JPNC talks T land-sale process

David Taber

Council concerned about ITBs as Forest Hills land sale looms

As two very different development projects on property originally owned by the MBTA make their way through community and city review processes, members of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) expressed concerns about the T’s land disposition process.

The issues, raised at the March 25 JPNC meeting, center on the proposed redevelopment of the neighborhood around Forest Hills T Station and a proposed mixed-use three-and-a-half story development at 154-160 Green Street. [See related article.]

Both projects propose redevelopment of MBTA-owned property. Maple Hurst Builders already owns the Green Street land, and the MBTA is planning to sell the parcels around Forest Hills this spring. And in both cases, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) conducted community processes to develop guidelines for MBTA Invitations to Bid (ITBs) for the properties.

And, in both, the community recommendations include that 50 percent of any housing development should be deed-restricted affordable. While representatives from the MBTA claim 50 percent affordability was not a requirement for Green Street, a copy of the ITB obtained by the Gazette states that any residential development on the lot “must include a minimum of of 50 percent” affordable housing.

Since Maple Hurst’s unveiling of its plans for the parcel in September, the developer has repeatedly stated that it does not plan to adhere to the 50 percent affordability recommendation for the 13 units it is proposing.

Maple Hurst is abiding by a non-binding recommendation included in the ITB that the lot be utilized for mixed-use development. Originally, the developer proposed a commercial development, and while it is not clear that the ITB influenced Maple Hurst’s change in plans, in community meetings over the last six months, community members have overwhelmingly supported the concept of a mixed-use development with ground-floor-retail.

But at the March meeting, JPNC members expressed concerns that Maple Hurst’s ignoring the affordability component of the ITB set a bad precedent for the much larger Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII).

The Forest Hills process has been going on for more than a year. The MBTA soon plans to issue an ITB, including the community recommendations, to sell three parcels outright and sell development rights to a fourth—the Forest Hills station commuter parking lot. That ITB will put 6 acres of land on the market. Close to 400 residential units and 64,000 square feet of retail space could potentially be developed.

The FHII also developed recommendations for a number of other parcels that may go on the market at a later date.

“With Forest Hills, the community is relying on the ITB as being a binding document,” said JPNC member Francesca Fordiani, who heads the council’s Housing and Development Committee.

The ITB for parcel 53a states that, “On this property, the housing component, if proposed must include a minimum of 50 percent of the units dedicated to households earning up to 80 percent of the median income.”

The MBTA is legally required to sell to the highest qualified bidder, with a bidder’s qualification being determined by adherence to the ITB. But, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told the Gazette in an e-mail, ITBs are not, in fact, binding.

“T staff goes to great lengths to determine if developers are qualified. However, a developer cannot be asked to design his entire project prior to bidding. Some baseline comparisons are set to assess bids. Usually this is where the guidelines play a part.”

Once that baseline is set, “T staff rejects those that are unresponsive to or fail to meet the bidding requirements,” Pesaturo said.

But even then, bidding requirements are not, apparently, development requirements.

“Staff is very careful to insure that guidelines do not become requirements that have a dramatic effect on the fair market value of the site. T staff is always respectful of the community preferences, but a suitable balance with marketplace conditions and encouraging quality bids must be struck,” Pesaturo said.

Maple Hurst was the second-highest bidder on parcel 53a, and purchased the property after a development team comprised of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and a for-profit developer backed out.

The JPNDC’s proposal also called for a mixed-use development, but with a much larger residential component of about 20 residential units.

That plan called for over 50 percent of the housing units to be deed-restricted affordable. According to letters submitted at the time in public comment on the project, support for the affordability component was mixed, and many thought the project was too dense.

Pesaturo told the Gazette that, “The guidelines for 53a lacked consistency. The community expressed preferences that differed with the neighborhood…The MBTA attended numerous meetings, but never got a clear picture of what the consensus was. The T finally put this out to bid, publishing the community comments but reserving the right to accept a highest responsible bid from a developer who bid according to zoning…There was no genuine consensus—period.”

But, Pesaturo said, the FHII process has been different.

“The Forest Hills site has more community involvement and a consensus as to what they want. There is a commitment from the city for zoning recommendations [based on the guidelines],” Pesaturo said.

Other News from the JPNC

JPNC member Yawu Miller has moved out of JP, leaving a vacancy in Area C (Pondside/Jamaica Hills/Forest Hills). Anyone interested in the seat should present themselves at the JPNC’s April 29 meeting. The JPNC will select a replacement at its May meeting.

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