T has a plan

June 13, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Affordability concerns flood comments

FOREST HILLS—In response to community concerns about affordable housing on properties being sold for development around the Forest Hills T station, the MBTA last month unveiled a plan that gives financial incentives to developers to make housing affordable.

The plan would charge developers extra if they do not plan to build a certain number of affordable housing units. But some affordable housing advocates question whether it will work. Developers, they say, might just change their plans after the properties are sold.

Meanwhile, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) public comment period closed June 5 for Use and Design Guidelines developed as part of a community process—known as the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII)—that began in November 2006. The vast majority of comments submitted were in support of affordable housing, apparently the result of an organized letter-writing campaign.

The MBTA is planning issue an Invitation To Bid (ITB) to sell three parcels around the station outright and sell development rights to the Forest Hills station commuter parking lot.

Over 6 acres of land will be on the market under that ITB. The current draft guidelines call for 400 residential units and 64,000 square feet of retail space to be developed. Two other lots, the MBTA’s Arborway Yard and the privately owned Fitzgerald parking lot were also covered in the FHII process, but it is unclear if and when those sites will be up for development.

A draft version of the ITB was presented to the community at a May 22 meeting. The MBTA now hopes to officially issue it in late June or early July, after a June 26 FHII where the BRA will present the final version of the community guidelines.

MBTA plan

The MBTA is planning to offer the parcels with affordable housing in mind, but it has developed a unique pricing structure for the land that would require developers to pay more if they designate fewer than 50 percent of housing units affordable.

MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told the Gazette the MBTA plans to sell Parcel U—a 2.82-acre site on Hyde Park Avenue south of Ukraine Way—for $21.20 per square foot. The Use and Design Guidelines call for 150 housing units on that site. The ITB stipulates that if developers choose to make fewer than 50 percent of those units affordable “they have to pay an additional $18.20 per square foot,” for the difference between the square footage of affordable space and the 50 percent mark, Pesaturo said.

There are similar requirements for Parcels S, V and W. Parcels V and W straddle Washington Street near parcel U and will be sold together. Parcel S is the MBTA station parking lot. The MBTA plans to lease that property with the stipulation that commuter parking be maintained.

According to the guidelines, all three parcels would contain a mix of housing and commercial space. The ITB says that if commercial space is built at the expense of affordable housing, the developer will be charges an additional $35 per square foot.

In their comments to the BRA, Bernie Doherty and David Hannon, of the Asticou-Martinwood Street Neighborhood Association, called for a similar property valuation plan for other parts of the community guidelines, including “potential development of open space; recreational and community uses.”

Karen Caplan Doherty, also a member of the local neighborhood association, said in her comments that she is concerned the additional charge for commercial space might “jeopardize the possibility for creative spaces and small retail.”

Affordable housing advocate Francesca Fordiani said she is ambivalent about the T’s plan. She said she is pleased the T is including some effort to promote affordable housing.

But she is concerned, she said, that there does not seem to be any mechanism for enforcement of affordability standards after the purchase-and-sale agreement is signed.

“At the [May 22] meeting I asked what would happen if the developer changes his mind. The answer was basically nothing,” she said.

Any proposed project will be subject to its own BRA-led community process, but Fordiani said she is concerned that the BRA will not be committed to affordability at that point.

The BRA controversially recently approved a proposal by Maple Hurst Builders for a much smaller mixed-use project on a formerly MBTA-owned lot on Green Street despite its failure to meet what appeared to be a specific mandate in the ITB calling for 50 percent affordability.

Affordability controversy

Affordable housing has been a hot-button issue throughout the process. Moves in recent months by the BRA to change the affordability language in the guidelines sparked outcry from some community members.

The draft guidelines—originally presented last November 2007—had recommended that that, on publicly owned land, between 15 percent and 75 percent of housing units should be sold and deed-restricted as affordable. The goal, the guidelines said, should be 50 percent affordability.

Affordable housing advocates complained that the guidelines were too vague and the 15 percent to 75 percent language was later removed. But since then it has been reinserted based on community response, said BRA senior architect John Dalzell, who has been leading the community process.

Housing affordability is tricky, Dalzell said, because the line between community and professional advocacy is sometimes blurry on the issue in JP, which is home to two active nonprofit community development corporations.

The public comments regarding the Use and Design Guidelines reflect some of that blurriness. The BRA received about 200 unique written comments according to its comment summary. But it also received about another 200 comments advocating for the removal of the 15 percent to 75 percent language in petitions, form letters and other letters that followed an obvious suggested format.

Other community members, Dalzell said, “Are really irate that there is so much single-issue advocacy going on…There are some people who feel like some of this is about business as much as it is about housing.”

While the BRA’s job of gauging community sentiment and reflecting it in the guidelines requires that it be aware of those dynamics, “There are board members of community development corporations who also live in the community,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. No one should be out of the room.”

According to the Gazettes count, 34 of the unique comments the BRA received were in favor of more affordability, and 11 expressed support for giving developers more latitude. The latter, however, were almost all from street addresses in the Forest Hills area, whereas a significant portion of the former came from people who live in other sections of JP, suggesting that they may have been inspired by advocacy efforts as well.

The situation is awkward, Dalzell said, because, “A lot of people care about affordable housing but don’t see it the same way” as the organized housing advocates.

Doherty and Hannon complained that, “The document, as it is presently constructed is a formula for the diminution and destruction of a vibrant and growing community,” and that the FHII process had been “hi-jacked by special interests.”

Another member of that local neighborhood group, Jack Odell, wrote that he was “pleased to find that the plan required the development to support a mix of income levels.”

Fordiani sits on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) and head the JPNC Housing and Development Committee. She told the Gazette that the petition and form letter campaign had been largely organized by the JPNC, a volunteer body.

“The JPNC was a big driver there,“ she said.

But other organizations, including the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), a nonprofit developer, also helped organize the campaign, she said.

Fordiani and Dalzell did offer opposite predictions for what the effect of the 50 percent guideline would accomplish.

Fordiani said that she is afraid that nonprofit developers will not be able to afford to bid on the project if the asking price in the ITB does not take the 50 percent affordability rate into account. Dalzell said other community members are concerned that the parcel would only be of interest to nonprofit developers.

Density and safety

Significant among opinions expressed by Forest Hills community members during the BRA public comment period were concerns about the density of proposed developments and public safety issues in the Forest Hills area.

A number of comments said a proposed seven-story structure at the MBTA parking lot site would be too tall. Many complained that it would block their view of the Arboretum.

Local resident Jessica Burko suggested, “Redistribution of the uses at [the MBTA lot] onto other parcels would help allay concerns about its density.”

Doherty and Hannon echoed that comment, saying, “The original vision proposed centering Forest Hills at the MBTA station as a core for commercial, retail and community use and having mixed use and residential development fanning out from the station.”

Caplan Doherty noted that site is in two police jurisdictions, E-13 and E-18. “Who would be responsible for policing the leased MBTA space?” she asked.

She also said that attempts to deal with other public safety issues in a part of the FHII process aimed at generating transportation and streetscape guidelines for the area was redundant.

“The short term transportation recommendations are ones that this community suggested over five years ago.”

Those proposals include making the roadways around the station more comprehensible to motorists and pedestrians by improving signage and pavement markings.

“A full vetting of all of the public safety issues must occur prior to the MBTA ITB process moving forward,” she said.

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