By Ellen Ishkanian
It’s time to put Washington Street on the “classic American road diet.”
That’s the remedy prescribed by internationally-renown planner Jeff Speck and a team of transportation and design experts, who were commissioned to think big and create a vision of what’s possible for Newton’s long-neglected Washington Street corridor.
What they came up with is a complete transformation of the roadway — from West Newton Square to Crafts Street — that aims to accomplish several goals. Those include vastly improving safety, reducing traffic, accommodating Newton’s growing housing and office needs, attracting new businesses and growing city tax revenues.
Speck shared the team’s vision in a 13-minute, animated film which debuted at the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber’s Real Estate Forum on Sept. 12, 2017.
The video depicts a thriving commercial and residential community along a three-lane road with wide tree-lined sidewalks, window shopping, outdoor cafes, new open space, landscaped center medians and protected bike lanes.
The work was commissioned by Mark Development, the firm behind the recently approved Washington Place to be built at the corner of Washington and Walnut streets. It was created in conjunction with the transportation consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard, which recently competed a comprehensive transportation study for the city. It was produced by Elkus/Manfredi Architects.
Noting that Washington Street has the city’s “highest crash rate,” Speck cited studies in other communities that promised safer conditions for drivers and pedestrians with less traffic tie-ups if the concepts depicted in the proposal were adopted.
“The Washington Street corridor is the part of Newton that feels most in need of improvement, and the place where growth can be expected to have the most positive impact on surrounding properties,” Speck began in his narration of the film. “In fact, it is a place where a new edge of modern density buildings might be appreciated for providing the neighborhoods beyond as a physical buffer against the speed and noise of the highway.”
While the Mass. Turnpike has long been thought of as the blight cutting the north side of Newton off and creating noise and traffic, the video notes that the Pike is not the only culprit. Equally problematic is the four-lane Washington Street with too many speeding cars trying to make left turns, unattractive surface parking lots, sidewalks broken-up by driveways and a piecemeal collection of commercial buildings that are too small to feature attractive storefronts.
By putting the road on a “diet” from four to three lanes (with a single center lane for all left turns), the eliminated lane would allow room for dedicated bike lanes that could be protected by a line of parked cars or run parallel with minimal interruptions between Washington Street and the Pike. In areas where there are no left turns, the center lane could become a green median with seasonal landscaping and trees.
Three lanes would reduce speeding and conflicts, but would not reduce road capacity, Speck said, as has been verified by studies of 23 other location where it’s been tried.
The team’s vision doesn’t stop with road improvements. It calls for moderate density zoning changes to fully reinvent Washington Street. Buildings along the street be allowed to be bigger, moving from a floor area ratio which is now averages around 0.6 to be pushed up to 1.5, or greater, dependent on specific site characteristics.
“New mixed-use multi-story buildings can front generous sidewalks with glassy store-fronts to encourage window shopping. Retail footprints can be larger to attract a good variety of tenants, parking can be located off rear alleys, below grade, or in nearby central parking lots, reducing the number of driveways and making the sidewalks safer,” he said.
And upper stories can be filled with a mix of offices and housing to bring more income to the owner, more tax revenue to the city and more housing and work opportunities for residents. More people living and working along Washington Street would be the catalyst needed to spur state funding for public transportation improvements.
“Newton’s continued success depends on compact, mixed-use development and increased walking, biking, and transit riding,” Speck concludes at the film’s end. “With a road ‘diet’ and future urban renewal, Washington Street can become a truly transit oriented corridor accommodating Newton’s housing and office needs while reducing traffic and building upon the city’s long history of high-quality, walkable villages.”