Impressive hotel debate sidesteps
Published in the Brookline
October 7, 1999
A few weeks ago I finally attended my first public meeting on the Coolidge
Corner hotel proposal. Despite my admitted anti-development bias, I was
determined to go to Town Hall with something approaching an open mind.
I'm glad I went. Despite the ineffective air conditioning system and the
badly overcrowded room, my overall impression was extremely positive.
What I found especially exciting was the willingness of so many Brookline
residents not only to sit through a four-hour meeting but to participate
in a passionate, articulate, detailed debate--a far cry from many meetings
I've attended in other places. The good-humored chairperson, I was pleased
to see, let the discussion go on without rigidly enforcing arbitrary time
Some anti-hotel leafleting and mild heckling suggested that the crowd
assembled that night was mostly against the hotel. This lopsidedness might
help explain the developers' nervousness during the first hour's presentation
of their case, and the town economic development officer's apparent efforts
later on to cajole hotel defenders into speaking up. All in all, though,
the meeting was a pretty good display of residents taking the town's future
seriously. The evening probably changed no one's mind, but it was good
to hear the positions laid out in a thoughtful, organized, comprehensive
way, with good arguments on both sides of the issue.
Of course, I have no idea what goes on beneath the surface. Letting people
have pro forma hearings with little real influence on the final decision
is a time-honored tactic to diffuse dissent. Do meetings like this have
an impact in Brookline? I haven't been here long enough to know quite
what to expect, but there's cause for optimism in this case since the
final decision will be made by Town Meeting rather than by pro-hotel selectmen.
Unfortunately, I think the two sides talked past each other on a couple
of key issues. Most noticeably, many opponents spent a lot of time attacking
details that were no longer part of the hotel proposal. Carpenter and
Company did a pretty good job over the summer responding to residents'
complaints and our own Design Advisory Team's feedback. They came with
charts and diagrams and statistics showing how they had taken into account
the parking problem, the traffic problem, the shadow problem, and all
sorts of other problems. True, they foolishly measured traffic volume
on a low-traffic August morning, giving opponents an easy target. But
for the most part the small-scale hotel currently proposed probably goes
about as far as it can to meet last spring's objections.
It was the chief developer himself, ironically, who first articulated
the real choice facing Brookline. This is the best project possible, Richard
Friedman said, and the town can either go ahead with it "or not go ahead
with it if it's not proper." He's right.
Two issues remain central to resolving this debate. First is the initial
site selection. I don't recall any significant discussion of why the Webster
Street parking lot was chosen rather than other possible sites. Perhaps
that debate occurred before I arrived in Brookline, but that's not what
the opponents say. Speculaton at the meeting about Coolidge Corner's imminent
demise if a large-scale project doesn't move in was unconvincing.
The second key issue is the permanent loss of town-owned land, an issue
that came up only briefly late in the evening. The site may just be a
parking lot now (though it's got some great trees that I suppose the hotel
will cut down, and a nice view of blue sky that the hotel will block).
But who knows what the town's residents might want to put on that spot
a year or two from now, or a decade or two? I'd rather see a park there
than a parking lot, or maybe a park on top of a parking lot. Selling the
land eliminates that possibility forever; leasing the land is only a marginally
better alternative, since the open space would still be gone.
So although the revised hotel proposal is not as bad as it was last spring,
and although a hotel won't fundamentally change Coolidge Corner, and although
the Corner may even need a shot in the arm as some proponents conclude--despite
all this, developing town-owned open space is remarkably short-sighted.
That's the primary issue I'd like to see Town Meeting members debate
when they make their decision next month. It's the one issue no hotel
proposal can resolve, no matter how often or how well it is revised.
Hotel update August 2003
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