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March 1, 2018
Boston, MA

Driving development: How self-driving cars of tomorrow are shaping today's projects

Rapidly changing transportation technology presents a unique combination of challenges and opportunities for developers and urban planners.

Boston Business Journal (by Kelly J. O'Brien and Catherine Carlock) – At a recent architectural review board meeting at City Hall, the recurring theme seemed to be, “don’t worry, cars are leaving.”

At least, that’s how Kirk Sykes, a member of the Boston Civic Design Commission and managing director of Accordia Partners, described it, following proposals from development teams for projects in Allston, Charlestown and downtown. All the projects were explicitly preparing for a future that included either self-driving cars, automated vehicle parking or the possibility of converting existing parking garage space into another use — themes that architects, city planners and tech experts say will only become more prominent in the coming decade

Mark Rosenshein of Trademark Partners LLC said as much at the meeting while discussing how the planned multilevel garage at 100 Hood Park Drive in Charlestown would be an ideal place to test out autonomous parking systems.

“We are trying to be really proactive,” Rosenshein said. “This is not last year’s garage. This is the garage for the next 50 years.”

Rapidly changing transportation technology presents a unique combination of challenges and opportunities for developers and urban planners. It promises to change fundamentally how people move around cities, but no one knows exactly when those changes will occur — nor what they will look like when they do. For developers in Greater Boston, trying to plan decades into the future is a balancing act between building infrastructure that works today and ensuring their work won’t be obsolete tomorrow.

State leaders already see the need to get ready. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year formed a commission to study the future of transportation in the state, identifying autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing services as a key area of study. “It’s highly justifiable from an economic point of view (for developers) to embrace some of the new technology,” said Ryan Chin, co-founder and CEO of MIT-born autonomous vehicle startup Optimus Ride. “The biggest challenge is that most real estate people don’t realize what the state of the art is.”

Chin’s Optimus Ride is part of the most advanced autonomous vehicle partnership in the Boston area. The startup is working with LStar Ventures, the developer behind Union Point in South Weymouth, to integrate self-driving cars into the mixed-use neighborhood.

Later this spring, the Boston-based company plans to offer autonomous-vehicle rides to and from the nearby South Weymouth commuter-rail station, a so-called “first-mile, last-mile” service for people who live or work at Union Point. Chin said it’s an ideal site, consisting of just a few miles of roads in a controlled environment. Chin hopes the five vehicles — which hold four to six passengers each — are convenient enough that commuters who would otherwise use their own cars will instead take public transportation.

But there’s another advantage, since the test might also give Optimus Ride the chance to shape Union Point’s future development. The 1,500-acre parcel already houses about 1,200 residents, but today, only about a third of it is built out. It will eventually include offices, retail shops and a sports complex, all of which present different challenges and opportunities for self-driving cars.

“We’re building from scratch, so being able to pilot early in the process allows us to learn and adapt,” said Ryan Blackmon, LStar’s vice president of advanced technology and assistant general counsel. “As we learn and as the system grows we can use that to influence our designs for future phases.”

Less parking, better parking

One obvious example of how the technology could affect building plans involves parking. If a significant chunk of commuters were to take Optimus Ride’s autonomous taxis to their Union Point offices, for example, LStar could build fewer parking spots in central areas. Chin estimates each shared autonomous vehicle will eliminate the need for 40 parking spaces, though recent studies indicating that current ride-sharing actually compounds traffic congestion may cast doubt on those projections.

It’s also hard to predict when technology will actually be able to support such fleets. Developers such as LStar that are building entire self-contained neighborhoods might be able to count on some autonomous-car adoption within the next five years, but developers of towers in chaotic city centers might not see autonomous cars operating nearby for a decade or more.

In Boston, the trend is less about immediate preparations for autonomous vehicles, and more about efficient use of parking, said J.F. Finn III, a principal with architecture firm Gensler in Boston, who has spent three decades focusing on large-scale, multidisciplinary projects.

“I think we’re in that transition mode that says, ‘Let’s not use space for parking that won’t be necessary in three, four, five years, and let’s utilize this more efficiently.’ That’s step one,” Finn said.

In some cases, that means demolishing an above-ground garage and replacing it with new development, as seen in the demolition of the Winthrop Square Garage in downtown Boston, the partial demolition of the Government Center Garage and the long-anticipated demolition of the Boston Harbor Garage on the city’s waterfront. In other cases, it means building atop an existing parking garage, such as proposed new residences atop the Dock Square Garage at Faneuil Hall and offices atop a parking garage at 321 Harrison Ave. in the South End.

The One Post Office Square developers have also considered designing garage levels that could be converted to workspaces, potentially adding up to 100,000 square feet of valuable, rentable office space in the center of Boston’s Financial District.

Finn said Boston’s 61 million square feet of off-street parking is already losing value. “The revenue from that parking is diminishing year-over-year in almost every situation,” he said. “As parking diminishes, and as people use Uber and Lyft and other types of services more and more, that parking is going to be less in demand.”

In conversations with clients, Finn said he regularly talks about converting existing parking spaces into other uses, such as residential or office space, a modular hotel, or storage or warehouse facilities that could serve as an Amazon.com Inc. drop-off.

Indeed, flexibility is key in new projects, said Chin, the Optimus Ride CEO. “If you have to build parking, then why not build a parking structure that you can either take down easily or retrofit for a new purpose and have it used that way?” Chin said.

‘Adapting an old city’

Other examples of how technologists and development planners can inform each other’s work include curb design and intersections. Self-driving cars have an even harder time than humans when navigating intersections without clear lines of sight around corners. Simple design fixes like removing one or two parking spots nearest to an intersection, or avoiding giant sidewalk snow banks in the winter, would help autonomous vehicles operate more efficiently.

“You don’t have to do anything specific to the development for (autonomous vehicles) to operate, but there are things that you potentially could do to make the user experience better for the vehicles and for the people who are using them,” LStar’s Blackmon said. “What is it that we would need to do as a developer, and how is it that the technology would operate in this environment?”

The same questions might soon face urban planners who don’t have the luxury of building their neighborhoods from scratch.

“Some of this is adapting an old city to a new technology,” said Craig Carlson, an automotive consultant and MIT lecturer.

Finn, the Gensler principal, said meetings with Boston development officials and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office in the past year assure him of the city’s willingness to explore a future of self-driving cars — or, at the very least, act as moderator between developers, clients and communities navigating this new, uncertain, terrain.

But could old-school Boston ever be a city that’s willing to give up its cars?

“Don’t look at it as, ‘When are autonomous vehicles going to be ubiquitous?’” Finn said. “Look at what the mobility behavior is. Everyone said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get into horseless carriages, everyone loves horses.’ And by 1915, cities were filled with cars, not horses.”

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