On Fairmount Line, opportunity knocks

Let’s get serious about transit-oriented development

THE BLIZZARD OF 1888 left Boston gridlocked, and over 1,000 people died in its wake. Tragic as the storm was, there was a substantial silver lining. This catastrophe is often cited as the impetus for the construction of the nation’s first underground subway system, a transportation network that would be shielded from the elements of our occasionally harsh New England climate. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the regional transit system that developed from that late 19th century innovation has been brought to its knees by the winter battering we have taken. The fundamental wisdom of a subterranean transit system, however, has not been challenged by the snowy onslaught, as it is the above-ground portions of the MBTA subway system, along with the regional commuter rail, that have been laid low.

That system has become, in many ways, the engine of our regional economy. The delays and frustrations felt by hundreds of thousands of Bostonians – and millions of dollars in adverse economic impacts — have underscored the degree to which the entire eastern Massachusetts region depends on a healthy, well-functioning transit system. As we dig out from our historic snowfall, we should be mindful of the opportunities to enhance our public transportation system in ways that will further enhance our city and our local economy. It is essential that we determine the wisest expenditures of public dollars both to repair and maintain the existing system as well as to pursue any prudent expansion of it. In that calculus, we believe the Fairmount commuter rail line should be at the top of the list.

The Fairmount Line is a deep scar across the core of the city.  Also sometimes referred to as the Indigo Line, it is, as are most railroad lines, the shortest distance between two points—in this case between South Station and the Readville section of Hyde Park. It is the shortest run in the regional commuter rail system, and the only line that runs entirely within Boston. However, it serves as a vital link between where jobs are and where people live – in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

Railroad lines and the spaces surrounding them have been the great underbelly of American cities for years.  Many of them were used primarily for commercial purposes with numerous spurs into small businesses, few of which still exist.  After World War II, in Boston as elsewhere, large brick public housing projects were built along railroad corridors – Mission Hill Extension, Bromley Heath, and Archdale among them – because the land was cheap and no one else wanted to live there.

Notwithstanding recent improvements to the Fairmount Line, ridership is light. What is needed – both to boost ridership and to leverage the corridor to spur economic growth – is a new strategy to deal with the land surrounding this railroad line which has been part of our city for 150 years.  Not unlike the transit-oriented strategy recently announced by Mayor Marty Walsh for Dorchester Avenue and Washington Street in Jamaica Plain, we need new rules for a new era.  Existing laws do not result in the production of housing at all price points.  Here are a few examples:

Why not boost the tax on vacant land so as to discourage those who might want to sit on undeveloped parcels for a long period of time?  Public policy encourages farm land to be preserved.  It encourages recreational land to be preserved.  Why should public policy not discourage unused parcels in the core of the city within walking distance of public transportation which can connect residents and jobs in less than 30 minutes?

Simultaneously, we should enact a special law that provides some type of tax incentive financing for housing constructed to serve those of lower income levels.  Most governments, including Boston’s, have a long history of incentivizing commercial and industrial developments through particularized taxation schemes, yet we have failed to extend these incentives to targeted forms of residential development.  This oversight is to the detriment of our city and especially of its poorer residents.  We have the opportunity to use modified taxation schemes to spur development that would benefit the entire city.

Liberals may fear gentrification and the destruction of communities, while conservatives may fear the price tag.  Yet these legitimate concerns can be avoided through proper planning.  By freezing the taxes in the areas surrounding such a redevelopment for a number of years, we could minimize the departure of homeowners when property taxes rise with the increase in property values attendant to successful redevelopment.

Meanwhile, costs associated with such projects will be offset in large part by the concomitant increase in the taxation rate of fallow plots and abandoned buildings astride the Fairmount Line, which currently yield little.  Costs will be further compensated to the extent that owners of these properties take the incentive and sell off their properties to those who inject the area with (much more valuable) residential or commercial space, as a result of the property tax base appreciating precipitously.  These businesses and residences – in addition to those already inhabiting the area – would both justify and benefit from ease of access to the heart of our city.

Many of us worked very hard, over a decade ago, to craft a state law which provided incentives to local communities to permit the construction of transit-oriented housing. Chapter 40R is very clear.  It encourages the building of housing in town centers and near transit stations.  Why not encourage such construction even further by providing that even greater incentives per unit may be provided where development might not come as easily?

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

The populist-driven down zoning which was enacted in Boston in the last two decades of the last century has resulted in a significant reduction in value of many parcels which otherwise, as a matter of right, could have become one-, two-, and three-family homes, not unlike the homes surrounding those parcels.  Rescinding much of that zoning could result in the construction of many of the units of workforce housing which Mayor Walsh, with good reason, has championed. Why not create a special zoning overlay, perhaps within 1,500 feet of each of these train stations, or within 500 feet of the railroad right-of-way, which automatically results in the undoing of the down zoning that is one reason why housing is so difficult to construct in the city?

For many years the conventional wisdom was that Boston was too dense.  Today a new conventional wisdom is evolving that Boston is not dense enough. The Fairmount Line presents a great opportunity to provide new incentives to address this.

Lawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody and a former president of the Boston City Council. Conor Ahern is a third year student at Harvard Law School. This piece draws on work Ahern did as part of his winning entry last year in the “Memo to the Mayor” competition sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service.