I chose the townhouse I live in, which lies more or less on the border between the monumental center of the downtown and the traditionally designed residential South End, because between the two of those neighborhoods I could maximize the opportunities to have a walkable lifestyle in my hometown. The proximity to downtown puts the symphony, the library, the museums, the post office, city hall, sporting events, a high school, a community college, and a few dozen bars and restaurants in walking distance, while the South End has public schools K-8, small Italian specialty shops, a florist, some (inadequate) grocery stores, cafés, a park, and the potential for what I’ll call “community retail”.
If the future of the South End isn’t determined by the enormous $800,000,000 MGM development, then it might be important to think about what, if anything, will fill in the gaps left by the June 6, 2011 tornado and 50 years of decline and decay. As Dr Phil would say, the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, and so a survey of what has been built since the 1970s could be informative. Doing so, what becomes clear is that the neighborhood, like it or not, foolish as it may be, is doing everything it can to become a car-oriented pseudo sprawl development. With the sole exception of one building (which was destroyed by the tornado and almost immediately rebuilt) everything built since the 70s has either inappropriate setbacks, lagoon surface parking, or both.
With this building in the planning stage:
On this site:
And this the one exception:
Beyond the pockets of inappropriate new development, every building which has fallen victim to the wrecking ball has been replaced by surface parking, even on Main Street, giving much of the street a scattered gap-toothed appearance.
The notion that things which occur incrementally, following market forces, will be chaotic but “smarter” assumes that the signals as they are being read by the marketplace are accurate. The zoning regulations in the South End allow for traditional design and there are enough existing buildings in the South End available for development at minimal cost that any developer choosing to do so could have “new urbanized” instead of sprawling. The signals being received by the market are that auto-oriented design is preferable to traditional walkable streets. The banks, the real estate speculators, and the entrepreneurs all see prioritizing cars as the safe bet, making the MGM plan,(even with its 4,800 space parking garage) in spite of its enormity and its top-down implementation, the smarter option if you want preserve a traditional walkable neighborhood.
If the Massachusetts Gaming Commission chooses a different option for western Massachusetts it seems clear that the South End will continue trading its birthright for surface parking.
Next: Is There Room for Success?