Jackson Square plans now official

December 15, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH


Courtesy Illustration
An aerial drawing of the proposed Jackson Square redevelopment. The first phase of construction would be the central triangular parcel and the buildings along the opposite edge of Columbus Avenue. The reoriented salt shed at the bottom of the map, the building on the left side of Centre Street and Columbus and the commerical strip across from the T station are all hypothetical and on land the developer’s do not currently control.

JACKSON SQ.—Jackson Square Partners unveiled its conceptual master plan for redeveloping about 11 acres of land around the Jackson Square T Station at a Nov. 30 meeting that marked its official filing with the city after many previous community meetings.

But with construction at least two years away and plans subject to change, the developers were unable to give detailed answers to many questions posed by the more than 80 residents in attendance.

Partners is proposing a massive, multi-building project including hundreds of mostly affordable housing units, a Youth and Family Center, a rec center, open space and offices and shops—all in response to a “community vision” drafted over years of public meetings. Construction is tentatively slated for three phases running from 2008 to 2013. First up would be a large amount of housing, shops and the Youth and Family Center.

Mossik Hacobian, executive director of Partners member Urban Edge, called it “possibly a model for the country in terms of how community-driven development can happen.”

However, virtually nothing is nailed down yet, including key parcels the developers don’t yet control, and much of the estimated $80 million to $90 million it will take to build the first phase alone. Partners members repeatedly urged the crowd at the meeting, held at the Julia Martin House, to keep political pressure on the city and state to ensure that the project and its funding go forward.


Residents asked questions about how local residents can get jobs in the project’s new stores, or whether the Youth and Family Center will be affordable to their kids. But at this stage, such questions were impossible to answer beyond good intentions. Even building sketches shown at the meeting are only conceptual now. Each phase of the development will go through a more specific project review when its time comes closer.

But Partners is clearly already thinking about such details. For example, Jen Faigel of Partners member the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) said the team is seeking city funding for the Youth and Family Center so it can be built debt-free, and thus with much lower overhead and fees.

Some residents and business owners expressed concern that the new retail space not compete with existing business districts. Partners has proposed extending the new marketing concept of Hyde/Jackson squares as the Boston Latin Quarter to cover the new retail. In fact, JPNDC and Gravestar, the team’s commercial developer, paid for part of the recent Latin Quarter marketing campaign.

At the same time, Hacobian said, such marketing must be “sensitive” in the area that straddles Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. “We need to make sure it reflects the diversity of the neighborhood,” he said. There sometimes have been tensions between African-American and Latino residents in Jackson Square.

Funding realities and affordability were major talking points.

A member of Roxbury’s Highland Park Project Review Committee (PRC) reiterated that group’s long-standing concern that the project lacks middle-income housing. He also suggested that it has too many rental units—about 63 percent of the 429 proposed—when “you have more stability with ownership” as well as a fulfillment of the “American dream.”

“I’m still concerned there isn’t enough home-ownership opportunities,” agreed state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez. But the project relies on government subsidies that, he explained, are more targeted to rental and lower income brackets, and underfunded in any case.

And while the project appears to neatly match the “transit-oriented development” concept advocated by Gov. Mitt Romney, that concept has yet to come with any funding attached, Sánchez said. Transit-oriented development project funding, he said, is “all a cloud in the sky…It’s all paper.”

Bart Mitchell of Partners member Mitchell Properties noted that in any case, the project does propose some middle-income units, and that it’s reasonable for other units to be aimed at people who realistically “will not be able to live the American dream” of ownership.

While 58 to 68 percent of the units are pegged as “affordable,” it’s important to note that affordability is defined as percentages of the Greater Boston area median income (AMI), which is notoriously higher than the city’s AMI. Partners said it must use the Greater Boston AMI because of the public funding formulas it is applying under.

According to a chart provided by Partners at the meeting, a family of four making about $50,000 a year is considered “low income” in the Greater Boston housing market. The JPNDC has previously calculated that the median household income in Hyde/Jackson is about $47,500 a year.

Traffic and parking remain resident concerns, especially since Partners recently removed underground parking garages from its plans as too expensive and complex. Among the solutions is creating on-street parking on a new “Jackson Street” through the development as well as on a new extension of Amory Street out to Centre Street.

Also, the preliminary design includes a housing/retail building that is essentially a thin residential shell wrapped around two sides of a parking garage. Mitchell told the Gazette that units in such a building can be insulated from garage noise.

Michael Halle, chair of the new JP Traffic and Parking Committee, recommended that the project go before his group for input and solutions. Rodney Sinclair, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) project manager on the redevelopment, said that not only will it have its own traffic studies, but it also will be tied into others, such as one currently under way in the Highland Park area.

Pedestrian safety and access remain major focuses, too. That’s another reason for the Amory Street connection, which may be lined with “artisan” shops.

“‘Meet me in Jackson Square’ doesn’t have to mean, ‘Get run over by cars on Columbus Avenue,’” Mitchell said.

Friends of the Kelly Rink remains a Partners affiliate, hoping to rebuild a long-lost Jamaicaway ice rink in Jackson Square. Partners continued its practice of promising an ice rink orally while staying noncommittal on paper. The official project filing with the city describes only a multipurpose recreational center, but JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal at the meeting said that “an ice facility’s going to be an important part” of community facilities. Thal referred specifically to restoring the rink that was “taken away from the community.”

Another ice rink complication is that Partners currently has no control over the rec center land, which is occupied by a city salt shed site that Partners would like to reorient and partly occupy. While the rec center has been pushed to the last phase of development, the first phase would also use a sliver of the salt shed site for driveway access. Mitchell told the Gazette that such access isn’t absolutely necessary, but desirable. It remains unclear if, how and when the city might give up the land.

Also still up in the air is the NSTAR substation at Centre and Columbus, where Partners would like to build a mixed-use building. And the Partners plan includes retail space attached to the Centre Street side of the MBTA maintenance garage across from the T station, though that is not part of the official land available. Mitchell told the Gazette that there have been preliminary talks on using that property.

Process
The first half-hour of the meeting was consumed by the dying gasps of a controversy over the status of the Jackson Square Coordinating Group (JCG), the crucial city-appointed community group that oversaw the redevelopment planning for years.

The JCG initially was streamlined into a “Selection Committee” that would turn into an official impact advisory group (IAG) that would advise the city on mitigations and community benefits from the project.

Weakened by the loss of members—many of whom turned into the developers—and plagued by disputes over a lack of Roxbury representation, the Selection Committee ground to a halt from the city’s point of view, according to BRA Deputy Director Muhammad Ali-Salaam, who has shepherded the Jackson Square flock for years. It has been replaced by an official IAG that nonetheless includes many former JCG members.

Debbie Lubarr and Leslie Leath, who represented the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association on the JCG as two of its vocal members, strongly protested the replacement IAG at the meeting, saying the Selection Committee should have been allowed to vote on the Partners plan.

“This is really a watering-down,” Leath said, adding that she felt “betrayed.”

“The fact is that no community group has veto power over any city decision, and that’s not going to change on my watch,” Ali-Salaam said. “The JCG doesn’t exist anymore in terms of this process.”

He went of his way to praise the JCG members for their years of service, while adding, “This is the last time I’m going to make obeisance to the JCG.”

In any case, and surely not by coincidence, Leath and Lubarr were both named to the IAG. Lubarr was named as Leath’s—and the IAG’s only—alternate.

Other IAG members include: Ed Bernard, Highland Park Project Review Committee; Rafael Benzan, Hyde Jackson Main Streets; Bruce Bickerstaff; Adam Burrows, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council; Mira Brown, Bikes Not Bombs; Saul Cifuentes; Ashley Cotton, Hyde Square Task Force; Barbara Couzens, Dimock Community Health Center; Abass Dieng, Academy Homes; Clara Garcia; Gian Carlos Gonzalez; Celia Grant, Fort Hill Civic Association; Fernando Mercedes, Hyde Square Business Association; Damaris Pimentel; Bob Pulster, ESAC; Jennifer Spencer; Robert Terrell, Roxbury Neighborhood Council; and David Worrell, Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation.

The Hyde Square Task Force is a member of the developer team, but Cotton’s IAG membership is not considered a conflict of interest because the developers have already been selected, according to BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker.

Lubarr also protested the unavailability of the official project filing, which was still difficult to find a month after being submitted to the BRA. Sinclair acknowledged that Partners threw the BRA off by submitting the plans early, before an IAG could be formed. He said the BRA generally doesn’t make filings publicly available until IAG members can see them, so the BRA withheld it for at least a few weeks. However, the Gazette was able to review the plan shortly after it was filed by requesting it at the BRA offices.

The BRA is accepting public comments on the Partners plan through Jan. 5. They can be sent to Sinclair at the BRA, One City Hall Square, Boston, MA 02201-1007; via e-mail at Rodney.Sinclair.BRA@cityofboston.gov; or via fax at 742-7783.

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