Could “Smart Growth” guide Malden’s development?

What is the right amount of multi-family housing units for Malden?  A view of Malden Towers, taken from Washington Street. (Photos by Ron Cox)

By the staff of Neighborhood View

The second in a series exploring the future of  development in Malden. See part one here.  

Today we have  many “trigger” words to avoid in certain places, and apparently the word “growth” is one of them at Malden City Council meetings.

That’s according to councilor Steve Winslow, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. The use of the word “growth” has been contentious in Malden ever since a November 2015 vote to approve a one-year moratorium on multi-family development of  more than 5 units outside the Central Business District. I January  2017, the city council extended the moratorium through the end of June to allow for additional study and expanded it to include the Central Business District. 

Yet, a growing cadre of Malden residents is  pushing for  the city  to consider an approach  called “Smart Growth” and Winslow counts himself among its proponents. Indeed, he said, “What we have on the Council right now is a few advocates for smart growth vs. no growth at all.”

But what is Smart Growth?

Smart Growth is a wide-ranging concept that covers issues ranging from housing to traffic patterns to retail space. According to the web site Smart Growth America: “Smart Growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement.” Principles of Smart Growth include mixed land use, compact design, creating walkable neighborhoods, preserving open space, creating a range of housing and transportation options, and encouraging citizen input and collaboration.

“It’s really about having a rich ecology in your community,” said André Leroux, of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, in an interview with Neighborhood View. “And too often since World War II, we’ve really had this monoculture of development, which has been a focused on the automobile — you drive everywhere. It turns out that is really expensive for communities to develop in that way.”

More recently urban downtowns are being revitalized as engaging, attractive places to live as well as work, with access to public transportation more important than having access to a parking garage. “People want to be close to jobs, and they want to be close to the things that they want to do,” Leroux said. “Then we’re seeing this younger generation who doesn’t like driving, and has a real aversion to it. The senior population doesn’t want to be driving as much either.”

Smart Growth contains many facets. For example, having a sense of place can meaningfully help define the future of a community. Linda N. Groat, editor of Giving Places Meaning, notes that “particular locations within the environment harbor rich significance for individuals and groups…. it is clear that the significance of places can include both deep emotional attachment and more abstract aesthetic enjoyment.” Arts and culture can therefore play a key role in a community’s smart growth.

Malden’s infrastructure has the potential for Smart Growth, Leroux said. The best place to start is the Malden T stop. “It’s an amenity that cities around the country would die to have and Malden has it. But it’s funny, when you’re standing at the Malden T Station, and you’re looking around, you don’t see very much,” he said.

Malden Center T stop (on left) with existing high rises and buildings in development.

Indeed, councilor Ryan O’Malley, who favors smart controlled growth, said in an interview with Neighborhood View, “I would like to see the most amount of housing be along the transit corridor.” Otherwise, he said, potential new growth would be pushed into the neighborhoods.

In a recent interview Malden Police Chief Kevin Molis said,  “I am at the train station 4-5 nights per week at rush hour in uniform and it is one of the busiest stations in the system, it is very convenient to Boston, and all of those things come together to make Malden a very desirable place for people to live. It is also a desirable place for people to develop. Let’s be clear: there is nothing necessarily insidious about the fact that someone builds a residential building … to make money.  That is not necessarily  incompatible with the positive benefits that could coexist.”

All the Malden councilors agree that the city needs to attract more businesses and commercial development.

There are over 2,200 businesses in Malden, employing over 17,000 people. Most jobs in Malden are in the service-providing industries, such as health care, education, professional services, and accommodation food services. The Malden Redevelopment Authority/MassDevelopment survey for Lower Commercial Street proposed  different ideas for commercial development.  One concept  was to form industrial clusters based on existing Malden businesses, such as food manufacturing, air and space research, and health care. The cluster analysis and feedback received from the focus group and public meetings suggest that the Aerospace Vehicles and Defense, Local Food and Beverage Processing and Distribution, Local Health Services, and Medical Devices clusters have the greatest potential to create new employment and business opportunities in the Commercial Street Corridor.

Business and employment figures from the City of Malden Growth Management Study,

One of the obstacles to growth in Malden has been fears about overburdening the already overcrowded school system. And yet having desirable schools can be an asset for a community. “Ninety percent of the school systems in Massachusetts have declining enrollment,” Leroux said, adding that people tend to move to areas with good schools systems, such as Newton and Brookline, he said. In 2009, Malden was named the “Best Place to Raise Your Kids” in Massachusetts by Bloomberg Businessweek. That’s an honor many communities would like to have.

Moreover, not all development brings in school-age children, Leroux said.

“Families generally live in neighborhoods. They’re not generally living in downtowns with high-density buildings. A lot of the people who live in those places tend to be single households so either on the younger side or on the older side. And so you can build a lot more of those units and not affect the school population,” Leroux said.

Councilors such as Condon, strongly disagree: At a March 6, 2018 city council meeting, he argued that two- to three-bedroom apartments are housing families with kids, sometimes even two families. “The residential component adds stress to our community, it adds stress to our school, stress for our police and fire department,” he said.

The Ferryway School in Malden – many residents and councilors express concern about class size, overcrowding, and special needs budgets related to overdevelopment. (Photo by Flansburgh Architects)

Former city councilor Neil Kinnon, who proposed the November 2015 ballot question,  remains fiercely opposed to additional residential growth.  In a recent strongly worded op-ed in the Malden Advocate, titled “Questions Residential Moratorium,” Kinnon declared that ignoring the vote “will be akin to stealing from the homeowners and putting their home equity in outside Developers’ hands.”  Indeed, he warned, “if we are to find our way to financial viability in the future, our sole focus must be on Commercial Development and the halting of housing development.”

Smart Growth advocates, however, insist that you can’t stop time.  “No growth is not an option because you’re going to get growth no matter what,” Leroux said. The issue, then, is exercising control over growth; planning it for certain areas, blocking developing in others, attracting good developers, and using trade-offs to leverage for what you want. Growth must be managed to get real benefit and that benefit has to be defined by factors other than profit or loss, advocates said.

Land use information from the City of Malden Growth Management Study, March 2017

Other changes in Malden are welcomed. The city’s diversity, for example, is seen by many residents in a positive light, According to the March 2017 Growth Management study,  “Malden’s population diversity, in terms of ethnicity and culture, age, and income level is a characteristic almost universally identified as a unique strength of the City, and potential opportunity for economic development. Residents appreciate Malden’s mix of ethnic restaurants and independent businesses, and note that the City is becoming ‘trendy.’ However, many would like to see a wider range of choices for retail, food, health care, arts and culture, and other amenities to serve the growing young adult population, families, seniors, and low income households.” 

Smart Growth also requires input from the community. Would, for example, Malden be able to implement Smart Cities solutions for energy management and urban mobility? This very much depends on the citizens of Malden. People who live in smart-growth areas, said Winslow, tend not to be voters. The challenge then is to get Malden renters more active in the community, he said.

Malden engagement is already being used with Clickfix, which allows citizens to post problems and comments. While now focused on issues such as potholes and dog parks, the format might be used to engage citizens.

“Every resident in Malden has a stake in making Malden a wonderful place to live and work,” Leroux said. “And too often, very few people are making the decisions about what the community will look like in the future. And you’re, again, missing out on a lot of brainpower, and a lot of goodwill, if you’re not engaging everybody. Because people will work hard if they see a positive vision.”

Exchange 200, on the corner of Route 60 and Commercial Street, is slated to be a 4-story , mixed use “innovation hub.”

Ultimately, Malden voters and representatives must come to a consensus over how much growth and what kind of growth to have. What do they see as the future vision for the city? How can they learn from neighboring cities and municipalities that are similar to Malden in other parts of the country? In this way, the city may be able to manage growth and livability with the desire for affordable housing, jobs, commercial development, good schools and transportation.

In a recent message to Malden voters, City Councilors (DeMaria, Winslow, and O’Malley) listed the multiple committees working to define a plan for future development, which included: Housing Production Plan (HPP), Zoning Review, Metropolitan Area Planning, and Economic Development Advisory, as well as a committee to review Malden’s 2010 Master Steering Plan. The message concluded. “No single ordinance will move Malden forward. But, a collaborative effort between the Council, Administration and others is vital to ensuring a future for Malden.”

In a series of articles through the spring, Neighborhood View will examine the issue of growth and development in Malden, and explore how the idea of
“Smart Growth” can be applied in areas such as traffic, housing, the arts and quality of life. The Smart Growth in Malden reporting team includes Karen Buck, Robin Inman, Liz Kelley, Jennifer McClain, Stephanie Schorow, and Anne D’Urso-Rose.

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  1. Bike, Zip and More: How Malden can share the road for smarter transportation  – Neighborhood View
  2. Arts can create “a sense of place” in Malden – Neighborhood View

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