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Nerby Urban Centers Need More Concentrated Housing

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

When I was a freshman, Ibelieved I would never need a car in Boston. Cars are good for travel and excursions, I thought, but Boston is walkable and has numerous attractive mass transit options. Cars are expensive to maintain, insure, and even park. Wouldn't I always be able to find someplace to live that would make possession of a car unnecessary? Four years later, the answer for me is no.

Now that I live in Somerville, I recognize that the idea of Boston as a walkable city is actually a grand delusion invented by tourism boosters and propagated among captive college campus residents. True, many Bostonians and Canta-bridgians find their towns walkable, and that's great. Yet walkable or subway-accessible towns contain less than 30 percent of the metropolitan area's population. That's a sizeable fraction, to be sure - probably better than most other cities in the country. But it's not enough.

There are two problems with Boston's accessibility. First, people living in accessible areas may need to visit or work in inaccessible areas. Second, the available housing stock in accessible areas is very small. As many recent MIT graduates will tell you, it's difficult if not impossible to get a good, cheap apartment nearby these days. So even those who work in attractive, accessible areas (like MIT) may not be able to live there.

Given the Boston area's current housing options, of course, many people reasonably choose to purchase the car and move further out. In many cases, that means suburbia and office parks. While those places are comfortable and convenient for those who can afford to live or work there, suburbs and office parks also represent a style of living that is less social, less cultural, more private, and more disjoint from the life of the rest of the city. Boston is ringed with places that are fundamentally hostile to pedestrians or bus riders.

There are a couple of possible (if grandiose) solutions to the above problems. From the bureaucratic perspective, the most obvious is the extension of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. MIT is already talking with the state government about replacing the MBTA railroad tracks near Vassar Street with a ring-shaped fifth subway line connecting Charlestown, Cambridge, and South Boston. Such a ring might cut transportation time but would not go very far toward connecting currently inaccessible areas north and south of Boston. At the same time, a larger ring is undoubtedly a budget-buster.

The second, more difficult solution is to alter the city landscape itself. Cambridge and Somerville are already two of the most densely populated cities in the country, yet there is still an excess demand for housing. The housing supply, of course, was artificially reduced by rent control; now that it's gone, developers should move in.

But Cambridge and Boston need more than new housing units. Current residents want to preserve the historic and cultural feel of the places they inhabit, while planners want to make new spaces livable. These goals often don't mesh with the profit-seeking behavior of developers. It is far simpler for a developer to just build in Waltham.

I believe the best solution is to promote housing development in certain high-density zones. Commercial areas in Alewife and Kendall Square have little complementing residential development (earning them "edge city" designations in Jim Garreau's book of the same name). Cambridge should provide large tax incentives for housing development near these and other current MBTA stops.

Fortunately, MIT and Cambridge are already working to promote housing development in both University Park and in the East Cambridge-Kendall Square areas. By helping developers put up new, livable units in these areas, MIT would be promoting a number of goals: First, there is the possibility that MIT lease some units for the use of graduate students. Second, some of the latent demand for housing would be satisfied, probably in an aesthetically and culturally acceptable way. Third, the current mass transit system would become more viable as more of the population lives and works in subway-accessible spaces.

The difficulty with planning politics, I assume, is that cities evolve at such a slow pace that it may take decades for residents and developers to reap the benefits of today's costly projects. The substantial risks involved in developing already urbanized spaces are also difficult to bear.

In spite of these difficulties, I believe that MIT, Cambridge, and Somerville have ample justification for ardently promoting housing development in targeted zones like East Cambridge and other MBTA-serviced regions. MIT's planning processes may still be horribly non-inclusive. Yet our public and private leaders still deserve praise for opening up the attractive prospect of a revived Cambridge urban area.