Melrose’s Smart Growth Overlay: Let’s Connect our Neighborhoods

At the recent public meeting of the Melrose Planning Board over the 141-unit, 172-parking space, 30-bike space, 100% residential Marty’s Furniture proposal, a resident of Ward 5 asked — somewhat in jest — for the city to explain exactly what “smart growth” meant. His point was that all he sees in the smart growth district is apartment complex after apartment complex. Meanwhile, in Oak Grove Village, you have something that actually seems like smart growth: apartments mixed with businesses and restaurants. The subtext is that Oak Grove Village, Melrose’s signature smart growth development, is not in the smart growth overlay:

Oak Grove Village sits in BB-1; the Smart Growth overlay in the I-A district is basically nothing but apartment buildings.

The SGD overlay is purple, and is indeed basically just apartment buildings. Oak Grove village sits in the orange BB-1 district. Nestled in between those two is a BC zone which is 42% surface parking(!), 11% DCR, and 47% grab-bag (Hunt’s Photo; a bank; a daycare; a Massachusetts National Guard building).

I’m far from a zoning expert, but if you’re familiar with this area, the zoning closely mirrors how the southern end of Melrose actually feels: an assemblage of totally distinct areas right next to each other. This is a dynamic which probably doesn’t get discussed enough. The “real-world” smart growth neighorhood, which encompasses all three of these districts, is sliced in half by the MBTA’s right-of-way between Oak Grove and Wyoming Hill.

Normally this isn’t a huge deal because it’s relatively trivial to just make some crossings across the tracks. Unfortunately, between Oak Grove and Wyoming Hill, there is an uninterrupted mile-long stretch with no area to cross between neighborhoods. This has obvious consequences. The best way to demonstrate is to think about the resident living at The Washingtons who wants to get a cup of coffee at Jitters, which is a thousand linear feet away. Here’s the walking route:

The walk from The Washingtons to Jitters requires going a mile(!) out of one’s way.

This walk is five thousand feet! Instead of a roughly eight-minute round trip walk, you’re looking at something that’s closer to 30-45 minutes depending on whether or not you cut through the Oak Grove station house and parking lot. Either way, it’s totally untenable, so people don’t do it. This is hugely important. The 99 Washington development has no retail component because the developer’s studies show insufficient foot traffic. If that’s true, it’s because this is the sort of area where you have to walk a mile to go a thousand feet.

The intuitive solution to this problem is to try and merge the neighborhoods together in some way with a pedestrian-bicycle grade crossing. This would be sort of a bold thing for the city to pursue, but it’s hardly a physical impossibility, and one could even suggest that the state may be receptive to bold mixed-used pathmaking. There’s even a plausible spot to do it through the Marty’s property: just extend a trail through the southern end of the Marty’s parking lot, jog across the tracks, across Banks Place (owned by the MBTA, and ripe for a little traffic calming anyway), and then through an existing access gate to the mixed-used path across Spot Pond Brook, which the DCR owns. It practically suggests itself:

Banks Place was recently reconfigured by the MBTA alongside the$23M accessibility project happening at Oak Grove right now, and there have been talks about trying to work with the DCR to create a more modern bike/walking path as part of the project. This would seem as opportune a time as any to throw this concept at the wall, as the project gets completed over the next 12–18 months.

Failing this, if the Marty’s building winds up 100% residential, Melrose has a real problem in the SGD with no obvious way out of it besides going back to the drawing board. Even if the city and the developers somehow pull through with, I don’t know, a combined beer garden and coffee shop, there’s still only one thing to do here! While we should absolutely push to find incentives to bring retail to this location, but even if we do, it’ll be the beginning of our work, not the end. Let’s make sure that we don’t lose sight of how critical it is that we create ways for neighborhoods to mix, and for people to get where they’re going safely and sustainably.

I’ll leave you with Melrose’s stated goals in this zoning overlay. I cannot say with confidence if any of these have been achieved; certainly, industrial buildings are being used, and the city has created housing, but the neighorhood hardly feels “revitalized” and it’s not clear the housing is really sufficient to cover a broad demographic.

Local transit dad. Melrose, Massachusetts.