By Matt Bornstein
Architect Sebastian Mariscal has made local headlines recently with a proposed apartment complex in Allston.
At first glance, nothing about the project seems out of the ordinary. The building would occupy a lot about 1.5 miles from HBS (at 37 N. Beacon St) currently filled by a used car dealership and a private home. Key features would include modern design bizarrely out of keeping with the neighborhood (see image below), “green” construction techniques, and mixed residential / retail space.
Pictured: Mariscal’s conceptual rendering of proposed 37 North Beacon St project. Not pictured: nearby anchor tenants KFC, Commercial Cleaning Service (a janitorial service), and New England Rubbish Removal.
What makes this project unique, however, is the parking plan. Architect Mariscal wants to build exactly zero new parking spaces for residents of the building. By forgoing parking, he says, he can create a number of “green-friendly” spaces, including a publicly-accessible walkway on the ground floor, private gardens for every unit, and dedicated bike lockers.
Interesting idea – except that it’s currently illegal.
Boston, like most densely populated cities, requires developers to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces (generally between 0.5 and 2) for every new residential unit constructed. The purpose is to limit congestion and pollution associated with increased demand for on-street parking. Mariscal proposes to skirt this regulation by requiring all residents to sign a lease addendum stating that they do not own a car.
Think about that for a second. Mariscal wants tenants to sign an agreement stating that they do not own and will not acquire a particular piece of private property – property which in no way interferes with the execution of an otherwise standard apartment lease. Based on my minimal concept of contract law, I’m going to take a guess that this term would be unenforceable.
Going beyond the legal implementation, though, the proposal raises several important questions. Mariscal claims that roughly half of Allston residents do not own cars; isn’t it OK to build apartments designed specifically for those residents? How will we stop the proliferation of car-based transportation if we keep providing ample parking?
The answers are murky. In theory, it seems fine – even potentially beneficial – to create “carless” housing tailored toward residents who rely primarily on walking, biking, and public transit. We could create and maintain our dense urban core. Building managers could offer incentives, such as lower-than-average rent, to take cars off the road. In practice, though, this practice raises serious ethical concerns. Developers would have the opportunity to profit off increased usable space without any real guarantees of long-term public benefit. In a city with subpar public transit options, moreover, personal mobility is a major determinant of overall standard of living. What happens when a housing-seeker can only afford a carless apartment – should he/she be denied the same transportation rights as everyone else? There seems to be a fundamental difference between paying for a parking space (OK) and signing over personal property rights to get a discount (not OK).
At a deeper level, this question reflects the chicken-and-egg dynamic of large-scale behavior change. It seems unfair to mandate top-down changes via city policy. Yet bottom-up behavior shifts are unlikely without the supporting infrastructure in place (e.g., expanded public transit). This issue will only get worse for Allston in particular (as planned New Balance and Harvard expansion projects come online) and US cities generally (as urban re-growth continues).
What do you think – is carless housing a good idea?