Community mostly happy with neighborhood development guidelines
FOREST HILLS—The MBTA is looking to include the redevelopment of the Forest Hills Station commuter parking lot in its plans to sell off a number of other parcels around the station to developers early next year.
It will, as MBTA Real Estate Director Mark Boyle put it, “strongly consider” selling development rights to its commuter parking lot in conjunction with three surplus parcels it owns around the station.
The surplus parcels, the commuter lot and a number of other lots in the Forest Hills neighborhood have been the subject of consideration for over a year as part of the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII)—a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)-led community process undertaken at the request of the MBTA.
The BRA unveiled a preliminary version of the fruit of that effort, the draft Use and Design Guidelines, to about 100 community residents, at the Nov. 17 meeting of the FHII at Covenant Congregational Church, 455 Arborway.
Overall, the draft guidelines lay out a plan for 150,000 square feet of commercial/office space, 125,000 square feet of ground floor retail, 200,000 square feet of open space and 716 new units of housing.
Boyle’s qualified commitment was made in response to community concerns that a vague timeline for the complex neighborhood redevelopment plan would bring an influx of new residents long before the neighborhood’s retail capacity is upgraded.
JP resident Anne McKinnon pushed officials to clarify how all the various aspects of the plan would fit together.
“Seventy-five percent of your [proposed] construction is not in the parcels up for sale,” she said.
She said she was particularly concerned about the MBTA commuter lot, which she described as “the keys to the kingdom.”
The BRA guidelines call for two six- to seven-story structures on the commuter lot, including at least 240 MBTA commuter and employee garage parking spaces. The draft guidelines also call for 22,000 square feet of open space, including “a major public open space, ‘Village Center’”; 200 residential units; and 37,000 square feet of retail on the site, possibly including an art house or second-run movie theater.
In his overview of the project, BRA Senior Architect and JP resident John Dalzell, who has been managing the FHII process, described the centrally located MBTA site as the “commercial core” of the draft development plan.
Boyle said the MBTA is amenable to the redevelopment of the site as long as no cost is passed to the MBTA or commuters and there is no loss of commuter parking spaces.
“We are actually very excited about including the parking lot as well,” he said, “It would first have to go through an internal surplusing process.”
Once initiated, Boyle said, the surplusing process would take about 60 days.
The MBTA needs to make sure its “ongoing needs at the property are being protected such as commuter parking, bus pick-up/drop-off, taxi etc.,” MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told the Gazette in an e-mail.
“If there is an approved disposition with these stipulations, the T could then move into an Invitation To Bid process,” he said.
The three surplus vacant lots the MBTA plans to sell off, known as parcels U, V and W, are to the south of Forest Hills Station.
Parcel U, a 2.82-acre parcel, runs along Hyde Park Avenue from Ukraine Way to just north of Patten Street. Parcels V and W, which flank Washington Street running south of Ukraine Way, will be sold as a single plot, total 1.87 acres.
At the request of the community, the BRA has also solicited input and developed use guidelines for the MBTA commuter lot just north of Ukraine, and two other Forest Hills parcels: The privately owned Fitzgerald parking lot across the street and land promised to the community at the Arborway Yard northeast of the station.
At the meeting, Boyle’s short time estimate for the disposition of the commuter lot drew laughter from the crowd and a sarcastic, “Yeah” from Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY) head Henry Allen.
The CPCAY has been working with the MBTA for close to a decade on plans for the redevelopment of the Arborway Yard bus facility.
The BRA’s draft use guidelines for the community land on that site, which are based on work done by CPCAY, recommend a grocery store, which many said was an important retail need. That site contains an MBTA bus yard, and new development on it will not begin until a redesign of the bus yard, which is still in its planning stages, is complete.
Halfway through the meeting, community members were invited to walk around the room, write comments on yellow sticky notes and affix them to site plans. They were also encouraged to vote on how well each plan reflected community desires by affixing stickers to a chart. For all five sites and for the project as a whole, the vast majority said the draft plan accomplished its goals “somewhat well.”
“Generally, it wasn’t in the middle, it was on the plus side. What we will do is look at the particulars and see what things we can respond to that are not going to be a concern to other people who did not hold that opinion,” Dalzell told the Gazette.
A wide array of tweaks to the overall draft design were suggested in reports back from the breakout sessions by community representatives.
Community members reportedly suggested designing the more centrally located Fitzgerald lot for use by a grocer. In the draft, the Fitzgerald lot is slated for 7,500 square feet of retail. If parcels V and W are taken together, that site will have the second-smallest amount of retail space, with 16,000 square feet. Some suggested, however, that the lot might be better suited for residential use because, unlike the other parcels, it abuts a residential neighborhood.
In an interview with the Gazette, Dalzell explained that the BRA had proposed the Washington Street side of the Arborway Yard community land for the grocery because Fitzgerald is a “deep interior site. It’s difficult to access the area except for driving into it.”
The Fitzgerald lot is also fairly small. There would be room for a single-story, 15,000-square-foot store and 15,000 square feet of parking. “That’s not a lot of parking and not much of a grocery store,” he said.
Dalzell said the biggest surprise for him at the meeting was “the desire for more of a mix of uses at parcel U at the south end of the district. It was a well-thought-out position.”
That suggestion was also made in the reports back. A lack of services on the south side of the district, and noise from trains and isolation from other residential neighborhoods, lend the site to a more retail focus, residents said.
Some residents the Gazette talked to were concerned about the overall density of the project, particularly at the MBTA commuter parking lot, where Dalzell said around 200 residential units would be necessary to pay for the structured parking.
“Is this the time to really be building housing?” wondered Asticou Road resident and head of the Asticou Neighborhood Association Bernie Doherty. “What kind of a shock does it present to the community?”
The plans call for a net reduction in parking spaces in the neighborhood. Local resident Andrew Haines said adherance to transit-oriented development guidelines, which call for only 0.75 parking spaces per residential unit, will create an overwhelming traffic and parking snarl.
“I have a family of four with one car. I bike to work every day. Bike commuting is very important. I believe in it, but I know most people travel in a car,” Haines said.
The BRA is conducting extensive traffic studies as part of the FHII. Dalzell said public funding is available to decrease the height of the proposed building on the MBTA parking lot site and increase parking capacity by installing underground parking at the site.
Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council member Steve Backman said he is disappointed community space for youth programming was not included at any of the sites. Students at English High School and other area schools commute through Forest Hills T Station every day, he said, “and we are talking about encouraging families to move in. It seems like sort of a shame not to be talking about this.”
The affordability component of the draft plan was criticized for giving developers too much leeway and not being affordable enough. The draft plan calls for 15 to 75 percent of new residential units to be set aside for people earning 60 to 100 percent of the Greater Boston area median income, which is around $55,000.
The 15 to 75 percent range was based on the suggestions made by the community, Dalzell said. He said the guidelines would be rewritten to focus more on the goals of 30 percent of new units on private land and 50 percent of new units on public land being made affordable. He also said the BRA would look more at the depth of affordability.
Shirronda Almeida of Woodlawn Street told the Gazette most of her friends in the neighborhood work for non-profits or as teachers. Calling 100 percent of AMI affordable, “doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Dalzell also pointed out that, “With the market cooling off, the cost of market-rate housing is drifting into the upper levels of [deed-restricted] affordable.” If there is no savings incentive, deed-restricted property is not as desirable as market-rate because it has limited re-sale potential.
While the meeting will probably be the last time the community meets to consider the use design guidelines, there will still be plenty of public input into new development in Forest Hills when developers submit plans for zoning review, Dalzell said.
There will likely be two more community meetings, one to follow up on a previous meeting where residents discussed streetscape design, including a proposal to turn the streets around Forest Hills Station into a one-way loop, and a wrap-up meeting.
Overall, Dalzell said, he is confident the final use design guidelines and streetscape plans will reflect the interests of the community. “We are bringing planning expertise to the discussion, but it is a community-based discussion,” he said.
He did offer some advice to the community at the Saturday meeting. Many of the site plans the BRA drew up include off street paths to promote pedestrian circulation and enhance access to the Arnold Arboreteum to the west and Franklin Park to the east. “Keep an eye on making these connections,” Dalzell told the crowd, “They become really important for making the neighborhood work.”