Can a development that adds scores of cars into an already congested area be "smart growth?"
That is the question looming over a plan to add 700 units of housing and other buildings in a tight configuration around the Forest Hills rail and bus station in Jamaica Plain.
The Forest Hills project is the largest so-called transit-oriented development yet undertaken by the MBTA in the Boston area. Such smart-growth projects are densely packed, mixed-use complexes built atop or near transit stations - whether suburban commuter rail stops or city MBTA stations - and promoted as an antidote to sprawl, congestion, and other attendant ills of the automobile age.
For city dwellers, the Forest Hills Station locale has much to recommend.
Pinched inside a dowdy old commercial district with several hip new outposts, the project would offer walk-on access to subway, bus, and train lines. The development could also fill in major missing elements of Forest Hills' commercial offerings with a grocery store, movie theater, and public plaza with a farmers market. Several gates to the Arnold Arboretum are just steps away, and Jamaica Plain center is not a far walk, either.
Yet outside its identity as a transit hub, Forest Hills is also a major chokepoint for traffic crossing the city in multiple directions, as well for commuters who drive to the station. Congestion on the two constricted main roads is a given at many times of the week. Traffic studies conducted as part of the planning process show that during the morning rush hour, more than 1,200 vehicles pass the station on Hyde Park Avenue heading toward Boston - about the same volume of traffic on Beacon Street as it approaches Kenmore Square.
Now add to that not just hundreds of new residents, but office workers at new commercial properties within the development, as well as shoppers drawn by new retail offerings, and there is a danger the Forest Hills development will make congestion worse.
"This is the most complicated aspect of this," said John Dalzell, project manager of the Forest Hills project for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which spearheaded the planning process. The authority intends to have the development built according to "green" principles so that it wins certification from the US Green Building Council.
Not surprisingly, the city's transportation consultants have concluded that Forest Hills' traffic problems can be fixed. The city is already working on computerizing traffic signals to allow vehicles to more quickly move through intersections. The consultants estimate this alone will ease gridlock and free up capacity on the roads.
Also, the consultants, as well as Jamaica Plain residents who have participated in the planning, have come up with some "bold and brave" long-term strategies, Dalzell said. These include making Washington Street and Hyde Park Avenue one-way in opposite directions around the station. This plan would remove a lane from both roads and dedicate them to bicyclists and parking. While this would reduce the overall number of lanes, it doesn't mean more congestion. The idea is that with one-way streets, there would be three lanes of traffic traveling in one direction, providing better flow than two lanes heading in each direction.
"What we heard is that folks want to see the area made more functional, especially for pedestrians and cyclists," Dalzell said. "Right now the area seems both poorly functional and car oriented."
But a certain degree of car orientation is built into the project, because the MBTA is requiring that potential developers replace the 240 parking spaces at the commuter lot that is part of the main station lot. With the residential and commercial spaces, this could mean the construction of a garage with 500 or more spaces.
While hard data on the traffic effects of transit-oriented development in urban settings is scant, the transportation consultants estimate the Forest Hills development would increase traffic volume by an average of 6 percent during morning and evening commutes.
"It's not ideal, but these nodes serve a lot of functions," said Anthony Flint, public affairs director for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. "Certainly more than suburban" transit projects, "I could see how this site would intensify concerns."
David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University, said there appears to be a conflict in the MBTA's goals of making money by drawing new riders - whether by foot or by car - and building the most environmentally sound project.
"The T has to confront to what extent this is about revenue maximization and to what extent this about those other smart-growth goals," Luberoff said.
But Mark Boyle, MBTA director of real estate, argued that having commuter parking is consistent with the goals of transit-oriented development. "Having this parking also keeps local folks from having to drive in to Boston," he said.
The Forest Hills building plan started out in more modest form two years ago when the MBTA approached Boston officials about selling a couple of rump parcels of land next to the T station. It has since morphed to encompass six parcels over 16 acres, including a private parking lot and an MBTA maintenance yard across the Route 203 overpass.
The agencies expect to put four of the lots abutting the station, including air rights over the commuter rail line, out to bid for developers at the end of this month. The main station lot would be the development's retail core, with up to 400 units of housing on the site and abutting lot. Housing and offices are also proposed for the privately owned parking lot across the street, which is already on the market. The maintenance yard, slated to go out to bid within five years, would be developed into a cluster of office buildings, with another 160 units of housing.
For the land-rich but cash-strapped Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, such redevelopments have been a way to increase revenue and bring new riders to its system. Since 2005 the MBTA has made more than $50 million from real estate deals, more than in the previous nine years combined.
Other transit-friendly projects include Ashmont Station in Dorchester and Woodland Station in Newton, site of the Arborpoint luxury condos. A $500 million hotel and office complex is under construction near the Wonderland Station in Revere, and others have been proposed for several other stations in Boston.
Ted Tye, the managing partner of National Development, which built the Woodland project and another major transit project in Medford, said that despite its complexity, the core premise of transit-oriented development holds true.
"What we have found, amazingly enough, is that people do use public transit. Some of our residents have no cars. Some supplement their needs with Zipcar. And I expect this phenomenon will only accelerate in times of $4-a-gallon gas," he said.
While traffic issues may kill projects elsewhere in Massachusetts, in diversity minded Jamaica Plain they take a backseat to a more pressing concern: affordable housing. Residents who have participated in the planning process are pushing project officials to have as much as 50 percent of the housing units designated as affordable, above the city of Boston's mandate of 15 percent.
"I'm OK with building dense near a transportation hub," said Francesca Fordiani, the chair of housing and development for the JP Neighborhood Council. "If this is what it takes to get a good project built," the traffic impact "is a trade-off I'm willing to make."