August 15th, 2011

Walden Woods, the DOC and affordable housing

I won't think worse of you if you feel compelled to hold your nose while reading this:


R. tells this story about Don Henley saving some part of Concord from a 40B development long ago. I tracked the details down and was mildly appalled by them -- only mildly, because for all that I roll my eyes at the worship of Walden (it's like people have completely forgotten the concessions that were there for decades), I do see some value in its preservation as a historic/nature site.

I am now more appalled. Even the people involved in saving Walden from DeNormandie's condos and offices realized there was a bit of a problem involved in putting preservation above affordable housing (42 units out of 139), and have made efforts in the succeeding decades (!) to come up with an alternate site. Well, dear readers, they have succeeded in coming up with a replacement. "It is a culmination of the Walden Woods Project’s commitment to affordable housing in Concord that dates back to 1990 when the organization acquired its first conservation site in historic Walden Woods." So instead of 42 units of affordable housing by Walden, nestled amongst market rate units, there will be slightly fewer units (probably), exclusively affordable housing, _on land transferred to the town by the department of corrections_.

Yes, dear readers, Concord is a place that will say, no, you _can't_ live in this nice place with richer neighbors, but 20 some odd years from now you might be able to live at the prison, but only with other people like yourself.

It's a nice prison. They have a farm. And it's not like the preservationists completely forgot the alternative moral issues involved in their project (<-- that counts for a lot. Not being sarcastic. It really does). And access to the Assabet is cool, and it really is pretty close to the train station and the bike path. It'll probably be a very pleasant place, and the schools are good.

Arena Farms

We drive past the former Arena Farms quite often. I believe R. thought that it was bought just before the crash and so development was placed on hold. With other development thawing out, I figured I'd track down this deal. It was _not_ what I recollected from R., but perhaps I misunderstood.

The previous owners had a fire and some bad seasons and were looking at foreclosure. Various ideas were floated including affordable housing or a town farm (don't laugh; we spend a ridiculous amount of time at Great Brook Farm feeding the goats pellets and the kids ice cream), but Concord Academy bought it to make playing fields and tennis courts. They say they might share with town leagues; it'll be interesting to see whether that makes people like them or just leads to disagreeableness. You never know when it comes to field time.

Affordable Housing Generates Odd Quotes

Ignoring the "housing summit" idea (uh, there's a master plan, and a process associated with that already), Terra Friedrichs is very committed to the idea that we have enough housing in town, and enough of the right kinds of housing, including affordable housing. So we don't need more. We just need to count it up differently. Altho I do sort of wonder what that "units are not going to the population that needs it" means. Since she spends a lot of time talking about ownership contribution to affordable housing, is she proposing we move people out of houses they've been in since 1960 or 1970 or so, so that other people can move into those affordable units? I'm not sure that makes sense, especially given that at least sometimes when those change hands they get torn down and turned into more not-affordable housing.

"Friedrichs believes Acton should look at what housing is available, saying that there is enough affordable housing in town, but units are not going to the population that needs it. “The number one problem in Acton is development,” she said. “It all goes back to development. And people keep voting for people who want more development. I am not anti-development. I am anti-bad development. Adding units does not serve people.”"

I've read that paragraph probably a dozen times now, and I _love_ its complete and utter paradox, altho I really want to point out that just _saying_ you aren't against something does not really counteract all of your other, neighboring statements that you don't like that thing.

I do not in any way understand the way 40B works with for-sale housing units. What I do know is that anyone who thinks town government can afford to buy market rate houses in this town and sell them for below market rate in a way that would make it affordable to 80% of median income people, making up the difference with property taxes, has probably both drastically underestimated the amount of money required to do that with even a single house, and drastically overestimated the interest of homeowners in town to contribute significantly to the purchase of someone else's home.

Sometimes I just feel like pointing out to people that affordability and density go hand in hand for a whole bunch of reasons, virtually none of which are negotiable in a high transport cost world. But-we-don't-want-more-people-here, backed up by home rule, isn't much of a counter argument.

Teardowns, mostly Weston

Massive tilt to the article, which is hugely conservative (in the, "don't change things" sense, not in the Conservative Movement sense). This is someone reposting coverage of themselves, and I don't blame him. While the author of the piece is horrified by what Michael Palmer does, the author presents a detailed sense of how he does it. It is interesting to learn that there are people specializing in the "local knowledge" component. I'm used to looking for certain partners in a Big Development Deal (300 unit multi family + retail + etc. type thing): local developer to drive the regulatory process, national developer (often out of Texas, but not always) who is accustomed to doing the actual building, financing partner for the money, management partner, marketing partner. Some of the tasks overlap, obviously, and sometimes things are done sequentially rather than cooperatively and occasionally you get weird things like the railroad yard owner's participation in the big Cambridge project (notice I'm not naming names here -- that railroad is litigious and I don't feel like having them parachute into my blog and make trouble for me). I'm _not_ used to the idea of a "scout", but I'm betting there are more of these kinds of consultants/matchmakers.

The article captures several True Facts about teardown locations: once you get one or two in a neighborhood, you tend to get a cluster. The people selling teardowns are often philosophical about it, despite having lived in the place for decades. The real damage to the neighborhood isn't actually the built environment but the culture clash between the previous group of homeowners (from an older age cohort with a different style of doing things) and the new group of homeowners. The article obviously highlights the differences and it is not really possible to tell how accurate this is (that is, are all the new homeowners disconnected from all the older homeowners, or is it cohort driven or is it more complex or what). Oh, and here's another observation: "But as one gets closer to metropolitan Boston, says Palmer, his experience over the past 25 years is that the laws of supply and demand have in large part retained control, especially in communities that are a short commute to Boston with good public schools, a low crime rate, a high-end commercial and recreational infrastructure, and convenient transportation options."

If you fight through the politics, you can learn from this kind of detailed coverage.