Amy Dain

Burlington Mall Road might be the quintessential car-oriented commercial corridor of Massachusetts. It hugs Route 128, like the child of the highway that it is, in Burlington, a suburb that never had a train station and grew faster in the 1950s and ’60s than any other town in the state. Burlington officials have called the corridor of low-rise shops and dated office buildings “underperforming asphalt.” Now they are launching an effort to redesign it.  

The idea is to remake it as a walkable hub, more like a traditional downtown with a mix of residences, offices, shops, hotels, restaurants, entertainment, and spaces for outdoor gathering. Burlington officials are not the only ones puzzling over how to do this. 

Underperforming asphalt is Greater Boston’s frontier of urban planning. The frontier reaches to Newton’s Needham Street, Acton’s Great Road, Watertown’s Arsenal Street, Medway’s Route 109, Salem’s Highland Avenue, Dedham’s Boston Providence Highway, Saugus’s colorful Route 1, Swampscott’s Vinnin Square, Weymouth’s Route 18, and onward. Another name for the frontier is Edge City.  

Building in these edge cities could fix the housing shortage and save meadows and woods. A forthcoming analysis by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council identifies 3,000 land parcels appropriate for such redevelopment – for a potential buildout of hundreds of thousands of apartments and condos.  

Density makes frequent bus and shuttle service feasible. Density also makes the construction of shared infrastructure, like wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes, more efficient. The costs and benefits of sprawl infrastructure are less widely shared. New residents of Edge City will frequent its cafes, preventing excessive vacancies and boosting amenities that attract office workers.    

Post-COVID, Tired Properties Lose Out 

Today’s new glut of office space means that offices stranded in windswept parking lots, in patternless scenes, will lose out. Why drive to an isolated stuffy building to work when you can commute to your couch? Workplaces by cool eateries and other amenities may prevail. 

That the clogged arteries of suburban sprawl are not beloved is their strength for redevelopment. Local voters do not fret that new construction will undermine the place’s character; they hope it will. But they do worry that density of building will densify the traffic. 

The challenge is to retrofit walkable/bikeable infrastructure to car-centric design. The corridors, with few cross streets, are isolated from neighborhoods and already congested. The properties are privately owned and will get redeveloped over decades. Public space is rare.  

Ample parking and driveways are still needed for commercial viability in these places. And when there is convenient parking, most workers, visitors and residents will likely come by car; demand for frequent bus service and shuttles could be sluggish. It is hard to organize buildings for a cozy Main Street feel when each parcel has its own parking and driveways. 

In 1991 journalist Joel Garreau observed: “Edge City’s problem is history. It has none. […] Who knows what these things look like when they grow up? These critters are likely only in their nymphal, if not larval, forms. We’ve probably never seen an adult one.” A generation later, we still haven’t. 

Follow Northland’s Example 

The first movement to upgrade underperforming asphalt has given us lifestyle centers, like Westwood’s University Station and Dedham’s Legacy Place. These have been commercial successes, but are still car-centric, organized around parking and isolated from neighboring properties. And the market for new lifestyle centers has likely declined. The lifestyle center is a shopping mall dressed one size up; it is not Edge City’s full maturity.  

One case study to follow is Newton’s Northland development on Needham Street, near Route 128. Newton’s City Council offered the developer density in exchange for public benefits. In place of a strip mall, large parking lot and industrial property, the developer has planned 800 apartments (including affordable homes), retail space, open space, a new cross street and underground parking.  

The developer has also committed to funding free shuttle service to the nearby MBTA station. MassDOT is adding to Needham Street a raised bike lane, which will connect to the Upper Falls Greenway Trail. Needham Street may not be darling like Waltham’s historic Moody Street, but Northland’s residents will be able to walk on sidewalks to a nice variety of restaurants and shops, trails on the Charles and the old neighborhoods of Newton Upper Falls. 

Route 128 was the original Edge City, on the edge of the metropolitan area, all ribbon-windowed box buildings on asphalt sprawl now crying for change. It is hard to guess market trends during a pandemic, but real estate prices in expensive suburbs have been surging. Demographic trends were already favoring them, with Millennials starting families and moving out from the urban core. 

There’s an opportunity to do something about underperforming asphalt. But the private sector alone will not and cannot replicate the walkability of villages that grew around train stations. Getting Edge City into its true adult form will take public investment, oversight of site plans and coordination across properties and time. It might even involve public purchases of property for new infrastructure and public space. These efforts will be tough, but the legacy of citybuilding is worth it.   

Amy Dain is an independent housing and land use policy researcher in Massachusetts. 

Can Our Underperforming Asphalt Become Bustling Boulevards?

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min