Support and concerns over development plans

April 4, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

BROOKSIDE—Maple Hurst Builders’ proposed mixed-use development on Green Street won more praise from Brookside neighbors at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee meeting March 27, but the committee voted to table the proposal until April.

In a separate process, the project also underwent design review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. That process was completed on April 1 when the BRA board of directors voted to approve Maple Hurst’s design proposal.

Zoning Committee members generally expressed support for the proposal for a three and a half story building with 13 residential condominium units and three rental ground-floor commercial units at 154-160 Green St., between Brookside Avenue and Amory Street.

But there were a few items committee members said they wanted to see worked on before they approved the developer’s requests for zoning variances.

“I think it went really well,” Maple Hurst head and JP resident Chris DeSisto said in a Gazette interview, “These types of items we can work through and I think we are not going to have a problem. It seemed like the Zoning Committee had more concerns than the neighbors.”

The project went before the Zoning Committee because Maple Hurst is seeking five zoning variances, including variances for excessive height and excessive floor-area to lot-size ratio. The developers also need a conditional use permit for residential development in an area zoned for light industrial uses.

The committee’s recommendation does not determine whether a project will be granted variances or not, but it is considered to have considerable weight with the city zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA)—the authority with final say in granting variances.

At the meeting, zoning committee member and Union Avenue resident Marie Turley said she fears an elaborate on-street parking plan the developers have proposed will make it hard for residents of the adjacent side streets, Brookside Avenue Extension and Union Avenue, to turn on to Green Street.

Zoning Committee member Stephanie Ward said she would like more clarity on what businesses will be going in to the building’s retail space.

Ward also said she wants the Brookside Neighborhood Association to explore whether it wants to develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Maple Hurst before the ZBA considers the plan.

And Zoning Committee member Jesus Gerena suggested that the number of residential units Maple Hurst has committed to setting aside as deed-restricted affordable housing in the building is too low.

Sight lines

Anne Sinclair, who lives on Brookside Avenue Extension, was one of two community members with concerns about the project.

Brookside Avenue runs next to Maple Hurst’s parcel on the north side of Green Street. Brookside Avenue Extension begins on the south side of Green.

Sinclair’s concerns centered around a proposal by Maple Hurst to widen Green Street in front of its property and install five on-street parking spaces.

The on-street parking was added to the plan after Maple Hurst first presented it at a community meeting in late September in response to community concerns about potential traffic congestion from illegally parked vehicles outside the businesses, said Kristen Hunter of Maple Hurst.

The spots are intended for deliveries in the morning, short-term customer parking in the afternoon, and community use overnight.

But there is also on-street parking on the other side of the street, already restricting sight lines for residents trying to turn off of Brookside Extension and Union, Sinclair said.

She said the added congestion on Green Street will make it much harder. “Brookside Avenue Extension is hazardous already before this happens,” Sinclair said.

Turley agreed. “What has evolved is supported on the Brookside Avenue side of the street, but there is a disparate impact on the other side of the street,” she said.

Speaking to the Gazette, DeSisto said the on-street parking will add to congestion on Green Street, but that “happens all the time on Centre Street and Beacon Street and all over the city,” he said.

Retail space

Throughout the community process, Maple Hurst has said its goal in developing retail space is to entice pedestrian-friendly businesses to the area.

At previous meetings community members have enthusiastically supported that prospect. And a number of people listed the prospect of retail destinations, particularly a café or bakery as a reason they support the project.

“This neighborhood is changing, it is trying to become a neighborhood,” said community member Don Wiest said at the Zoning Committee meeting.

Ward said she is “a little concerned about approving something where I don’t know what’s going to be on the bottom.”

She said she would like to see Maple Hurst commit to offering affordable rent in the retail spaces to insure that local pedestrian-oriented retail could afford to move in.

She said she is nervous that the storefronts would be used as office spaces that only employ one or two people.

“I see jobs for locals as a huge benefit as we lose light industrial in this corner,” she said.

One of the many variances Maple Hurst is requesting is a conditional use variance to allow housing in an area that it zoned for light industrial use.

Ward’s affordable retail rent requirement brainstorm had occurred to her on the spot, she said, and as such she did not expect Maple Hurst to commit to it immediately, but she asked the developer to consider it.

Memorandum

Ward also said she was surprised that the Brookside Neighborhood Association and neighbors on the Union Avenue side of Green Street had not drawn up a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) with Maple Hurst.

Generally, MOUs are documents signed by developers and neighborhood associations that address neighbors expectations of developers. They can potentially include agreements about things like how many street trees a developer will plant, or if construction is prohibited on weekends, Ward told the Gazette.

“It’s a very proactive tool for the developers and the neighbors,” Ward said. “I look at it as a best practice.”

DeSisto said Maple Hurst is open to working with both neighborhoods to develop an MOU, but it will likely take three or four months.

Affordable housing

As the Gazette reported in October, Maple Hurst’s plans for 154-160 Green St. differ greatly from community recommendations described in the MBTA’s original Invitation to Bid (ITB) when it sold Maple Hurst the parcel. The ITB was developed through a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)-led community process early in the decade.

The MBTA originally planned to sell the property, then known as Parcel 53a, to local nonprofit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and a for-profit developer. That development team backed out of a plan to build a mixed-use development with over 20 residential units, half of them designated as affordable, in 2005.

At Maple Hurst’s September community meeting unveiling its plans for the lot, DeSisto said he did not plan to adhere to the ITB’s recommendation that 50 percent of all housing units developed on the site be made affordable.

At the March 27 Zoning Committee meeting, DeSisto allowed that, “the language in the ITB is not consistent with the stance adopted by the BRA and the T” in subsequent negotiations.

But, he said, “Not only would we not have bid on the parcel, we would not have purchased” the property if there was a 50 percent affordability requirement.

Maple Hurst currently plans to deed restrict one two-bedroom unit and one one-bedroom unit as affordable.

That is about 15 percent of the 13 units Maple Hurst is proposing, but, the BRA calculates affordability by subtracting the affordable units from the total number of units before calculating the percentage, so Maple Hurst’s plan counts as 18 percent.

At the February meeting of the JPNC, Housing and Development Committee chair Fracesca Fordiani announced that the committee planned to review the affordability component of Maple Hurst’s plan.

That review is currently under way. After reviewing the original ITB for the property, Fordiani and other JPNC members said they read it as requiring 50 percent affordability. [See related article.]

Guidelines adopted by the JPNC last year recommend that 50 percent of residential units built on publicly owned land be designated as affordable.

At the Zoning Committee meeting, Gerena, who sits on that committee and chairs the JPNC, asked if Maple Hurst could boost the percentage of affordable units it is offering since it is asking for so many variances.

“Given what you are asking for from the community, is there any way for you to meet 25 percent [affordability] as a trade-off?” Gerena said.

“Our position right now is that we are committed to adhering to the mayor’s executive order” calling for 15 percent of new housing units to be made affordable, DeSisto told the Gazette, reffering to the BRA’s affordability requirement.

He said Maple Hurst would consider any proposal presented to it. “At the Zoning Committee there didn’t seem to be any consensus. We want to understand exactly what they are looking for.”

Carlysle

Aside from Sinclair, who said that overall she supports the plan the only community member who expressed concerns about the project was Richard Dibona of Carlysle Engineering on Brookside Avenue.

In the past Dibona has told the Gazette he is troubled by residential encroachment into the district.

At the meeting he complained about the number of variances Maple Hurst is seeking.

“There is no need to give them everything just because of the size of the project,” he said.

He also threatened to “appeal [the granting of the variances] to
Superior Court” if the project moves forward.

Dibona did not return Gazette phone calls for this story by press time.

DeSisto told the Gazette that Maple Hurst is trying to work with Carlysle. Legal action “is not in anybody’s best interests. It will cost Carlysle lots of money and cost us lots of money, and the community will end up with an office, an industrial use or a Walgreens, which is not a good use of the land. It’s a perfect spot for mixed-use, right there by the train station.”