Maple Hurst unveils new Green St. plan

October 5, 2007
By

David Taber

BROOKSIDE-—Calling for a smaller development and a lower rate of affordability than has been proposed in the past, local developers Maple Hurst Builders in late September unveiled preliminary plans for a parcel on the corner of Green and Amory streets and Brookside Avenue.

The firm, which developed the former convent and other sites along the Jamaicaway, is heading the second development team to be awarded building rights for the formerly MBTA-owned parcel after multiple community planning processes over the last two decades.

In 2005, the local non-profit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) backed out of a plan to build a mixed-use development with over 20 residential units, half of them designated as affordable, at the 131-135 Brookside Ave. site. At the time, JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal gave the MBTA’s refusal to pay for soil testing as the reason the plans fell through.

Boston Redevelopment Authority spokesperson Lucy Warsh recently told the Gazette, however, that, “The JPNDC couldn’t do the plan because of the size of the project and an affordability component that the community deemed too high.”

But the JPNDC still claims soil testing was the deal-breaker. “The issue for us was that the MBTA required us to put down a significant non-refundable deposit before the tests were completed,” said Lizbeth Heyer, JPNDC’s associate director for community development.

Heyer said the JPNDC’s commitment to an ambitious affordability component, which was outlined in the request for proposals [RFP] developed by the BRA and issued by the MBTA, made the investment particularly risky.

The MBTA’s refusal to negotiate was “unusual, especially where there is a community interest at stake,” Heyer said.

As the second-highest bidder, Maple Hurst got the job. Its new proposal is for a three-story mixed-use development with three ground-floor retail spaces and 12 condominium units. It is about half the size of the JPNDC’s proposal and, “It will not be 50 percent affordable,” said Maple Hurst head Chris DeSisto.

Warsh said the original RFP will still serve as a framework as Maple Hurst moves forward. The actual document, which Warsh said is on file with the MBTA was not available for review by press time.

Selling a plan

Transit-oriented development (TOD) and community services were what Maple Hurst’s development team had to offer at a Sept. 26 preliminary meeting with neighbors at the E-13 police station.

“Even though this neighborhood is heavily settled, there is a relative lack of services,” said Kristen Hunter of Maple Hurst.

DeSisto said his company would retain control of the commercial units, and will be looking to attract tenants that cater to T riders.

The preliminary plans call for a 20-foot set-back on the Amory Street side of the building intended for outdoor seating. The recently opened Ula Café, down Amory Street at the JPNDC-owned Brewery Complex, was mentioned as an example of the type of anchor tenant Maple Hurst hopes to attract.

“We are trying to enliven the street, make it more lively at night.” DeSisto said.

Neighborhood resident Marie Turley said she is saddened by any loss of open space in JP, but David Nathan, co-founder of nearby JP co-housing, was unequivocally enthusiastic.

“We’ve got too much green space in JP. What we do not have is a lot of activity on the street. I say go with it!” Nathan said.

Other neighbors were more cautious in their support.

“If you are going to bring commercial in that encourages hanging out, I want it done very carefully,” said abutter Sarah Magaziner.

Highlighting tensions that exist between condominium owners and tenants of single-room occupancy housing on Green Street, another abutter reacting to JP Co-Housing resident Diane Simpson’s suggestion to install an ATM, described that as “a really bad idea. Where I live there are Nextels going off and pagers going off all the time. There are a lot of unsavory characters.”

Groans came from the audience when the same neighbor said he would like to see a Starbucks go in.

Another neighbor pointed out that there are a number of vacant storefronts along that section of Green Street already, but DeSisto said the new space would be different.

“If you are moving in and you have high ceilings and a lot of light and plug-ins, you will attract a different type of person than [retail space] on the corner of Green and Washington that they are maybe having trouble renting,” he said.

In response to oft-stated community concern about the already congested on-street parking situation on Green Street, DeSisto said Maple Hurst is looking to attract pedestrian-oriented retail but is in negotiations to rent a private parking lot.

“If we are able to obtain parking in an adjacent lot, that will dictate what we do,” he said, indicating that the ground-floor space may be used for private offices if additional parking is not available.

Neighbors were also concerned that parking for condominium owners in the new development, which would be located in a lot at the rear of the property and accessed from Brookside Avenue, would create additional congestion on that street. The area is zoned for light-industrial use and Carlisle Engineering often maneuvers forklifts and flatbed trucks in the street, residents said.

It was suggested that the setback on Amory Street be cut down and the building be moved over to make space for more parking and a wider curb cut for the residential parking lot.

DeSisto said he is not overly concerned with residential parking issues because he has seen marketing strategies successfully deployed for market-rate condos that specifically target non-drivers. A recent development at 131 Green St., on the other side of the T Station, which Maple Hurst built for Catartes Private Development, successfully employed that strategy, DeSisto said.

Residents had other concerns about the proposed architecture and design, but DeSisto emphasized that the plans are “still in their infancy stages” and the designs presented were meant merely to give a sense of the “size and scope” of the project.

In an interview, Hunter said Maple Hurst is “looking at everything discussed” and will bring refined plans back to the community as soon as late October.

Maple Hurst still needs BRA approval and, since the neighborhood parcel is not zoned for residential use, a variance from the zoning Board of Appeal before they begin construction.

The way back machine

The 11,000-square-foot parcel on the corner of Amory, Green and Brookside has been vacant for 23 years, since the MBTA seized it by eminent domain.

In 2000, attempts by the MBTA to sell off the property without any community input led to a public outcry. By 2004, the BRA had taken over the disposition of the lot. After more public outcry, the BRA initiated a community process to help develop a RFP for the lot. The MBTA put out the RFP and later that year, awarded development rights to the JPNDC and for-profit developer New Atlantic Development.

The team’s proposal for a four-story mixed-use building with 21 to 22 residential units fell through in 2005.

At the September 2007 meeting, DeSisto told neighbors Maple Hurst had conducted testing and found no contamination. “It looks really good,” DeSisto said.

Many other similar MBTA-owned parcels have been found to be contaminated but “the MBTA filled this one with clean fill,” he said.

The JPNDC/New Atlantic proposal called for 50 percent of the units to be affordable, which, according to Gazette reports, was consistent with what was “favored” in the 2004 RFP. The affordability component and size of the proposed development were strongly criticized by neighboring condo owners at the time.

At the September meeting at least one abutter said she was relieved JPNDC was no longer the developer.

Hunter told the Gazette 50 percent affordability was not a requirement of the RFP. She said the percentage of affordable units is often proportional to the number of units being built, and since Maple Hurst is proposing half as many units, a lower proportion of them will be made affordable.

The exact number of units that will be made affordable will be the subject of ongoing discussion between Maple Hurst, the BRA and the community, she said.

Hunter said the price of the units that are made affordable will also be part of the discussion, but that traditionally affordable units are priced for people earning between 80 and 120 percent of the Greater Boston Area median income (AMI) of about $57,000 a year.

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, which normally offers an advisory opinion to the zoning Board of Appeal when variances are required, recently amended its TOD Guidelines to call for at least 50 percent affordability for the development of publicly owned land.

The JPNC’s guidelines call for the average cost of the affordable units to be accessible to people earning 65 percent AMI, about $37,000 a year.