Before a new drug is released to the public, it must undergo a series of trials, first on animals in the laboratory, then on a small group of humans in a clinical trial. Often there is even another larger-scale human trial. Only if the drug’s benefits clearly outweigh its harmful side effects is it made available to the public. It is unfortunate that a similar process is not followed with large-scale development projects, say, for example, the one on Austin Street.
As we have all learned over the past year, many knowledgeable residents and business owners have argued that the proposed semi-enclosed parking lot, nominally still at street level, but in fact beneath and partially enclosed by an apartment building, and filled with support posts, will make parking more challenging, particularly in light of the slightly narrowed width of the parking spaces. In addition, despite the labored arguments of the developers and their supporters, there will be fewer surface parking spaces than there were in the original Austin Street lot.
In an ideal world, before the project was fully approved, a clinical trial would have been set up by marking the outline of the proposed building on the parking lot, erecting a 12-foot-high plywood wall along Austin Street and a portion of Bram Way, with cutouts at the locations of the designated entrances and exits, and then columns made of Sonotube or PVC pipes of the correct diameter erected to simulate the posts that would support the apartment building. Residents would then have been given a couple of months to test how well the parking lot worked under these conditions. They could then have provided feedback to business owners and the City.
Of course, we do not live in an ideal world, so the reality is that for Newtonians the actual construction of the Austin Street project will be the clinical trial. Any harmful side effects will be experienced directly by the “patients.” The project is still 18 months or two years from completion, and only then, when the public begins to use the lot, will all of us, in particular the merchants of Newtonville, be able to tell whether the developers’ promises were true, namely, that both parking and commerce will be unaffected by the new configuration.
“Hey, pal, Austin Street is old news,” I can hear some of you saying. “That ship has sailed.” Sadly, you are correct. Meanwhile, though, Mr. Korff is still proceeding undeterred with his even denser and more problematic Orr Block proposal, for which he expects to receive approval long before Austin Street is complete. That threatens to further scramble traffic, parking, and business in Newtonville even as the Austin Street project is still under construction.
As if this were not bad enough, our Mayor and his growth-at-any-cost adjutants are pressing on the inhabitants of the village centers of Newton Highlands and Newton Centre projects of a similar nature that propose the erection of multi-story apartment buildings above the existing municipal parking lots.
“Insanity” is probably too strong a term for what is being contemplated, but “unjustified optimism” certainly is not. The Mayor and all other supporters of “smart growth” and “transit-oriented development” are betting that the future of the city will be enhanced by densification. Even if that bet pays off, the winners will be 1) the developers, whose profits will be handsome, 2) the Mayor, whose resumé as a pro-growth go-getter will be nicely enhanced, and 3) the residents of the new buildings, who will have had no share in the inconvenience, mess, and disruption created by the construction of these buildings. The losers, who will have had to bear both the hardships of construction and any infrastructure costs occasioned by the new inhabitants—think new schools—will, of course, be the current residents of Newton.
I do not think it is too much to ask that a halt be called—one hesitates to use the dread word “moratorium”—to all of these proposed projects until the Austin Street apartment building has been completed and in operation for a full year, so that businesses, residents, and the administration have had a chance to assess the results of the “clinical trial,” i.e. how well the new arrangement functions during every season. After all, we’ll be living with the “side effects” of these grand projects for the rest of our lives.