Crowd looks at land with 4 goals

January 19, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI


Courtesy Photo
Three of the proposed MBTA parcels for sale in conjunction with the Boston Redevelopment Authority for the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative. The parcels also include “air rights,” which refer to the ability to build on top of below-grade tracks while still allowing for continuous use of the tracks.

FOREST HILLS—Community members are starting to develop their vision for the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII) that includes three MBTA parcels, including Forest Hills T Station.

Talk of mixed-use housing; three- to four-story row houses or condos, or traditional Boston brick buildings, with ground-floor retail and housing—some affordable—or offices above; green space; green buildings; locally owned stores; safer and cleaner sidewalks and new streetscapes with less traffic, dominated discussion at a community meeting hosted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Jan. 10.

Over 100 community members, including more than 20 young people, piled into the English High School cafeteria on McBride Street to participate in the “Use, Design, Transportation and Streetscape: Best Practices and Ideas” community meeting—the second in a series of six.

The meeting’s purpose was to review the emerging community vision that was started at October’s meeting and begin to develop the goals mentioned in that vision with public discussion about specific building types and sizes.

“This is an opportunity to improve Forest Hills,” said BRA Project Manager John Dalzell. “[These are] the building blocks, if you will. It’s a way to improve the streets.”


The area being discussed is bounded by Washington Street (between South Street and Arboretum Road) and Hyde Park Avenue (between Washington and Patten streets.)

A community vision drafted by the BRA based on information from October’s meeting named four emerging principles for the FHII: improved traffic patterns; a vibrant mixed-use district; community orientation; and green/sustainable development.

The BRA, with the MBTA, has identified six study sites, that contain land the T wants to sell, including three T-owned parcels, a commuter parking lot on Hyde Park Avenue, the Fitzgerald lot and land at the Arborway Yard.

Dalzell asked people to look over the emerging community vision document to be sure it was accurate. The pool of people then broke into six small groups to discuss the six parcels, review the community vision and flesh out what kind of buildings or green spaces they want to see in Forest Hills and where.

Each group had a picture displaying different types of housing ranging from low-rise apartment/condos housing, or row houses; to high-rise apartment/rental housing; to commercial use and retail. The pictures showed buildings in various architectural styles, like traditional Boston row houses and condos.

After an hour-and-a-half, the groups rejoined in one general assembly and one spokesperson from each group presented their group’s ideas to the crowd. There was a city or state official in each group.

Vision
The six groups agreed with the emerging community principles. All groups said the calming of traffic was a critical element to improvement.

“It’s hard to be against [the principles],” said Bruce Wallin of the West Roxbury Courthouse Association. “The idea, is how can you create an area that draws people, but limits traffic?”

“There really needs to be some educational center focal point so people can come to Forest Hills and know how to get around without banging their heads,” said Wallin, speaking on behalf of Group 1.

Wallin also mentioned interest in some sort of shuttle service between Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park and Forest Hills. This sentiment was echoed by other groups.

“I’m interested in connecting green spaces,” said Group 3 member Karen Zerby Buzzelle.

On behalf of Group 2, Karen Doherty of the Greater Forest Hills Task Force, suggested a rotary around Forest Hills station and offered what she called “major concerns” about the trolley track, and the condition of bridges and walkways.

Group members agreed with the vision to revitalize the Forest Hills T, and for better connections and signage.

Hank Keating, on behalf of Group 6, said the state needs to provide the framework to ensure the development actually meets the needs of the community.

Group 3 spokesperson Carol Pryor said there is a need to knit Forest Hills with the rest of Jamaica Plain and other surrounding neighborhoods.

She also said there is a concern that current Forest Hills residents do not become displaced.

A Group 5 member who preferred to remain anonymous said development in Forest Hills should link the neighborhood with and entice residents from other areas such as Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and the entire Greater Boston area. “There aren’t enough residents in Forest Hills to generate this much activity,” said the Group 5 member. “The community is bigger than just Forest Hills. It includes JP and other neighborhoods.”

Carlos Icaza, spokesperson for Group 4, said there should be a centralized retail district and that the Orange Line should be extended.

All groups said some sort of bike link from the Southwest Corridor to Hyde Park Avenue and to Washington Street is needed.

Parcels
Parcel U and the Forest Hills Station land are approximately 2.8 acres bounded by Hyde Park Avenue and the Shore Line railroad right of way (ROW). The Forest Hills Lower Parking area along Hyde Park Avenue incorporates an additional 2.1 acres.

ROW refers to the potential to build above railroad tracks, while still allowing for continuous use of the tracks. ROW is also known as “air rights.”

Group 2 members said Parcel U is a good spot for three- to four-story mixed-used development with housing over ground floor retail.

Others echoed this idea but said a five-story structure was also reasonable.

Group 5 members envisioned one- to two-story commercial or housing buildings. They also said ROW-1 could be developed for artist or affordable housing.

Parcel V is an approximately 23,000-square-foot area also bounded by Washington Street and the Shore Line railroad ROW. The MBTA anticipates that this land be sold in conjunction with Parcel W, incorporating a permanent open space restriction for public use.

Parcel W is an approximately 1.35-acre site bounded by Washington Street and the Needham Branch of the railroad ROW. A portion of that site (approximately 15,000 square feet) is owned by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. Any sale of that land is subject to the approval of their board of directors and gaining ongoing subsurface easement rights.

Wallin said Group 1 members agreed the V/W parcels would be a good spot for more residential and commercial buildings, but not taller than three to four stories. Wallin also said the V/W parcels would be a good place for a grocery or small hardware store.

According to Doherty, group 2 members liked the idea of buildings with retail on the first floor and commercial or residential above at Parcel V.

Doherty said Group 2 members saw two different visions for Parcel W. One was that
the land remain as green space with very little development. The other was, given its proximity to the depressed railroad tracks, Parcel W may be a good spot for a parking structure.

Other focus areas included the Arborway Yard and Casey Overpass.

Focus Areas
At October’s meeting, the area under the Casey Overpass was mentioned as a dirty area where public drinking and drug-use occurs. All groups agreed the overpass needs to be made safer somehow.

“The Casey Overpass is ugly, unattractive and dangerous,” said Elizabeth Wylie on behalf of Group 5. “Maybe it could become an open-air market space—a space that is pleasant, attractive and safe.”

Wylie said members in her group think the Arborway Yard would be a good place for a commercial front or grocery store.

Next Step
The next meeting, titled “Use, Design and Infrastructure: Preliminary Recommendations,” is tentatively scheduled for March.

Information from the last meeting was used as guidelines for the BRA to create a request for proposals (RFP) for companies interested in planning the development. The RFP is a 49-page document that discusses the FHII community vision and asks questions of potential bidders like, “what is the total number of similar planning projects as listed in the [RFP] your firm has completed in the last five (5) years?” and asks the firm to list their “technical disciplines” such as “architectural; civil structural; environmental engineering; urban planning/design; and transportation planning.”

Dalzell said he expects the consulting firm the BRA hires to be present at that meeting.

Responses to the RFP are due by Feb. 2. Consultants will be chosen by Feb. 13.

According to Dalzell, if RFP for actual construction on the MBTA parcels are issued by this summer, it would be another year or two before any development entity would be back in the community.

For additional information, maps and related documents, visit the BRA web site www.cityofboston.gov/bra, select “Planning Initiatives,” and select “Forest Hills Improvement Initiatives.”