Church zoning approved, criticized

November 17, 2006
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HYDE SQ.—The Blessed Sacrament Church redevelopment appears to be headed for approval by city agencies—and possibly a lawsuit by abutters—after a major change to its underlying zoning was passed by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) this week following a string of heated meetings.

Those meetings included charges that the developers—the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and New Atlantic Development—deliberately created incorrect project density calculations. The developers deny that in general but have not responded in detail. In any case, no one appears to be defending the developers’ contention last January that the project would actually be significantly less dense than the surrounding neighborhood.

The charges have been made by the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), some members of which continue to threaten a lawsuit. SNA vice president Joel Parry said in one of the meetings that the situation could “ultimately end up with lawyers arguing with lawyers.”

But for now, the SNA intends to keep making its case in public hearings. “We’ll keep plugging away,” SNA president Edmund Cape told the Gazette.

The slow pace of a lawsuit could be damaging, according to JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal.

“The consequences of delay are not only that tremendous needs remain unmet…but financially it costs us about $40,000 a month in carrying costs for the site,” he said, adding that the public funding cycle the project is relying on is open to proposals only twice a year. “There are real costs to delay,” he said.

Emotions have run high, frequently expressed as brief arguments in the meetings or on the Curtis Hall steps afterward. Perhaps the oddest moment came at Tuesday’s JPNC meeting, when JPNC chair Nelson Arroyo had to demand a council vote to be allowed to voice his opinion. Arroyo is also a member of the city’s Zoning Commission, which will also vote on the zoning change, and has recused himself from both groups, citing “all of this craziness, and there is the threat of a lawsuit.”

Meanwhile, the massive church site redevelopment is moving ahead in other ways. The Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) announced plans to become a tenant of the Chevrus School on the site, filling the ground floor in a major expansion.

HSTF Executive Director Claudio Martinez told the Gazette that the group still intends to follow its plan to move into the eventual Jackson Square redevelopment.

“But it’s years away,” he said. “So between now and then, we still have lots of kids dropping out of school, failing the MCAS, not able to get after-school support, not able to get culture and education and recreation.” The HSTF has several new programs to fill the space, he said.

The Blessed Sacrament developers secured $1.6 million in state funding for an affordable home-ownership part of the project.

The zoning change also received approval from a city community advisory committee (CAC) reviewing the project. That group has held more than a dozen meetings, none of which were publicly advertised despite technically being open to the public. Lance Campbell, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) project manager on the development, told the Gazette that CAC meetings are always unpublicized, though he could not explain why, beyond suggesting that doing so would interfere with their work.

Zoning change
The Blessed Sacrament site at Centre and Creighton streets is zoned for single-family homes. The redevelopment plans would require dozens of variances for condos, apartments, retail space and other elements.

Instead, the developers are asking for a zoning map amendment, which would change the underlying zoning.

The map amendment would extend a nearby multi-family residential zoning area over most of the site. It would also extend a Centre Street “Neighborhood Shopping” area over the front of the site within a jagged area that would include the front area of the church.

The JPNC and its Zoning Committee approved the map amendment. But that came only after concerns were raised about the jagged boundary line that splits the church, including by acting JPNC and Zoning Committee chair Michael Reiskind, who also sits on the CAC.

Zoning Committee member Stephanie Bode Ward said the map amendment, with its jagged boundary, has the “air” of illegal “spot zoning,” or arbitrary rezoning done just to financially benefit a developer. Attorneys for the developer have denied that.

The zoning committee considered and rejected by one vote a proposal to straighten the line, which closely follows details of the redevelopment plan. The Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), the main group of abutters, also alleged that the map amendment may be spot zoning.

Density
But density is the SNA’s main concern, which ties into the map amendment because the rezoning would allow much higher density on the site.

Abutters have been raising density concerns from the start, citing such issues as traffic, loss of views, trash management and possibly crime, though the fairly recent SNA group has not cited safety issues as a density concern.

In January, the developers held a special meeting about density and traffic. While acknowledging the project would add density, they presented data showing the site would actually be significantly less dense than the surrounding neighborhood average, in terms of numbers of residents per unit and per acre.

The SNA has since conducted its own density calculations, reportedly based on city standards and census data, delivered in presentations at the JPNC Housing and Development Committee on Oct. 30, at the Zoning Committee on Nov. 2 and at the full JPNC. The SNA says the developers used bad methods and incomplete data deliberately to make abutters’ concerns appear irrational. And, the SNA says, its data shows the project will be significantly more dense than the surrounding neighborhood.

“Your numbers are bogus,” Parry told the JPNDC’s Lizbeth Heyer at the zoning committee meeting. “These are the real numbers.”

The developers have defended their methods while essentially saying the argument is over.

“We as developers don’t feel it’s worth continuing this debate,” Heyer said at the Zoning Committee hearing in response to questions.

Asked about the SNA calculations by the Gazette, Thal responded by describing how the developers met frequently with residents about their concerns. Asked specifically if the developers computed density accurately and in good faith, he said, “Absolutely,” adding that the project indeed will be dense because of the historic buildings being reused and preserved.

“You have to expect it’s going to be higher density than the average in Jamaica Plain,” Thal said.

The SNA presentation was itself dense with data and hard to examine in detail in fairly brief meetings. Reiskind referred to the presentation as “impressive” and said he was surprised it didn’t generate more conversation.

JPNC members in all the meetings appeared to conclude that even if the SNA is correct, the project still isn’t too dense for the neighborhood.

“This project is not overly dense. I’m sorry, it’s not,” said Zoning Committee member Jamie Seagal, adding that he sympathizes with the abutters. “This project is needed in this neighborhood…It’s a church property. It is an anomaly. To say it has to go along with any conventional zoning…It [does] not.”

Likewise, Housing and Development Committee chair Francesca Fordiani said that committee ultimately viewed the question as, “Can the neighborhood really absorb this project…and we feel that it can and that it can be a benefit to the community.”

But JPNC member Allison Nevitt—the sole vote against the map amendment—wasn’t convinced.

“Is that an intuitive response? Do you have data to support this?” she asked Fordiani and the Zoning Committee at large. “It’s obviously a very emotional topic…It seems to me the only way you can cut through emotionality is with some data.”

Fordiani noted that the developers presented a summary of their traffic study, and Reiskind cited the Zoning Committee’s “experience.”

Reiskind also cited the continuing public process that will allow abutters to address density. That includes a Dec. 6 Zoning Commission hearing and a return to the JPNC for some variances and permits the project will require even with a map amendment.

Also, there may be continuing CAC meetings, though that process has been controversial.

The CAC includes an SNA member, though the SNA has complained of feeling outnumbered. Among the eight other members is a representative of the Hyde Square Task Force, though the last CAC meeting apparently was held before the Task Force proposed becoming a tenant in the project.

Cape told the Gazette that there was “miscommunication about whether we [other SNA members] were allowed to attend those [CAC] meetings. It was certainly not a process that was clearly made open.”

Campbell told the Gazette that CAC meetings are never publicized, but their minutes are put on the BRA web site. Asked if the reason for not publicizing them is to avoid a “circus” atmosphere if hundreds of audience members attended, Campbell said, “It’s not that we didn’t want the three-ring circus. It’s the nature of a CAC. There’s work to be done.”

He also couldn’t say when the next CAC meetings will be, or if there will be any at all. He said the group leader is on maternity leave.

Public process is actually the core of the SNA density debate. Cape has argued that the developers tried to confuse or distract abutters instead of working with them. He pointed to the developers’ previous criticism of the group’s call for more home-ownership units. Affordable condos have ended up being a significant part of the project after state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez pressed the SNA’s concerns and acquired funding.

The SNA has asked for more developer-abutter meetings on top of the at least half-dozen already held.

“I think two years of meetings is a good stint,” Thal told the Gazette, indicating that no more meetings will be held.

Asked if the SNA theoretically might support the project as is if it felt the information was sound, Cape said, “Absolutely. If we looked into it, and this was the only way, of course.”

SNA critics
Critics of the SNA, however, say the developers’ plan is based on feasibility, making it the only way to go.

“I haven’t once heard it said what you guys want that’s doable,” Fordiani said to Cape at the JPNC meeting.

The SNA refers generally to removing about 35 percent of the units, but it’s unclear how. And some elements of its presentations have rankled with their between-the-lines implications.

The main SNA presentation includes a hypothetical site plan that totally removes the high-density mixed-use building that the developers want to construct on the corner of Creighton and Centre, and which would serve as an “economic engine” of the project.

Instead, the SNA sketch shows the historic rectory still there. Preserving the rectory has been viewed by some, including Arroyo, as an excuse for killing the entire project. The developers agreed to save but relocate the rectory after community and Boston Landmarks Commission pressure. The SNA is supposed to have no official position on the fate of the rectory.

And the SNA’s recent presentation to the full JPNC included an image showing that, “This part of JP already supports a disproportionately large amount of affordable housing.” The SNA has been accused by Arroyo and others of serving as a front for anti-affordable housing sentiment, even while it claims to support 100 percent affordable housing at Blessed Sacrament.

After the JPNC meeting, Housing and Development Committee member Pam Bender heatedly told Cape and Parry that she felt “insulted” by that image coming after the 100 percent affordablility stand was cited at the committee meeting.

“You contradict yourself,” she said.

Parry said the image was intended to show “too many units,” not too much affordability.

Arroyo continued his criticism of the project’s critics, saying much of it amounts to bigotry against affordable housing. In his testimony to the JPNC, he said some e-mail comments he has received about the project offended him, “especially one about, ‘Do we want another Bromley-Heath on this corner?’” Bromley-Heath is a Jackson Square public housing development.

Parry previously dismissed Arroyo’s criticisms, saying, “We need facts, not innuendo.”

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