What’s the Value of City Master Planning?

A Conversation about the Imagine Boston 2030 Master Plan — and the Top Issues Facing Cities Today

November 7, 2017

Architect / Urban Designer, NBBJ

Amidst a thriving economy and growing population, the City of Boston released its much-anticipated “Imagine Boston 2030” plan. Now that a broad range of perspectives and recommendations have emerged from the plan’s extensive public engagement, a discussion about the specific priorities identified, and how to marshal these to action, has begun — a discussion that mirrors those taking place in cities across the country.

On October 25, 2017, NBBJ hosted an informative debate about Imagine Boston 2030, along with:

Following are excerpts from that discussion. From healthcare and academia to commercial development and government, these experts highlighted the merits of the master plan — as well as the work that remains for us all.

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0041What is the value of Imagine Boston 2030 — or any master plan?

Dante Ramos:
“When we think of a master plan for a city, we sometimes think of zoning maps that say ‘this area will be 100 feet tall, and these uses will be allowed in this area.’ That’s not really what Imagine Boston 2030 is. This plan expresses more of an attitude toward growth, rather than decreeing precisely where it’s going to go. It describes a certain urban core and gradual improvements in quality of life, as well as enhancements in density and a move towards mixed uses.”

Joel Sklar:
“From our perspective, the master planning priorities outlined in documents like the 2030 plan are about what kind of neighborhood, what kind of vision do we collectively want to build together. Then we focus on the nuts and bolts of master planning: what should the streets look like, what should the sidewalks look like, what’s the mix of uses and what’s the density? From our perspective, those master plans have to take place at the local, community level. I think a broader visioning document like the 2030 plan is an appropriate context within which to really dig in at the neighborhood level to envision what happens.”

Valerie Roberson:
“To me, the value of a plan is the opportunity for people to discuss the data and what the data means. For Roxbury, it was a way to tap into industries outside of education. It allows us to respond in a way that’s appropriate for the students and the community that surrounds us — it certainly helps us to organize our plan within the larger plan for the city.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0023How has technology changed the way cities work?

Valerie Roberson:
“At Roxbury, partly because of the solar canopies we built, people started talking to us about smart building technology. We did the research, and there are not a lot of programs across the United States that talk about who’s going to run these smart buildings. We’ve made them high-energy-efficiency, but we are not training people to run them and not realizing the savings. So we’re building this program for the people who are going to run our smart buildings, to give them an opportunity to really contribute to the economy.”

Joel Sklar:
“One of the most impactful technology-related trends, not just in Boston but around the world, is Uber. It’s filling gaps in urban transit systems like Boston’s. We’ve gone from having to provide about 70 percent of our residential units with parking spaces to now somewhere around 30 percent. We were building large shopping destinations like Target woven into the fabric of the city, and we had to provide significant amounts of parking that are just not being used.”

Alex Krieger:
“I agree, although in the interim period there will be more congestion rather than less. Our cars, Uber cars and driverless vehicles will all be competing for space. Every transportation enhancement in history has made people want to move more and take more trips. The other half that will become important over time is ‘stuff coming to us,’ rather than ‘us going after stuff’ — whether jobs or meals or so forth. Hopefully that will lead to an ultimate reduction in the need to travel.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0075If technology is transforming mobility, what role will transit play in the future?

Tom Glynn:
“More people access Logan Airport via high-occupancy vehicles than at any other airport in the country, about 40 percent, mainly because of the Blue Line and the Silver Line. So we are very dependent on a successful transit system, both for our employees and our passengers. 17,000 people work at the airport, and most are probably coming in on the Blue Line or the Silver Line. And when I worked at Partners Healthcare, 40 percent of Massachusetts General Hospital employees took the Red Line to work. I think we sometimes underestimate how important transit is for the functioning of our major institutions — the airport and MGH being two good examples.”

Valerie Roberson:
“I’m from Chicago, and this is just my opinion, but a lot of the problems in Chicago are directly because of the lack of economic mobility caused by people not having equal access to transportation. Without that access, they have to create their own economies, and that erupts into all kinds of social ills. So I don’t think there’s too much emphasis you can put on a plan to make sure that cities ensure access to all populations. That’s an integral part of what we have to do as a city, to keep each other safe and to keep opportunity there for all citizens.”

Tom Glynn:
“When I was at the T, from 1989 to 1991, I had half the number of passengers and a thousand more employees. I think they’re doing a good job with the situation in which they find themselves, because we keep expanding the system, but the revenue base hasn’t kept pace with the expansion. I’m optimistic, but I think they have a lot of catching up to do.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0070What are the challenges to building affordable housing?

Joel Sklar:
“There’s been a pronounced and steady decline in resources available for the creation of affordable housing. An incredible amount of funding comes from the federal government, whether in the form of community block grants, low-income housing tax credits, Section 8, or HUD programs. They all trickle through the states and down to nonprofits and public housing authorities. Today there’s a goal of creating 53,000 housing units to keep up with demand in this market, but resources aren’t coming from the federal government. So there’s been a focus on harnessing the internal subsidy of a for-profit, market-rate apartment building, to build 13 or 15 percent of the units as affordable, but all the juice has been wrung out of those private deals throughout the last 10 or 15 years.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0097How can cities finance what they need?

Alex Krieger:
“If there’s no funding available from the feds, some other model has to emerge. There must be some way to gather resources from prominent institutions and developers for a broader goal, beyond the immediate benefit they provide on their own property.”

Joel Sklar:
“I would say, why are you asking developers and local institutions to finance it? Over the last ten years, the cost to build a high-rise apartment building has increased 60 to 70 percent, and the returns correspondingly have decreased dramatically. Already, projects are not going forward. We’re at such an inflection point that I don’t see that being a viable way to finance infrastructure. We won’t even say the word anymore, but why not think about taxation? Everybody benefits from overall infrastructure, beyond real estate developers and property owners.”

Alex Krieger:
“As a taxpayer, if I don’t see the major investors, developers, institutions — public and private — doing what they can towards a larger goal, then I’m going to resist my taxes going up. Maybe, just for image reasons, a coalition could make an initial contribution in hope to change the tax laws, or inspire venture capital, or whatever. There’s a sense from the population at large that we have to bear the cost, but others, that seem able to bear more, never rise to the level of the broad public good.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0948Is the future regional?

Alex Krieger:
“Some form of regional planning needs to emerge, because many of the issues that we complain about are not going to be solved within the municipal boundaries. Boston led the way to regional planning, when a bunch of Brahmins in the 1890s bought a bunch of land and became the Trustees’ Reservation, which eventually became the MDC, which controlled the parkways and waterways. So there are moments in American history when regionalism seemed to rise, but not enough of it is happening. More of it should. How? I don’t know.”

Joel Sklar:
“The notion that housing needs to be resolved in core neighborhoods is difficult. The cost to build a high-rise in Boston is $650 to $700 or more per square foot. A little further out, but still in Boston, a low-rise podium with stick-built housing is maybe $450 to $500 per square foot. Take that same project and move it to Somerville, or further along the rail corridors, and it’s $350 dollars per square foot. So there are inherent options in regionalization that we can’t, no matter how well we plan, address just within the core of Boston. Transit is obviously another issue that can’t be solved without a regional approach. Regional planning is critical.”

 

Banner image courtesy of PixabayAll other images courtesy of NBBJ.

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