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Plan envisions bustling town centers

'MetroFuture' puts focus on suburbs

Planners mapping the future of Greater Boston want to encourage people to live and work in suburban town centers, and cut pollution, water usage, and traffic to improve the quality of life over the next two decades.

The "MetroFuture" planning recommendations by the quasi-public Metropolitan Area Planning Council were made after three years of discussions with 4,000 residents and public officials, and will be unveiled today at a Boston College citizens seminar in downtown Boston.

While short on specific means for reaching the goals, the plan urges lawmakers, private industry, and state and local governments to work together over the next two decades to shift growth from remote new suburbs to existing town centers. It calls on older suburbs to amend zoning codes to permit redevelopment and mixed-use development, such as housing above stores.

The aim is to have 80 percent of new housing and new jobs in cities and larger municipal centers such as Framingham, Peabody, Norwood, and Marlborough. That would enable more people to walk or use mass transit and thereby reduce traffic and pollution, according to the plan.

The plan also calls for a 20 percent reduction in water usage from residents and a 33 percent reduction in the projected usage from new housing; and it encourages a 25 percent increase in renewable energy as well as a 20 percent cut in carbon dioxide.

"Implementation will be hard ," said Marc Draisen , executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. "It is a bold plan with big ideas that requires change from the way we've been doing things. It's going to take time, and it's going to take effort."

Supporters say they believe that the plan will help municipalities plan for the long term and pool resources to improve the quality of life in the area.

"In the municipal world, we are reactive and deal with problems when it's too late," said Michelle Ciccolo , assistant administrator and community development director in Hudson. "This plan enables communities to look at plans and see what would happen if we don't change business as usual."

But some who laud the plan nonetheless question whether it can be implemented.

"The plan is fighting against both economic and political factors that will make this difficult," said Ed Glaeser , economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

Glaeser said that a growing number of people want to live close to transit and downtown centers, but others are interested in the new large-lot homes that populate new suburbs. Many of these people, he said, are the sort of workers Massachusetts is trying to keep and attract: young families.

Mark Leff , president-elect of the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, agreed, saying, "Smart growth is part of the solution to the housing problem in the state, but not the entire solution. What we really need to do is take a look at providing starter homes for young families, and those are not going up around those urban cores."

In suburban areas, Leff added, the type of development called for in the plan is difficult because many town centers are already built out, and zoning laws can restrict housing units in the area.

Draisen said that communities need to work together and implement better zoning and planning tools. Then, as called for under the plan, 65 percent of suburban growth could be located in town centers and 45 percent of suburban housing could be created through redevelopment, such as converting shuttered factories into lofts.

"Wouldn't it be better to protect green space and steer development of small homes to near the town centers and transit centers?" he said.

The plan is similar to another proposed in 1989 by the group that failed to gain traction and eventually fizzled. Draisen said the difference between the two is that this time, he created the plan with input from 4,000 residents and public figures before publicly floating it.

He said he has not assessed a dollar figure for the plan yet, nor does he have a list of public officials who have offered formal support. He said that will come in the fall when an implementation plan is ready.

Mayor Thomas Ambrosino of Revere said he likes the plan's outline, so far.

"When you're planning for such a long-term vision, you have to be bold," he said. "You'd be crazy to be timid. If we come up a little short, what's the harm?"

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