Social and Political Commentary

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What should we expect from our new Tremont/Essex Street Corridor?

... The city is using the word "corridor" as a name for two different projects.

by Joe Sullivan

You’ll find the word “corridor” appearing several times in our Melrose weekly newspapers over the last couple of months. The word is used to describe first, a roadway project that’s designed to improve the conditions of a large section of Lebanon Street upgrading to street, curb, sidewalks, streetlights and pedestrian safety.

The Lebanon Street Corridor improvements which are expected to cost between $4.5-$5 million will be funded by the State’s Department of Transportation.

There’s another “corridor”, too. This one is the Tremont/Essex Street Corridor a project that’s significantly more involved than the Lebanon Street “corridor”. Tremont and Essex streets don’t make up the corridor. These streets constitute one of the boundaries of the corridor. The other boundary is the tracks of the commuter rail which run parallel to the streets. The “corridor” is not only the streets but all the land between the streets and the railroad tracks.

The Commuter Rail Corridor Plan

The tracks don’t serve only as a boundary but are part of the plan for this corridor. That’s why the current published plan is titled the “Commuter Rail Corridor Plan.” The illustration on the left is excerpted from this 52-page document that is very professional in its appearance. At the end of this story you’re reading now is a link that you can click on to see this entire report.

Another project intended to improve infrastructure to the Highlands and to the adjacent parts of Franklin Street has received funding of $960,000 in a grant from the State’s Department of Housing and Development. This project is located within the Tremont/Essex Street corridor.

The limitation of the grant to the Franklin Street area is important to note.  It suggests that projects within the corridor will be selected and funded on a one-by-one basis. This is another difference from the Lebanon Street Corridor which has received its funding in total.

One of the biggest differences between the two corridors is that the Lebanon Street Corridor projects are underway and the public, especially the abutters, have an idea of what some of the changes will entail. The Tremont/Essex Corridor expresses an intention or a vision. There is nothing to see yet, other than a plan, so there is nothing to provoke public reaction.

Citizens respond to changes not to plans

Once construction starts the public responds and in many instances the responses are anything but welcoming. That’s what happened when the changes made near Stone Place on lower Washington Street were implemented.

The same kind of public reaction is occurring to some of the changes proposed in the Lebanon Street Corridor. Response to the plan’s proposed closing Lynde Street’s direct access to Main Street has been anything but welcoming. People who feel affected by these changes have responded with strong complaints. Not everyone agrees with the city position that these changes will improve safety.

Corridor Plan limits street parking on Franklin Street.

If the upcoming  infrastructure improvements for Franklin Street and Highlands include some of the upgrades stated in the Tremont/Essex Corridor plan there should  some reaction public there, too. One of these upgrades calls for limiting parking to only one side of Franklin Street and not everyone will be happy with this.

The Highlands people should be expected to respond to the upgrades in the same way that the people who live in the Washington Street and Lebanon Street neighborhoods have responded to the improvement projects there.
The Commuter Rail Corridor Plan for Tremont/Essex Streets is a product of  the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) produced in conjunction with the city. The Council is a public agency created by the State in 1963. Its mission is to promote smart growth and regional collaboration within the 101cities in Metro Boston.

No specific projects proposed

This Tremont/Essex Corridor plan does not call for building  specific projects but instead outlines recommendations that would stimulate investment in the Corridor. It deals in “Vision”, that is opportunities that will be present if the things that currently prevent them, which the plan refers to as “impediments”, could be changed or removed.

A strong element of the plan is called Transit Oriented Development. This a strategy that integrates a mix of housing, office, retail and other daily needs in a walkable neighborhood within close proximity to quality public transportation.

What the goal of the plan seems to be is to find a way to combine the above elements to produce a neighborhood,
a neighborhood that is not there now.

It should be noticed that with Cedar Park and the Highland train stations are necessary elements of this strategy and they both exist right now. It should be noticed, too, that these other elements housing, office etc. are not there now.

To make room for them some of the entities that now occupy the corridor will have to go. The plan does not specifically say this but reason dictates that the housing, offices and retail entities that the plan proposes will need the space that are now occupied by other buildings which house businesses.

Downsizing of city parking requirements

The plan calls for changing some of the zoning to allow increased building height in the Corridor. The plan also calls for changing the parking requirements from what they are now, i.e.,2 spaces per dwelling unit,to those based on the number of bedrooms per dwelling unit. Doing so means that fewer parking spaces are needed for apartment complexes made up of one or two-room  apartments.

The plan presents some very pertinent demographics. It shows that the median household income in a half-mile area surrounding Cedar Park is $77,200. In the half-mile area surrounding the Highlands this income is $82,500.

Higher income earners targeted as condo owners and apartment renters.

It is interesting to compare these incomes to the incomes of the group the plan says is expected to buy new housing construction in Melrose. Marketing efforts are directed to potential buyers with a household income over $100,000 per year. A large majority of the houses owned by Melrose people are single family. As boomers living in these homes get older downsizing to condominium living becomes more attractive. Locating in an area served by reliable public transportation and close to shopping and recreation.

The plan goes on to point out the reported success of  the Cedar Crossing condominium sales and cite it as an indicator that condos will increase its share of total housing in the future. Households making $100,000 per year, according to the plan, could afford condo sales prices of  $425,000.

In addition to the condominium buyers the plan presents data on households whose annual income are $75,000 per year. This group now makes up about one-third of the total demand in Melrose and can afford monthly rents starting at $1,875 with some higher.

Profit problems for affordable housing developers.

Households making under $60,000 who can afford rents of $1,500 also make up a significant demand in Melrose. These rent levels make it very difficult for developers to assume the land and construction costs involved in turning out a new building that will be profitable.

A full development of the Corridor, according to the plan, will take place over a ten-year period. Readers of the plan will see that different sections of the Corridor have been color coded to show when development is expected to take place.

The plan is dedicated to expressing visions of what could be achieved if opportunities can be developed. It also
demonstrates that there are significant obstacles that must be overcome but the end product will be worthwhile.

There is another Vision at issue here. That is what is the vision that comes to a reader’s mind after reading the Commuter Rail Corridor Plan? What is the picture that the plan projects?

One of the necessary conditions to make the Corridor a reality is that the businesses and other entities that now occupy the Corridor will have to go.

How will this happen? If they refuse to relocate, will the city become involved in an eminent domain action? That’s what’s being discussed now in Malden where a developer is trying to build a new minor-league ball park but needs the land now occupied by three small businesses in order to do it.

What “Vision” does the plan project to its readers?

What does the reader see when he or she comes up with a picture of what the new Corridor will look like. The plan depends upon creating a new neighborhood that will be made up of people whose family incomes are between $75,000 and at least $100,000 annually. The lower income group will be renters paying at least $1,875 a month to live in apartments located in multi-family buildings. The higher income earners will be owners living in condominiums where their units can cost over $400,000.

Does this bring images of the large condo complex that Fidelity built on Main Street? The plan talks about combining retail stores and offices to make this neighborhood into what it calls a “Smart Growth District.”

You won’t have to spend much time conjuring up what a “Smart Growth District” looks like since the plan tells you just where to find one in Melrose. The plan describes it this way,

“The Smart growth District (SGD) that was enacted by the City for the lower Washington Street area near the Oak Grove Line station is an excellent example of how an overlay district can provide added flexibility and encourage mixed use development in close proximity to transit.”

Although the plan doesn’t say so, this is where the new Stone Place apartment complex is located. Monthly rents for one bedroom, one bath units are $2,000 plus.

This (SGD) in lower Washington Street shouldn’t be used as a model for the Tremont/Exeter Corridor because the Corridor will have smaller parcels than those at Washington Street. But there is little doubt that the elements in the Washington Street “Smart Growth District” will be part of the Tremont/Essex Corridor Plan. The difference will be that they will be constructed on different size pieces of land.

It’s hard to see why looking at the lower Washington Street neighborhood and its Stone Place apartment complex won’t provide a good picture of what might be expected for the Tremont/Essex Street Corridor.

To see a full copy of the Tremont/Essex Street Corridor Plan click on this link below.
click here

January 3, 2014






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