It all started with a coffee table book.
Not many attorneys can attribute their professional life to a photography book displayed in his or her childhood home, but Matt Lawlor is one who can. Lawlor, a partner at Robinson+Cole and a member of the firm’s Real Estate + Development Group, focuses his practice on matters involving transit-oriented, affordable, and mixed-use development, a subject that appealed to him early on.
“I grew up in Brooklyn, and in my house we had a book called Lost New York that has pictures of all kinds of buildings and places in New York that are no longer there,” said Lawlor. “One of the most important and tragic was the original Penn Station – the beaux arts masterpiece that was demolished in the early 1960s. That, to me, represented how the city had done things to itself that just didn’t make sense.”
It didn’t make sense to Lawlor until he came across another book, The Power Broker by Robert Caro. As Lawlor read the biography of New York City master builder Robert Moses, the pieces began to fall into place.
“Moses was a guy who was a little like Ed Logue in Boston, though Moses was around longer and did more to the city,” Lawlor explained. “He’s the guy who started in the late 20s by building Jones Beach, a big public beach on the south side of Long Island. He then went into New York City and built literally dozens of highways, bridges, tunnels, roads, and parkways over several decades. But he built them in a way that made the city worse off than he had found it.”
As Lawlor read about the building of many urban freeways, most notoriously the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the damage that was done to neighborhoods, especially poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, in their making, he began to see his home city in a new light.
“That kind of scenario happened over and over in New York during this time period. And so it all made sense to me, now I knew why the city looks this way; we spent a lot of money on things that ultimately made our city less livable and made it a less desirable place to be. And at the same time we spent next to nothing on things like better transit that would have made the city more livable. So I was mad. I was mad at my city, that it had done this to itself and its people. I wanted to go into a profession that would help restore the damage that had been done.”
After earning his B.A. at Amherst College, Lawlor headed to UNC Chapel Hill for a masters degree in regional planning. (Not coincidentally, this is where Lawlor met his wife, who is also an urban planner.) Upon graduation, he landed a job at a consulting firm in Washington, DC, but was too far-removed from the action to feel that he was having an impact on how communities looked and operated. That’s where Robinson+Cole comes in.
“The senior land use partner here at R+C, Dwight Merriam, graduated from my planning school before he went to law school,” said Lawlor. “When I was in grad school, he actually came to the campus at Chapel Hill and gave a talk about Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, a groundbreaking regulatory takings case in the Supreme Court case that had just been handed down. I remembered that connection, so when I was thinking about law school I spoke to him. And when a position in the land use section opened up here I spoke to him again.”
In the years since graduating from Boston College Law School, Lawlor has found himself considerably closer – in both professional and pro bono capacities – to the action of shaping our communities. One such site is the Hamilton Canal District in Lowell, which was the first place in Massachusetts to use a form-based code, a zoning approach that fosters high-quality public spaces by focusing on a building’s physical form rather than its intended use; a significant departure from use-based conventional zoning.
Lawlor also worked on Waterfront Square, a mixed use development project along a half mile stretch of Revere Beach adjacent to Wonderland station.
“We were the development counsel from the very beginning, and it was a great, exciting, and complicated project that we worked on for a long time with a multidisciplinary team of lawyers, planning consultants, engineers, traffic engineers, architects, the whole range,” said Lawlor. “I learned a lot about how the state and a city can work together and how various permitting regimes fit together.”
So what does a planner and lawyer who credits Lost New York (there’s a Lost Boston, too!) with launching his career aspirations think of the Boston’s current development boom?
“Boston was like New York in lots of ways,” said Lawlor. “During the post-war period Boston did things that weren’t in the city’s best interest, the elevated Central Artery being an example, as well as the widespread use of urban renewal and eminent domain, most notoriously in the complete demolition of the West End. All of this tore at the urban fabric of Boston, and it’s taken a long time to find the development boom that could finally repair all of the damage that’s been done.”
This one, thinks Lawlor, looks like it might be the one. It’s not just a reshuffling of the deck, but a substantial new wave of people coming to Boston for the first time.
“There is a huge opportunity right now to build buildings that make our city better. I think we’re a lot smarter about how to do that in a way that makes sense and fits in with the city, so I’m glad this particular boom is happening today as opposed to years ago. The Walsh administration has been very good not only in realizing that this population increase is coming (it’s already here), but also in realizing that it is going to require a very substantial number of new residential units, and then being clear that these units are not just going to be downtown, but also in neighborhoods – like Washington Village in South Boston and Fairmount in Hyde Park, where I’ve been involved in a 27-unit transit-oriented development that is scheduled to break ground this spring.”
When asked how this growth relates to growing concerns over neighborhood gentrification, Lawlor points out that, at one level, the reality is actually different from public perception.
“People often perceive that because new construction is going on, that’s what gentrification is. But if you don’t build new units, you gentrify faster,” explained Lawlor. “Like it or not, Boston is in high demand. If we don’t build more supply, the prices will rise faster. It’s not so much the new units but the fact that more people now want to live in this city, in every neighborhood. The administration has been open about their intent in boosting housing production, and there’s been some data released recently that shows that the increase in residential rents has started to level off. I think that’s got to be, at least to some extent, a result of the increase in housing.”
“The administration has also been good on building new units in the affordable range, like Parcel 1B in the Bulfinch Triangle downtown. For that project, they did a lot of work in terms of tax treatment so that the residential component is entirely workforce affordable. The city appears to want to replicate that as much as possible.”
But as Boston moves in a positive direction on the housing front, Lawlor is giving his time and skills as both a volunteer and pro bono counsel to make sure that the city’s public spaces and walking, cycling, and transit infrastructure aren’t left behind.
“One area that hasn’t been moved forward as much has been the public realm parts of Boston – how our streets are configured, whether they promote livability and safety or whether they are working against those priorities,” said Lawlor. “I think generally speaking there is still way too much space given over to cars. If you’re increasing housing and population in Boston, we really ought to be thinking about getting people around the city in different ways than just by car, and urgently improve our infrastructure for walking and biking and, yes, the T.”
To that end, Robinson+Cole has acted as pro bono counsel for The Congress for the New Urbanism’s New England Chapter (CNU), a non-profit that promotes walkable cities, towns, and neighborhoods where people have options for how they live, work, shop, and get around.
“New Urbanism is a philosophy around city building that is very much about restoring walkability to cities and new development,” said Lawlor. “In the post-war period, by and large, the U.S. decided that we weren’t going to be getting around in any way other than by car. So we didn’t invest in transit or walking, and we certainly didn’t invest in biking. That had huge consequences for the way we designed and built things and the way we have lived and continue to live now. That kind of auto-oriented development in our cities has had a lot of negative consequences.”
He points to the auto-oriented pattern of locating large parking lots in front of buildings rather than behind them, separating the building from the sidewalk and street. “So, part of what CNU strives to do is bring the building close to the street. That creates a public realm that people want to be and walk around in.”
Lawlor also volunteers on the board of Walk Boston, where he works to make streets safer through traffic-calming design measures and increasing opportunities for walking and other active transportation modes.
“I become more involved with WalkBoston and at the community level with the transition from the Menino to the Walsh administration, because I thought the opportunity was there for change. It’s an exciting period for Boston, and I think to get the most out of what we’re seeing, there needs to be a more fundamental change in how we’re managing our streets.
One prime example of that fundamental change is Mayor Walsh’s adoption of Vision Zero in 2015, which is a policy and plan to reduce the number of traffic deaths of all kinds in Boston to zero by 2030. Pioneered in Stockholm in 1997, the Vision Zero concept is widely credited with a significant reduction in fatal and serious crashes on Sweden’s roads.
“It’s all about vehicle speed,” explained Lawlor. “If you get hit by a car going 20 miles per hour, your chances of surviving that crash are much, much better than if the car was going 30mph or faster. You might walk away 85% of the time at a speed of twenty, but just 50% of the time at thirty, and just 15% of the time at forty. The default or background speed limit in Boston has been 30 mph forever, and we built the vast majority of our streets in a way that’s designed to let cars go even faster.
“As part of Vision Zero, Boston will very soon lower that default limit to 25 miles, and that’s a good start. But you also have to alter the streets to make them safer, because people won’t slow down just because the sign says so. This is an area that has been especially frustrating for advocates in this space because there’s so much to do and, so far, not enough resources dedicated to doing it. This is not to say that the agencies responsible for Vision Zero aren’t doing the best they can and are working extremely hard, or that Boston is not already a great place to live – all of that is true. Boston is a very walkable city with great people working in our government, but the last 10-15% – where our streets are just failing us – is what we’re missing, and we’re not going to get there by 2030 at the rate we’re going. We’ve got to pick up the pace.”
Picking up the pace on that last 15% is why Lawlor devotes time both in and out of the office to the subject that first drew him in from the pages of Lost New York.
“It’s both what I do for work and what I do outside of work as something I’m deeply interested in,” he said. “The two definitely go together.”