Civic Moving Hacks

 

So, your boxes are unpacked and you’ve made your requisite trips to Target, IKEA, the hardware store, etc. You’ve scoped out the nearby take-out restaurants, the closest pharmacy, and public transportation options. You even set up mail forwarding (or purposely didn’t set up mail forwarding, to throw off all the mass-mail marketing companies).

Congrats! Now that your move is over, you can forget about the horror of squeezing a couch in a small stairwell, and focus on a great adventure ahead.

Wherever you now reside, it’s time to join your new community.

I’ve put together a Simply Civics guide for community essentials, because like you, I hope to survive September 1st, and like you, I’m excited to see what’s going on around me ASAP. Now is the time to flex your civic muscles.  Even if you’re not moving, now is a great time to focus on your community.

Without further ado…

Joining a Community: The Moving Edition

  1. Visit your Town Hall. Say hey! Get comfortable so that when you have to pick up an absentee ballot or talk to the Community Planning Office, you know where to go. Check out the Town’s website to see what kind of meetings take place and where. Is there a big meeting room that you might go to for a local hearing? Does your School Committee or School Department have its own office? Where’s the Clerk’s Office located?
  2. While you’re at the Clerk’s Office, change your voter registration address. Do it now so you won’t have to scramble before the elections.
  3. Get a library card. Local libraries often assume to role of a community’s center. With a library card, you can check out books, but you can also use computers, take out e-books, reserve rooms, (in Brookline) check out library pans, reserve museum passes, attend classes, and conduct research. To get a library card, you will probably need a state-issued ID card, an identifying piece of mail, or a bank statement.
  4. Meet your neighbors. First, say hey to them outside or in your building, introduce yourself, and say which unit or building you’re in. Then, join NextDoor, a social media platform for your neighborhood. People post when they are trying to give something away, or looking for recommendations, or looking to hire a babysitter or pet sitter. It’s a great resource. To learn more about its many advantages, check out my post about NextDoor.
  5. Donate your duplicate furniture, appliances, clothes, etc., to a nearby organization where it can be put to better use. One excellent option is NuDay Syria. They have a number of drop-off locations listed on their website. See if any places of worship in your area are collecting household items/clothes/food for underserved families You could also consider posting on NextDoor to give away items to a neighbor.
  6. Subscribe to local news. Does your town or city have one or two major newspapers? Brookline has the TAB and Patch. Both are great and free. You’ll need to know what’s going on around you — upcoming initiatives, new shops and restaurants, winter weather how-to’s — and you might as well tune in now. Local news covers a lot of ground and is a great way to learn about your community.
  7. Mark your Calendar with Community-Wide Events. If you live or work in Brookline, mark your calendar now for Brookline Day. It’s on September 24 and it’s fun for all ages. I’ve been looking forward to it since last year’s Brookline Day. Your town might have holiday festivals, farmer’s markets, or even a Harvest Festival. Any Parks and Rec fans out theres?Pawnee Harvest Festival
  8. Get to know your public officials. This is a lot easier than it may seem. They’ll be listed on your town or city site. Many of them also have campaign websites, even outside of campaign season, so you can look up their priorities that way. While you’re doing this, pull up a map of your city or town to see if you’re in a specific precinct. You’ll need to know this come election time, but it’s great to know beforehand, too. Here’s Brookline’s precinct map. I’ll be changing precincts so I’ll have new Town Meeting Members.
  9. Follow your community on Twitter and other social media. I love this step. There are some public officials who post frequently and are very involved in town activities. Don’t be shy. They want you to follow them. Search for Twitter accounts for the library, schools, farmers markets, newspapers, art centers, transportation office, political organizations, the chamber of commerce, neighborhood services, etc. Some are better than others, but you can always unsubscribe at any time.
  10. Learn about Civic Organizations. There are so many out there, depending on your interests and availability. Talk to people to see what’s worthwhile and what would be up your alley. If you don’t have time to join one now, think about following their work and supporting them in your own way. Here are some ideas.

League of Women Voters. Talk to me if you’re interested in joining! Men are welcome, too!

Neighborhood Associations. Brookline has the Brookline Neighborhood Alliance and has specific neighborhood associations within it.

Town/City Political Parties. Political Parties always want more volunteers!

Town/City Working Groups and Committees. Brookline posts their openings here. Volunteering for a local board or committee is a fantastic way to serve your community.

School PTAs. I can’t really speak to this but if you have school-aged kids, you may think about this as a means to get to know other parents and get involved in the school.

Local Clubs. You’d be surprised what you can find with a quick Google search.

 

The Place to Start

Just like the process of moving, when it comes to joining a community, you can’t do it all at once. But there are some things you can do easily right off the bat.

Honestly, the list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a great starting point. Once you get the basics, you’ll be a community member in no time. Remember, there’s more to civic engagement than voting. At it’s core, civic engagement is about being active in civic life, and there are so many ways to do it. Find the ones that work best for you, and see where it takes you!

Since I’m a big fan of Chance the Rapper and I’ve had his version of the Arthur theme song (“Wonderful Everyday“) stuck in my head for days, I’m going to send you off with some words of wisdom from a good ol’ children’s show (random, but bear with me):

Everyday when you’re walking down the street, everybody that you meet
Has an original point of view
And I say HEY! hey! what a wonderful kind of day! 
Where you can learn to work and play
And get along with each other

You got to listen to your heart
Listen to the beat
Listen to the rhythm, the rhythm of the street
Open up your eyes, open up your ears
Get together and make things better by working together
It’s a simple message and it comes from the heart
Believe in yourself (echo: believe in yourself)
Well that’s the place to start (to start)

One last thing. If you Tweet a picture at @simplycivics of you doing any of these things in the next month, and tag #simplycivics, maybe I’ll write a blog post about you!

Happy Moving!

April Showers Bring May Elections

It’s election season again in Brookline, but it’s a lot different from this past November. This time, the people on the ballot are our neighbors.

For a lot of people, springtime means flowers, the Marathon, baseball, and eating lunch outside. For candidates for local office, springtime means campaigning is in full swing. Candidates are spending their evenings and weekends knocking on doors, stopping in at events, calling neighbors, asking for endorsements, and somehow getting enough sleep to function.

The issues this election season are monumental. Debates are centering around where to build the next K-8 school, how many more affordable housing units we should approve this year, whether it’s time for a debt exclusion, and what services our libraries will provide in the coming years. That’s not even all of it.

When Brookline residents go to the polls on Tuesday, May 2nd, they’ll be voting for town-wide offices and Town Meeting Members.

Contested

The Brookline Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Library Board of Trustees, and Town Meeting Members each have seats up for election this year. As a civic engagement nerd, I’m thrilled that there are more contested races this time than in previous years. That means more people want to get involved in our local government, which is fantastic news. The more, the merrier.

Since there are contested races, we each have some decisions to make. If we follow these simple steps, we’ll be ready to vote on May 2nd.

The 10 Steps to Voting Success

  1. Mark your calendar. Decide now whether you’ll vote in the morning, at lunch, in the afternoon, in the early evening. You can always change it later if your schedule shifts, but it’s important to have a reminder set. Polls will be open from 7:00AM to 8:00PM.
  2. Apply for an absentee ballot if you can’t vote on May 2nd.
  3. Check out a sample ballot for your precinct. They’re available on the Town website. Do you recognize any of the names?
  4. Read about the candidates. The Brookline TAB publishes a bunch of endorsements. Some of the candidates have websites where they spell out their positions on local issues.
  5. Attend candidate forums. The League of Women Voters of Brookline is hosting a forum for the candidates of town-wide office on Wednesday, April 26 at 6:30PM (refreshments at 6:00PM) in the Selectmen’s Hearing Room at Town Hall. Come hang out with the candidates and hear how and why they want to serve the community. The co-sponsors of the forum are the Brookline Neighborhood Alliance (BNA) and the Town Meeting Members Association (TMMA).
  6. Pick up the Voter’s Guide in the Brookline TAB, prepared by the League of Women Voters. Year after year, the League knocks this one out of the park. Shout out to Joel Shoner for putting it together!
  7. If a candidate knocks on your door, greet him or her with a smile. Then, ask them why they’re running and what they’d like to do if they get elected. Read the literature. Maybe you could take it a step further and canvass for a candidate yourself.
  8. If you still have questions for the candidates, ask them. It’s pretty easy to contact candidates. Plus, I’d be surprised if they don’t respond to you, because after all, they do want your vote. What’s unique about local elections is the candidates live in your community. You just don’t get that same accessibility with federal elections. Candidates for local office go to the same grocery stores as you, they take the Green Line with you. You can actually talk to them.
  9. Confirm your polling location. You want to show up at the right location.
  10. Vote! If you have children, bring them with you for a mini civics lesson.

There you have it. Ten is a nice round number. But I would be remiss if I said this list is exhaustive.

Even More Election Fun

Personally, I have some other Election Day traditions of my own. I channel my inner Leslie Knope and geek out about the democratic process.

Image result for parks and rec leslie knope democracy meme

(Gif cred: https://www.good.is/articles/leslie-knope-feminism)

Here are just a few extra activities you can do:

Listen to an Election Day playlist. Tweet about local issues. Reach out to your friends and family members and ask which candidates they support. Go to the BrooklineCAN forum on Monday, April 24 from 4:00PM-6:00PM at the Brookline Senior Center.

If you can swing it with your schedule, work at the polls! You’ll earn some cash, and more importantly, you’ll participate in the election process. It’s a truly moving experience to hand someone a ballot. Call the Brookline Clerk’s Office for more information: 617-730-2010.

See You at the Polls

As we often say in League of Women Voters events, democracy is not a spectator sport. Your vote is your voice.

Our local officials will have many big decisions to make in the next couple years, and we get to decide who will make them. That’s an awesome responsibility.

Plus, you’ll probably get one of those stickers. Who doesn’t love a good sticker?

Something Old, Something New

Simply Civics Brookline Bell

Like many Brookline and Boston apartments, our building is kind of old. We may complain that the heater doesn’t always work in the winter. But that’s part of the charm of living in a historic town– especially in New England.

Some buildings in Brookline are actually located in historic districts, a designation that comes with many implications for residents.

I went to my first Brookline Preservation Commission hearing on Monday night.

Luckily for me, it began with an overview of the hearing process and the task of the Commission. In brief, here’s his overview in a nutshell: The Commission is charged with enforcing both the Demolition Bylaw and the Historic District Bylaw. As I learned throughout the hearing, it’s no walk in the park.

Historical Significance

To start, if a homeowners applies for a demolition permit (or partial demolition), the Commission has to determine whether the building or garage is historically significant. According to the By-Laws, section 5.3.5, a building is historically significant if it’s:

  1. Located within any Local Historic District;
  2. Listed on or is within a area listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places; is eligible for listing on the National or State Registers of historic places; or is a building for which a preliminary determination of eligibility has been made by the Massachusetts Historical Commission;
  3. Associated with one or more significant historic persons or events, or with the broad architectural, cultural, political, economic, or social history of the Town or Commonwealth; or
  4. Historically or architecturally significant in terms of its period, style, method of building construction, or its association with a significant architect or building, either by itself or as part of a group of buildings.

If a building meets any of the four criteria, it’s considered historically significant and therefore the owner can’t demolish it. The Commission isn’t supposed to take into account any plans for after demolition, so they aren’t really supposed to ask what the property owners intend to build.

Permits Up for Debate

The Commission took up seven demolition cases at the hearing, ranging from garage demolition permits to full home demolition permits. Each time, we watched a powerpoint with pictures of the houses from different vantage points, including aerial views. We heard a lot about the history of each property and the original architects. I absolutely fell in love with one of the houses and I would move into it in a heartbeat if I could.

The Commission members discussed the architects’ legacies, the architectural styles, the materials and foundation of each house, the surrounding neighborhoods, and what a passersby could see from the street. They debated the very meaning of historical significance, and the extent of their power as a Commission.

As I listened to the homeowners, their reasons for demolition surprised me. A lot of their testimony was very personal and moving, involving aging parents, or houses sitting on the market without buyers.

As you may imagine, since the houses are historic, some of them are, well…very old. Therefore, architects did not build them to support today’s lifestyle.

For example, a Commission member described one house as “gorgeous but not livable.” Because this particular house had electrical heating, the homeowner pays about $1000 per month for heating in the winter. Similarly, in another case, engineers had deemed a garage unsafe because the roof was caving in. Under these circumstances, the family can’t park cars inside it because it’s too risky. They don’t want their daughter anywhere near it.

Preservation or Demolition?

Ultimately, the Commission approved some of the demolition permits. It’s sad. For one thing, some of the most endeared New England architects designed those houses. Each home tells its own unique story. As I learned, it’s not easy to parse out the most “historically significant” few homes from the many. Indeed, each house or neighborhood contributes its own character to the Brookline community.

I’ll surprise my family with these words…But sometimes change can be good. Especially when a little change can make a home much safer, environmentally-friendly, and livable.

The Commission and residents approached each case with such respectful dialogue. Throughout the hearing, they walked a careful line, to preserve our history yet be open to change when necessary.

As they walked out of Town Hall on Monday night, some of the residents had a go-ahead to pursue demolition. Others will be back next month or next year to apply for a permit again. In essence, this is the local democratic process–slow and steady.

To hear about future Brookline Preservation Commission meetings or hearings, subscribe to alerts here.

To end, I’ll share some wisdom from William Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”

Sometimes a little change goes a long way.

Jane Jacobs & River Road

Simply Civics

25 Washington Street, Brookline

Boston Urban Analysis was one of my favorite undergraduate classes at Boston College. It was an elective offered through PULSE, the academic service-learning program at BC. David Manzo, the course instructor, taught us about what makes an urban community, particularly Boston, thrive. We spent the second half of the semester downtown, walking the sidewalks of Boston and seeing for ourselves how residential, commercial, and public spaces interplay in a city.

Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a pillar of the Urban Analysis curriculum. I highly recommend that you add it to your summer civic reading list. If you read it, or have read it, let me know because I’d love to hear your thoughts!

To begin with, Jacobs’ book was a reaction to rationalist urban planning policies in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those implemented by Robert Moses in New York City. She was a leader of community-based urban planning. Here’s a link to the 1961 New York Times book review.

To break it down, Jacobs wrote about the 4 generators of diversity in an urban neighborhood:

  • Mixed primary uses;
  • Short blocks;
  • Buildings of various ages; and
  • Density of people.

Two years after first reading the book, Jacobs’ ideas still resonate with me. I’ve been thinking about what they would mean for an urban community like Brookline, which is not very diverse but which I believe should aspire to be in the future.

With these four generators in mind, I walked into the River Road Study Committee Public Hearing on Monday night in Brookline Town Hall.

Planning Parcels

River Road is next to where Route 9 and Brookline Ave meet. With the Emerald Necklace and Jamaicaway to the east and Brookline Village to the west, River Road is an awkwardly shaped, narrow “island” with a few commercial properties. Here’s a map so you can visualize the area. I find its odd shape really fascinating.

To put it simply, Brookline is considering rezoning the area for redevelopment. Claremont Corporation purchased a parcel of the district, 25 Washington Street, with the intention of building a hotel on the corner of Brookline Ave and Washington Street. Currently, the Zoning By-Law doesn’t permit a hotel on the parcel, so the town is looking at options for a zoning overlay. Basically, a zoning overlay is a special zoning district, where a town can adopt specific provisions in the zoning for a specified area.http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/pulse.html

Constraints & Opportunities

As Brookline considers redevelopment, the ommittee and the Planning Department are facing a few constraints. First, there just so happens to be existing stores and businesses on the parcel. Next, there is a storm water easement in the middle of the “island.” Third, the land happens to be in a FEMA flood zone. Fourth, the building height is capped at 40 feet. Furthermore, planning for parking ramps has proven to be immensely challenging. All this being said, there are enormous opportunities to redevelop the property.

Picture this: enhanced pedestrian amenities, storefronts, and new residential properties, landscaped with sidewalk trees and grass inspired by the nearby Emerald Necklace.

Massing Models & Schemes

Developing it will be a challenge, but the committee and interested town residents seem committed to the project’s success.

Throughout the meeting, I listened to members of the committee and representatives from Claremont cover a lot of ground in their presentations. They talked about current market conditions and other financial feasibility factors, the capitalization rates on the parcel, draft overlay zoning, the landscape plans and massing models, architectural schemes, and next steps to the plan. The massing models looked pretty neat!

I had never before seen people so consumed by parking plans. Parking is a hot issue in Brookline. By statute, every residential unit must have two parking spaces. (Quick note: at two of the three community events I’ve attended, people have brought up the idea of revisiting this statute at the next Town Meeting. We’ll see!)  Since there is an easement in the middle of the “island,” the committee has had to think strategically and creatively. Therefore, they’re plotting out where to position parking ramps, how many floors of parking there should be, whether a hotel  could share parking with other commercial properties on the parcel, etc. It sounds like they’ve come up with a solution that works with the space. I’ll trust the experts on this one!

To conclude the presentation, representatives from Claremont presented schemes of the proposed hotel. I personally liked a scheme where the height of the building drops off towards the Emerald Necklace. The tallest part of the hotel would be at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Washington Street. That’s just my preference!

What would Jacobs think?

After the presentation, the committee opened the hearing up to public comment. It was really heartwarming to hear from residents about their priorities in the area. This is where Jane Jacobs comes in.

To recap, Jane Jacobs wrote about 4 generators of diversity: mixed primary use, short blocks, buildings of various ages, and density of people.

From what I gathered during public comment, Brookline residents want to see mixed uses along River Road. They want a mix of residential and commercial properties, and possibly a hotel with an outdoor cafe. Also, they want a high density of people, diverse businesses, and green space.

Next, the streets in Brookline aren’t laid out in a grid, so the short blocks idea doesn’t really apply in this case. However, Jacobs wrote a lot about wide sidewalks. That was certainly a focus of the meeting. To the extent possible, the sidewalks will be wide and lined with trees. One resident proposed having a gelato café on the parcel. That would be lovely!

I would venture to guess that Jacobs would probably have some concerns with the redevelopment, though. She would ask what will happen to the businesses already there. Will they be included in the project? This committee has thus far proven to be very collaborative, both in tone and in gathering public input, so I hope this will continue to be the case.

Key Tenets

Not only has the committee been collaborative, but so have the residents. The residents have expressed a genuine interest in seeing the project succeed and fit the character of Brookline. The public comments on Monday were very thoughtful. Again and again, I heard residents thank the committee for all the work they’ve done so far.

The types of questions residents posed were really productive and rigorous, too. In other words, they put the committee and Claremont to the test. How can the plan enhance the nearby cycling path? Also, will the café be a spot that local residents will want to go to, or just guests of the hotel? What will happen to the existing users on the property? Will there be more traffic? How will we support Brookline’s portion of the Emerald Necklace through this project?

Actually, cherishing the Emerald Necklace was a major theme. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks through Boston and Brookline. The thinnest part of the Necklace happens to be in Brookline, right next to the River Road parcel.

Throughout their productive comments, the residents taught me some pretty valuable tenets of civic engagement. Briefly, I learned that in order to effect policy locally:

  1. Get to know the character of your town,
  2. Show up to meetings,
  3. Voice your perspective, and
  4. Collaborate with others to build a vision.

next Steps

If you’re interested in learning more about the River Road project, here’s the committee site. Once the minutes from Monday’s meeting are approved, those and the presentations will be posted on the site.

I’ll share a tip I learned the other day, too, for getting and staying involved in Brookline. To hear about future meetings, subscribe to the committee alerts here. You can choose which committees and boards to subscribe to. I may have subscribed to many committees already….

Someday in the near future, I could be one of those active residents who contributes meaningfully at a public hearing through public comment. You can also in your own community!

The River Road Study Committee has accomplished a lot the past 5 months. It’ll be interesting to see how the project progresses. Soon there could be a hotel, businesses, apartments, and who knows, maybe a gelato café!

Zoning for All

Simply Civics

I went to my first community meeting last night! It was the fourth installment out of four Housing Production Plan Community Workshops in Brookline Town Hall.

Because I had missed the first three, I had a lot of catching up to do. I’ll summarize the situation briefly. Brookline is working with RKG Associates, JM Goldson, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to create a housing plan. The Commonwealth requires that at least 10% of each town or city’s housing is affordable. Affordable means that residents don’t spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Brookline is under the 10% benchmark, and it has work to do. In Brookline:

  • 1/5 of households spend more than 50% of their income on housing;
  • 1/2 of households with low/moderate-income spend more than 50% of their income on housing; and
  • For renters, 3/4 of households with low/moderate-income spend more than 50% of their income.

Those numbers are truly staggering. The housing market is actually pushing individuals and families out of Brookline.

What’s exciting, though, is that there was a big turnout last night of concerned members of the community. For the most part, they want to see more affordable housing units. They want the people who are currently living in affordable housing to be able to keep their housing, and they want people who do not have affordable options to find them in Brookline. The question is: how?

The Brookline Planning Board, Housing Advisory Board, RKG Associates, and JM Goldson proposed draft strategies. There were four buckets of strategies: Regulatory, Resource Allocation, Education & Advocacy (my favorite), and Local Policy & Planning. I’m not familiar with Brookline zoning laws, but from what I gathered, they are complicated and are probably in need of some serious updating.

I tried my best to keep up with the presentation. What is Chapter 40B? What’s a Zoning Overlay District? What are all these buildings the presenters are referring to? I felt clueless and uninformed. At least I’m only here to gather information and learn, I thought.

Wrong.

We broke out into groups and rotated through four tables, one for each topic. Each person had to speak once before anyone could speak twice. I couldn’t hide. I had no option but to participate.

Facilitators asked us for our feedback on each strategy. Should we promote the use of 40B on appropriate sites for development or redevelopment? That sounds right, I thought. Do we want to prioritize building more affordable housing units or renovating the ones we already have? Can’t we do both? Should we raise taxes, divert funding from social programs, or provide incentives for developers to build renewable units in Brookline? Should we take land away from parks and open spaces to build new housing? Definitely not (Channeling my inner Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec.) The parks contribute a lot to Brookline’s character.

We spent 80 minutes debating, proposing, considering, refuting, inferring….

My head was spinning.

I felt like I was back in college, only this time, the stakes were a lot higher. My thoughts were actually being recorded and I was contributing to the Housing Production Plan for my town. This plan is going to impact housing development, financing, and sustainability for years to come. I was reminded that not only do we have to plan for Brookline today, but we must consider the future, too. We need to think critically about how to promote smart and sustainable housing policy for generations to come. As a millennial at the meeting, I represented the future generations of Brookliners.

As the meeting came to an end, the facilitators stood up and presented on the themes that had come up during the discussions. There seemed to be consensus around a lot of strategies, but also some disagreement about others. Some participants even had suggestions for potential community partnerships to expand affordable housing options.

The revised plan will be submitted to the Board of Selectmen in July. Updates should be posted on the HPP site.

We adjourned at 9:15, but the discussion is far from over. To provide input in the production plan process, submit your thoughts and/or questions here. It’s a tangible step we each can take to ensure Brookline’s affordability for years to come.

If you’re interested in participating in future community meetings, visit the Brookline calendar. There’s something going on almost everyday!