Affordable housing debate

April 13, 2007
By

NATE LESKOVIC

FOREST HILLS—As community members launched into a third round of brainstorming about new development around the Forest Hills T Station, a budding affordable housing debate added tensions to the process.

The March 31 meeting—attended by some 75 people—began with a demand for 50 percent affordable housing from Red Burrows of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC). The JPNC recently voted to support a petition signed by 95 Forest Hill neighbors making the issue a top priority.

“For me, to sit and watch [the process] close a gate to people of more modest means… would be hurting [the process],” said Burrows.

“No one should be displaced from the area as a result of rising property values,” said JPNC member Francesca Fordiani. “Publicly owned land needs affordable housing.”

This was the third session held by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to give the community the chance to to formulate a vision of commercial and residential development around the station.

Greater Forest Hills Task Force (GFHTF) member Karen Doherty said she felt “steamrolled” by the petition and that the JPNC had not reached out to those already working on the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII).

“I believe the communication has not been adequate for them to come into the process at this point the way they did today,” said Doherty. “We may come up with that percentage, but we’re not there yet.”

Doherty said the FHII is creating a balance between different concepts and is not a “battleground” for affordable housing or a “crusade for any special interest group.”

Burrows said many Forest Hills residents feel affordable housing is not being addressed and came to the JPNC for support. “I see a vision emerging, but I don’t see everyone at the table,” he said.

The FHII provides residents input into proposed new housing, retail and streetscape improvements around the station. The MBTA plans to sell a strip of land on Hyde Park Avenue south of the commuter lot and two adjacent strips across the train tracks on either side of Washington Street.
The commuter parking lot, the private Fitzgerald lot across from the station and 8 acres of the Arborway Yard will also likely be developed and are being included in designs.

The BRA’s John Dalzell, senior architect for the project, said affordable housing requests could be noted, but would not be discussed until the next meeting when more detailed descriptions of possible buildings are presented.

The issue will be the first item on the JPNC’s April 24 agenda, chair Nelson Arroyo told The Gazette on Wednesday.

The March 31 session aimed to narrow concepts formulated from previous meetings.

“Right now we’re dealing in a dream world of what we’d like to see,” said Dalzell. “We’ll spend coming meetings talking a lot more about types of housing, how much affordable and how much rental versus ownership.”

After discussion there was consensus on concentrating commercial space near the station and building housing farther away; extending the Southwest Corridor bike path down Washington Street; and creating more green space, including a connection between the Arnold Arboretum and Forest Hills Cemetery/Franklin Park through the Arborway overpass area. Inclusion of affordable housing and youth spaces were also recommended.

The MBTA tracks that abut the parcel on the west side of Washington Street near the arboretum could be capped to limit noise and make housing more attractive, according to Dalzell. If not, it would likely be used as commercial space.

Dalzell said the Fitzgerald lot owner is interested in selling the property. Many suggested a Trader Joe’s grocery store would be a good fit for the location.

There was concern about minimizing the height of buildings to around three stories. However, Dalzell explained height—as well as other details of developments—are often determined by feasibility. Economic limitations will be discussed as development concepts are solidified, he said.

Earlier suggestions to build over the tracks between Washington Street and Hyde Park Avenue, extend the Orange Line and construct a new bridge over the tracks by Walk Hill Street have already been tabled due to infeasibility, said Dazell.

Traffic discussions were also postponed until consultants had more concrete plans to analyze. Some possibilities include converting the area into a one-way loop like Davis Square and moving commuter parking farther south.

Many who participated said they are satisfied with the process so far.

“I think the BRA is pursuing an impeccable neighborhood process,” said Sarah Buermann.

JPNC member Fordiani, however, said she was concerned about the timeframe and mentioned how the Jackson Square and Blessed Sacrament developments have taken years to coalesce. “I’m wondering if this is really realistic,” she said. “Is there enough time to get all the community input that you need?”

Fordiani said she is also concerned about the MBTA’s mandate to sell to the highest bidder. “That might end up with different [concepts] than what we have developed here,” she said.

In an agreement with the city, the T has committed to also taking community input into consideration when selecting buyers.

At least three more community meetings are planned for the FHII, the next in about a month. Dalzell said sketches of buildings will be presented for consideration.

When the FHII completes concept development, the BRA will draft guidelines
potential developers must follow to receive contracts.

The MBTA will likely issue requests for proposals (RFPs) in September and construction would hopefully start next summer, according to Dalzell.

Development of the Arborway Yard and the Fitzgerald lot would likely be farther off.

Sandra Storey contributed to this article.