Upon reflection it seems important to elaborate on my last post on Beacon Hill. First of all, my post was mainly about the proposed 30-unit development on the currently vacant station block. I think the proposal is fine, although I worry that it locks up a key piece of property with less intense development than might be possible if the whole block were developed at the same time. What drew the most comments, however, was the question of whether Beacon Hill, as a neighborhood, supports density. It sounds familiar, especially when we remember the ongoing debate about Roosevelt.
In general my rule of thumb with these things is to “never complain and never explain.” But when I wrote about the “vigorous opposition” in the neighborhood to upzones, I was speaking about the balance of some 16 years since neighborhood planning began there. And while there have been many positive statements on the record by neighborhood planners there has been opposition. One effort was made to appeal the revisions to the neighborhood plan by one group of neighbors. Knowing Beacon Hill as I do, I would guess that those neighbors weren’t completely alone in their views.
That fact is that there has not been, on balance, huge consensus around or for increased density around Beacon Hill’s transit station. That’s why more than two years after the opening of light rail, and 12 years after the completion of neighborhood planning there is still a vacant lot around the transit station and a parking lot across the street at the Red Apple. While I appreciate language like this in the neighborhood’s latest proposal for changes in land use, it isn’t a stretch to have a “believe it when I see it” attitude:
Participants also recognized that the existing town center is generally underdeveloped under current zoning and does not reflect the desired future character of a more vibrant and diverse mix of shops, restaurants and housing.
More after the jump.
The attitude has changed about density compared to what it was when I was a neighborhood planner there in the 90s. The term “underdeveloped” and “Beacon Hill” would never have been uttered in a consensus document 12 years ago. But the same paragraph acknowledges what I have also said about the rezones.
The close proximity of single family and low- density multifamily areas means that there are limited opportunities for higher density development in the station area. Below are the most key goals, policies and strategies relevant to the rezone proposal.
That limit is a self imposed one. And in spite of the change in the valance of neighborhood opinion, suggesting that adjacent single-family homes limits opportunity only makes my point that very often those adjacent areas are essentially off limits, which limits density. Not only that, the proposal makes allowances to “buffer” those areas by creating transition zones between them and mixed-use commercial development. It calls for
A Town Center urban form that transitions from denser development at the Town Center core to less dense and single-family residential neighborhoods in a manner that is responsive to the context and character of the North Beacon Hill neighborhood.
The proposal itself admits that it “provides for a modest increase in new, slightly more intensive neighborhood commercial and multifamily structures.” That’s the proposals language: modest and slightly more intensive. These are not big changes, and as in Roosevelt, some of the neighborhood planners have been offended by the idea that they don’t support density. I think the defensiveness is understandable, especially when reaching consensus on these things isn’t easy. But I think we have more work to do when that consensus is limited by a conceptual framework that sees density, which is essentially more people, as something that has to be mitigated (“taken” in the words of Roosevelt), rather than embraced with a big hug.
Beacon Hill seems much more progressive on land use than it was. The plan even upzones one area of single-family to L3, an idea I would expand to lots more single-family around the station. I actually think the plan is a big improvement, but it could go much further. From the outside looking in, I still don’t think it’s enough. The changes are incremental and not bold.
I understand that the neighborhood worked hard on this and that it does represent a willingness to increase height on some parcels around the station. Those things are true and I respect the work that neighbors did. But just like the work done in Roosevelt, hard work doesn’t mean that a plan or proposal shouldn’t get a grade less than A. Contrary to what one commenter suggested, this plan hasn’t been approved yet. There is still a chance to do more and the planners, and others of us outside the neighborhood, ought to roll up our sleeves and push for even more density in a wider circle around the station. That would be more hard work, but it would also be a tremendous act of leadership that would show other neighborhoods how to make density around transit work.