Thursday, October 11, 2007

High-rise residents of Malden, unite!

I planned to sit quietly at my first community meeting as a legal resident of Malden, but I did feel compelled to defend the honor of apartment dwellers to what seemed to be a mostly homeowner audience. The “visioning” meeting was part of a process to draft a master plan for revitalizing what is, at least in the downtown area, a pretty dreary city. (See previous posts and my article in CommonWealth magazine) I did feel bad for some of the older residents at the meeting who had the impossible dream of restoring the downtown Malden of three or four decades ago. (“I need something more immediate,” said one such resident when a meeting facilitator asked us what we’d like the city to look like 25 years from now.) Several expressed distaste for the new apartment complexes near the Malden Center MBTA stop, and one complained, “The more apartments there are downtown, the less space there is for new stores.” Since almost half of the storefronts downtown are vacant, I would suggest that the problem is not a lack of space for retail use but a lack of possible customers who live within walking distance of Malden Center. Sadly, the downtown area is never going to attract people from other Malden neighborhoods the way it did when I was a kid; there are now too many big-box stores with huge parking lots just outside the city center. The quickest and surest way to get new shoppers downtown is to offer closet space, central air-conditioning, and nice views; two-for-one coupons aren’t going to do it. When we were asked to decide the most important “key action” concerning residential development to take in the short run, more anti-apartment feelings started to emerge. One resident proposed a moratorium on large-scale residential developments. That was when my hand shot up independently of my brain, and I ended up stammering out a proposal to limit new apartment and condo complexes “to appropriate neighborhoods” as an alternative to banning them altogether. I also blurted out a “Yes!” when the guy sitting next to me (we were a rump caucus of renters) proposed more mixed-use development in the city that would combine residential and retail space. But I ended up joining the bandwagon for a useless resolution to “ensure safe, clean, and secure neighborhoods.” At least it beat out the anti-apartment planks. During another part of the evening, someone proposed that Malden “adopt a simple system for citizens to communicate with the city in a timely matter regarding infrastructure issues, with a required response.” Fortunately, a few of us who had lived in or were familiar with Somerville were able to boil this down to “adopt a 311 system.”

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