnership with Reed Hilderbrand Associates to provide an enveloping and inviting environment, buffered from the noise and visual distractions of street activities.

The signature element of the landscape design is a grove of urban-hearty trees – a site treatment used widely in carousel parks throughout Europe. In addition, the Carousel will be surrounded by a robust garden perimeter, new circulation paths, family friendly chairs, tables and shade umbrellas, bike racks, foodvending, and a granite wall with Mahogany inlayed seating.

Contact: Laura Jasinski, Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, ljasinski@rfkgc.org

Job posting: Outreach Director

Transportation for Massachusetts and Transportation for America are seeking an experienced Outreach Director to develop support for better transportation from Massachusetts-based businesses, institutions, community-based organizations and elected officials. The Outreach Director will work with the national field team at Transportation for America and the state coalition, Transportation for Massachusetts. Additional background available at t4america.org and t4ma.org.

Position Responsibilities

  • Develop and enhance relationships with employers, business associations, medical and educational institutions, and municipal leaders throughout the state, and work with these potential allies on shared federal and state policy goals for both T4A and T4MA.
  • Coordinate the outreach efforts of Transportation for Massachusetts coalition members. Understand the strategies and work of our 35 member groups, develop synergies between members’ work, and coordinate joint action and mobilization of grassroots and grasstops supporters.
  • Serve as the local voice and spokesperson for Transportation for America and serve as the local lead for releases of T4A reports.
  • Manage a project to develop constituencies for improving regional transit in selected Gateway Cities.


Core skills and qualifications:

  • Excellent interpersonal skills
  • Self-motivated, organized, excellent follow-through
  • Strong relationships with businesses, institutions and municipal leaders
  • Experience working in coalition

Other desired skills:

  • Superior writing skills for earned media
  • Understanding of transportation, climate and social equity issues
  • Social media communications skills

Compensation: Salary is competitive and commensurate with experience. Flexible work arrangement possible.

To Apply: Send resume and cover letter to: kegan@t4ma.org and daniel.levine@t4america.org with the subject line: Job Application. Applications are due by September 13, 2013.

Equal Opportunity Employer: Transportation for America and Transportation for Massachusetts are equal opportunity employers and we welcome diversity among our staff and membership.

Roxbury: Grove Hall community meets Monday to discuss neighborhood pedestrian and transportation issues

Join the Roxbury Great Neighborhoods Coalition for a Grove Hall Community Meeting to discuss safety and complete streets.

The meeting will be held on Monday, May 20, 5:30-8:30 p.m., at the Saint Katharine Drexel Parish, 517 Blue Hill Avenue [Map].

Sign up on EventBrite. Free and open to the public. There will be dinner from Merengue!

Hosted by the Roxbury Great Neighborhoods Coalition and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Funded through the Great Neighborhoods program of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

Saving time and money: Zoning Reform

hearingHaving reformed transportation agencies and health care, the Legislature is now primed to reform our state’s land use laws that govern planning and development.

A broad coalition of smart growth, public health, housing, environmental, and municipal advocates have come together behind a proposal that will save towns and developers time and money by reducing court fights and streamlining development in sensible locations while making it easier to preserve our local landscapes.

“We need more great places in Massachusetts,” says Andre Leroux, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. “Right now, most of the wonderful historic neighborhoods in Massachusetts couldn’t be built today because of local regulations that are choking growth and encouraging cookie-cutter McMansions. This needs to change.”

Sponsored by Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington) and Sen. Dan Wolf, House Bill 1859 attracted 58 legislators—one third of the Legislature—to sign on to submit the proposal.

Nearly one hundred supporters rallied and testified before the Municipalities Committee yesterday representing dozens of organizations ranging from the Environmental League of Massachusetts to the Massachusetts Public Health Association to the Cape Cod Business Roundtable.

“Zoning reform isn’t sexy, but it’s what we need to bring housing and jobs to the cities and towns in Massachusetts,” said Sen. Harriette Chandler. “We’re going to get it done this session.”

At the May 14 hearing, there were more than three solid hours of testimony in favor of the bill, and two speakers opposed.

Along with the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, the zoning reform coalition includes:

  • American Planning Association, Massachusetts Chapter
  • Association to Preserve Cape Cod
  • Boston Society of Architects
  • City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association
  • Cape Cod Business Roundtable
  • Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association
  • Charles River Watershed Association
  • Conservation Law Foundation
  • Environmental League of Massachusetts
  • Mass Audubon
  • Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations
  • Massachusetts Association of Consulting Planners
  • Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors
  • Massachusetts Public Health Association
  • Metropolitan Area Planning CouncilPioneer Valley Planning Commission
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • The Trustees of Reservations

Register soon for the state’s 2013 Planning and Community Development Conference: May 7 at Devens

The state agency that oversees housing and economic development is inviting local elected officials, planners, community and economic development professionals, and developers (both non-profit and for-profit) to attend a one-day conference designed to help communities align their planning, development, and housing production activities with the Commonwealth’s Choose Growth policies and sustainable development principles.

The conference runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, May 7, at Deven Common Center in Devens, Mass. For details, visit the conference website.

Attendees will learn about local and regional activities currently underway that assure Massachusetts continues progressing toward a healthy economy, a diverse supply of housing, and a vibrant quality of life. The conference will feature two concurrent workshop sessions. Workshops in the first session include:

  • Zoning for Multi-Family Housing: Understanding Housing Needs and State Tools for Production
  • Creative Use of Assets to Support Revitalization
  • Getting the Development You Want: Reaching Revitalization Goals in Different Markets

Workshops in the second session:

  • Zoning for Multi-Family Housing: Using Innovative Zoning Tools to Support Housing Production and Sustainable Development
  • Business Improvement Districts: A Revitalization Tool for a Sustainable Downtown
  • Keeping Your Eye on the Ball: Revitalization Over the Long Term

Detailed workshop descriptions are online.

Opening remarks will be offered by Lt. Governor Timothy P. Murray & Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Gregory Bialecki. Registration is $45 and closes 5 days before the event.

A doctor’s view on transportation

Why Smart Transportation Matters: Reflections from the Front Lines of Community Health

By Dr. John Raser

I’m a family doctor in Lawrence. Like my colleagues around this country, I spend much of my effort caring for people with obesity-related chronic illnesses: type-2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease. Partnering with patients to control these disorders is important and rewarding work, and I feel fortunate to be able to help. Yet I can’t shake the frustration of knowing all the pain, the disability, and the costs to individuals and to our economy related to these illnesses are almost entirely preventable.

Why don’t my patients lose the weight? Why don’t they get the hour of physical activity they need every day? After all, there is great evidence that exercise combats and/or prevents diseases ranging from diabetes and heart disease to dementia and many cancers. Is there something wrong with my patients? Is there something wrong with all of us? The truth is that it’s extremely difficult in our modern world to achieve a level of physical activity that is a basic prerequisite for health. I get tired of urging children to bike to school when traffic travels at dangerous speeds and there are literally zero bicycle lanes. It feels bad to urge a family to walk to the park or the supermarket when dangerously wide intersections, congested parking lots, and busy highways stand between them and these basic daily activities.

So what would a Massachusetts look like where it was easy to be active and healthy? Fancy gyms and programs cannot and should not be the answer for everybody. Most of us are too busy working, raising children, and simply living to go to the gym every day. In a healthy community, physical activity would not be something we do, but how we live our lives. Perhaps the biggest key to this shift is a profound change in our transportation system. It’s no coincidence that the average American spends 46 minutes commuting to work and falls 40 minutes short of reaching that vital hour of physical activity.

The Legislature has taken an important first step to address the operating deficits that our state has been running, but we need to recognize the importance of transportation infrastructure in shaping all of our lives. The status quo just isn’t good enough as we deal with an epidemic of obesity.

We need increased funding to support walking and biking, as well as investments in public transportation – all of which will increase physical activity and decrease disease burden in our communities. In Lawrence, where a third of us are under 18 and a great majority doesn’t own a car, this shift in investment just seems fairer. In a city whose great resources are historic buildings and a vibrant immigrant community, this shift in investment is also key to our economic future.

Finding more revenue for transportation isn’t easy, and people are understandably reluctant to increase public budgets. However, making these investments now is a good bet. Not only will they create local jobs in the near future, but they will save millions in health care costs for the Merrimack Valley families in the long-term.

I hope you will join me in asking the Legislature to imagine our communities as healthier and more active places-ones that entice you to walk down the street.

John Raser is a doctor at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. He is also sits on the Lawrence Board of Health and the Groundwork Lawrence Advisory Council.

When $1 billion is the right price

signState legislators are trying to figure out how much we need to raise in new revenue to fix our transportation system. Like most of the public, many of them are confused by the numbers being thrown around and by what we’ll get at the end of the day.

While the numbers continue to get refined, here is what it looks like in broad, simple strokes:

  • Every year, MassDOT borrows about $250 million to pay for staff salaries. This practice must stop immediately and will cost $250 million to fix. Doing this will save taxpayers a lot of money in the long run—we shouldn’t pay interest on salaries, it needs to be covered by the annual operating budget.
  • The MBTA’s annual deficit is projected to rise from $115 million this year to about $400 million over the next four years because its funding from the sales tax has never lived up to projections. It will cost about $250 million per year to fix this problem.

That gives us a rather depressing starting point of $500 million per year needed just to correct the mistakes of the past. However, fixing these problems will reduce the debt and will free up funds to do some exciting things.

An additional $500 million per year in revenue will:

  1. Fix our roads and bridges. They are old and take a beating from the winter every year. We need to do more maintenance and re-paving than most of the country, but we’re near the bottom of the barrel in terms of transportation spending—45th out of 50 states.
  2. Make public transportation a viable option statewide, not just around Boston. The Regional Transit Authorities will be able to increase service significantly around regional centers.
  3. Buy new Orange, Red, and Green Line cars for the MBTA, which will allow more trains to run and accommodate more passengers comfortably. Fixing the signalization and modernizing the system will increase its capacity and make it work on time.
  4. Fix the commuter rail lines to avoid delays, increase service, and keep fares reasonable.
  5. Triple the amount of walking and biking we do in this state. Almost every city and town has villages, town centers, or urban squares that could become great places if they were more pleasant for walking and biking. This increases property values, improves public health, and attracts businesses. We will be able to create a true statewide network of bike paths and walking trails.
  6. Connect our state better with strategic investments, and especially rail and bus connections that will enable us to grow without choking our roads. The costs of owning a car are increasing, and having viable options will save money in the long run.

Back in 2007, the nonpartisan Transportation Financing Commission said that the state needed between $15 and $19 billion over 20 years just to maintain our existing infrastructure without enhancements or expansions. Without definitive action this year, the price tag may soon balloon to $26 billion needed by 2030.

Let’s face it. We’re going to need to fix transportation sometime. Let’s do it now so that it saves us from even more expensive problems, and let’s do it right.

Please call your legislator.

And take a moment to email your legislator.

For more details about the financing issues, please see the Maxed Out report and this testimony to the Joint Committee on Transportation.