Rick Dimino, A Better City President & CEO, opened the April 28th meeting of A Better City’s Land Use and Development Advisory Committee with a discussion of return to the workplace. He referred to recent Boston Globe articles and surveys, including an August survey of 4,200 commuters prepared by the A Better City TMA that reviewed current remote work activity and opinions of commuters about the modes of travel employees intend to use upon returning to the workplace. A Better City has been concerned about the capacity of transit as larger numbers of people return to the workplace.
There was lively discussion about the issue of returning to the workplace, but consensus emerged around several points:
Rick Dimino then turned the discussion to the recent judicial decision that ruled the Municipal Harbor Plans prepared under Chapter 91 need to be signed by head of the Department of Environmental Protection rather than by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs as has been the customary practice.
The group discussed several remedies that have been suggested, including administrative actions and legislative fixes. According to the Conservation Law Foundation, a fundamental difference is that decisions by DEP are appealable, whereas decisions by the Secretary are not appealable. The reasoning goes back to the spirit of Chapter 91.
Tom Nally then focused on public realm issues. He referred committee members to the February 2021 report prepared by Project Manager Michelle Moon entitled Tactical Public Realm Case Studies available on A Better City’s website. The report describes projects supported by a Barr Foundation grant for a parklet in Jamaica Plain, a plaza in Roslindale, and outdoor seating in East Boston, as well as City of Boston sponsored pop up plazas implemented in the summer of 2019. Two take aways from these cases were: 1) that the budgets for projects such as these have a high ratio of soft costs to hard costs due to resources required for design and management to implement the projects, and 2) that involvement of local stakeholders is important to ensure success for these public realm projects.
Related to the pandemic, Tom Nally also focused on the transition of public realm activities in Boston from 2020 to 2021. In March 2020, we all changed our behavior to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic cases, and by the summer, using proper precautions, it was safe to travel to upstate New York and engage in outdoor dining in Massachusetts because the number of cases had declined. By the holidays late in the year, with more travel and more “COVID fatigue,” the number of cases was on the rise. As vaccines became available and as the spike in cases began to decline early this year, restrictions began to be lifted until early May when outdoor mask mandates are being relaxed in most of Massachusetts and more opportunities and venues are open. The sought after herd immunity still eludes us and many restrictions remain in place.
Tom Nally briefly reviewed the evolution of measures taken for the public realm beginning with the May 2020 Healthy Streets Initiative of the City of Boston: outdoor dining which City officials say is “here to stay”, additional bike lanes, bus lanes such as the new center bus lanes on Columbus Avenue in Roxbury, and the neighborhood Slow Streets to make the streets safer with measures designed to encourage a 20 mile per hour speed limit. All of these initiatives will continue to expand in 2021 no matter what happens with the pandemic. A question was raised about the expanded outdoor dining and pedestrian space now in use, and what will it look like when traffic returns to the street.
On some formerly busy streets like State Street where vehicle lanes have been reduced to create bike lanes, loading zones, and pedestrian space, there is concern about congestion when traffic returns. Tom Nally said that care needs to be taken when changing capacity on busy streets, but there are some streets, such as Birch Street in Roslindale, that are not critical parts of the circulation network that can be turned over to pedestrians.
Tom Nally said that it was fortuitous that the City had adopted guidelines and models for use of the outdoor public realm so we were ready to go when the pandemic struck. Rick Dimino added that programming of these public realm additions is critical to taking advantage of the spaces.
Finally, Tom Nally pointed to the effort by A Better City to develop new vision statements by the Equity and the Built Environment Working Group, as well as a list of focus areas for the Land Use and Development Cluster. Kate Dineen added that the Equity Working Group will reconvene regularly to work on next steps to implement the visions. Tom Nally also reviewed a list of topics suggested for the Advisory Committee meeting scheduled quarterly for the remainder of the year.
Rick Dimino thanked everyone for participating in the meeting.