Forest Hills process does not end

July 11, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

BRA hears new round of community concerns at ‘last’ meeting

FOREST HILLS—After almost an almost two-year public planning process featuring community meetings regularly attended by over 100 Forest Hills neighbors, June 26 had been billed as the final meeting of the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII).

The FHII process, led by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), had been leading toward the development of Use and Design Guidelines for new construction on six sites around Forest Hills Station.

The completion of the guidelines was to clear the way for the MBTA to issue an Invitation To Bid (ITB) this month to sell three of those parcels as well as development rights to the Forest Hills station commuter parking lot, opening 6 acres up for development.

But it was not to be.

“In recent days—really weeks—people have expressed concerns and criticism about the present state of the guidelines,” BRA director John Palmeri said, opening the meeting.

The BRA director does not regularly attend community meetings, and this was his first appearance in the course of the Forest Hills process. “There is no project right now that is taking form that is more important than this…I want to make sure we get it right and build consensus,” he said.

Speaking to the Gazette, Mayor Thomas Menino echoed those same sentiments. “It been a long process and the process is not yet complete,” he said, “The plans must be in keeping with what the community wants.”

MBTA Director of Real Estate Mark Boyle said that state agency is also committed to continuing the process. “We are part of the city and part of the community. The MBTA has a great stake in Forest Hills and in the future of Forest Hills,” he said.

But he said, “We are going to end up selling these parcels no matter what.”

He said the MBTA hopes to have use and Design Guidelines in place to guide the sales.

“We hope they come soon,” he said. “The alternative is to sell them to the highest bidder and leave the buyer responsible for any permitting. Hopefully, after [almost] two years, it’s the former and not the latter.”

Palmeri said height, density and affordable housing recommendations in the guidelines had sparked recent controversy. The BRA will host at least two more community meetings, he said.

The Use and Design Guidelines are intended to help the MBTA determine the sales value of the land and evaluate bidders’ proposals. Going into the June meeting, the guidelines called for 400 residential units and 64,000 square feet of retail space to be developed on the lots the MBTA plans to sell. Two other lots considered in the FHII process—part of the MBTA’s Arborway Yard and the privately owned Fitzgerald parking lot— were also covered in the FHII process, but there are no immediate plans to open those sites for development.

If those lots were to be developed according to the current draft of the Use and Design Guidelines, they would add approximately 300 more units of housing to the area as well as over 50,000 additional square feet of retail space.

Including all of the parcels considered, the guidelines currently call for 192,000 square feet of open space; 125,000 square feet of retail space; 152,000 of commercial/office space; and close to 20,000 square feet of space designated for community uses such as day care programs or health clinics.

Well over 100 community members attended the June 26 meeting. Speaking to the Gazette, BRA Senior Architect and Jamaica Plain resident John Dalzell, who has been leading the process, said many of attendees had not participated in the process previously.

“We were hearing from people with concerns that hadn’t really been raised before, and hearing from folks we had not heard from,” he said.

Buildings

At the meeting, BRA and MBTA staffers attempted to sum up the work that had gone on since the process began in November 2006, and describe the community vision that had been drawn from that process and included in the guidelines.

The overall goal, Dalzell said, has been to create “a healthy urban district with quieter residential uses at the edges.”

But residents expressed concerns that plans for the district are out of scale with the current neighborhood and that—despite a number of FHII meetings devoted to streetscape and transportation planning—the impact of the new development on traffic and parking in the area had not been adequately addressed.

With regard to building height and density, most community complaints centered on proposals for the MBTA parking lot, known in the guidelines as Parcel S.

At the first community meeting in November 2006, many community members had expressed enthusiasm for seeing that site, which sits between Hyde Park Avenue and Washington Street directly south of Forest Hills Station, developed. In November 2007, the MBTA put forward an ambitious plan to lease the commuter parking lot as part of its ITB. That move was largely in response to community concerns that leaving the lot undeveloped as more peripheral lots to the south were built up would create a hole in the district.

The lot is “a difficult site to work with from a financial feasibility perspective,” Dalzell said at the recent meeting. That is partly because the MBTA wants to, at least, maintain 240 commuter parking spaces on the lot, and the current guidelines call for 210 more residential and commuter parking spaces.

“That means, in simple terms, that there needs to be some kind of structured parking to support that,” Dalzell said.

The current guidelines call for 200 residential units, 37,000 square feet of retail space and 25,000 square feet of office commercial space on the site.

They also call for a 22,000-square-foot “major public open space, ‘Village Center’ with pedestrian through connection.”

To accomplish all that, the BRA had initially proposed two 7-story structures for the site.

Leading up to the most recent meeting, a flyer circulated by a group called “Friends of Forest Hills,” with no contact information, claimed that 10-story buildings were being proposed, seemingly referring to the commuter parking lot site.

BRA officials and community members familiar with the process claim a 10-story building was never proposed, and in November 2007 the Gazette reported that 6- to 7-story structures were what was on the table.

Bernie Doherty, a member of the Asticou Martinwood Street Neighborhood Association in Forest Hills and a longtime participant in and critic of the FHII process, told the Gazette the 10-story claim was valid.

He said his understanding is that the proposal was for “10-story [buildings] as you face Hyde Park Avenue [that are] 7 stories on the other [Washington Street] side.”

Doherty said he is familiar with Friends of Forest Hills—a new community group in the area—and that he saw a copy of the flyer before it was distributed but did not participate in its authorship.

It “wasn’t ever the case,” that 10 stories were proposed for the site, Dalzell told the Gazette, reiterating statements made at the meeting.

At the meeting, Dalzell and Boyle described a plan to reduce the height called for in the guidelines to 5 stories. They could accomplish that, they said, by including air rights over the train tracks in the rear of the lot in the long-term lease package under which the site would be developed.

That proposal was met with vocal derision by a large number of meeting attendees, with one person shouting, “Do I hear three?”

“If it is not able to be done corresponding in scale and nature to the rest of Forest Hills, it should not be done,” Kevin Pope of Wenham Street said, referring to development at the commuter lot.

Karen Pope, also of Wenham Street, said she is afraid the view of the Arnold Arboretum will be blocked from the couple’s house on the hill leading up to Forest Hills Cemetery on the Hyde Park Avenue side of the station.

While Dalzell said concerns about scale will be taken into account in future versions of the guidelines, he also told the Gazette that, at 50 feet, the main structure of Forest Hills station is about 5 stories high.

Another community resident, Martine Baker, panned the plan to let developers build over the train tracks, asking if anyone would want to want to live and work amidst the noise from the trains.

BRA Senior Planner Tad Reed attempted to quell those concerns, saying sound and vibration installation has “improved wildly in the last 10 years. I assure you there is a market [for the air rights]. There is a way to build.”

The MBTA also plans to include a provision in the ITB allowing bidders who successfully acquire multiple properties in the area to shuffle Use and Design requirements, such as commercial space, community space or residential units requirements, between properties, Boyle said.

Under that proposal, “If you are the successful bidder on multiple offerings, you can share building square-footage among them,” he said.

Speaking to the Gazette, Doherty said he would like to see the entire project scaled back significantly. On Parcel U, south of Ukraine Way on Hyde Park Avenue on the same side as the station, he said he would prefer 30 or 40 units of housing rather than 150. As for Parcel V, a small parcel on the Arboretum side of Washington Street across from Ukraine, he said he wants to see it “off the table or maybe [with] a house” instead of 8 units of housing.”

Doherty did not say if he also wanted proposals for commercial and retail space cut back, but as JP resident Jeff Ferris and others pointed out, that might be inevitable if residential development is scaled back.

Bordered by Forest Hills Cemetery and Franklin Park one side and the Arnold Arboretum on the other, “the neighborhood does not have a large enough population to support a walk-to business district,” Ferris said.

He said that many community desires expressed in meetings, including a grocery store and drugstore, will “not work if you don’t put people here to use it.”

Forest Hills resident Scott Hoffert echoed those sentiments. “The vast majority of people are in favor of creating a compact, complete plan for Forest Hills. The types of uses that [enable that] are inherently going to be denser than 3 stories,” he said.

Hoffert said he could live with the BRA’s plan, but “what’s missing is the transportation study,” he said.

People and cars

Many at the meeting expressed concerns about the strain a major increase in population density would have on public infrastructure in the neighborhood.

Doherty estimated that if all of the about 700 units currently proposed in the guidelines for near and long-term development are built, it could increase the population in the area by about 2,100—from about 9,000 to about 11,000 people. The neighborhood could also become a lot busier if Forest Hills becomes a major retail and work destination.

Doherty told the Gazette the Forest Hills community has been attempting to address a host of infrastructure concerns for decades.

David Hannon, another Asticou Martinwood Street Neighborhood Committee member, outlined a number of those complaints in his comments at the meeting.

While the BRA has undertaken a transportation study as part of the FHII process, “There is no plan, there are some ideas. We don’t know how the transportation plan is going to work out,” he said.

Near-term traffic improvements for the area were last discussed at a May FHII meeting. At that meeting, representatives from the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) said they were already working on coordinating traffic signals around the station. They said traffic signals on the Hyde Park side of the station had already been synchronized, reducing by 88 to 50 percent the chances that cars passing by the east site of the station would hit a red light.

At the June meeting, a BTD representative said efforts were underway to accomplish a similar effect on the Washington Street side of the station and to synchronize signals for the entire circuit. No timeline for that work was offered, however, and there were few specifics about what is next on the agenda for traffic improvements.

Speaking to the Gazette, state Rep. Liz Malia said chronic traffic congestion, in the Forest Hills area represents a failure on the part of city and state planners. In the 1970s and 1980s, a community movement opposed the extension of Interstate 95 along what is now the Southwest Corridor Park, and the Orange Line was relocated from elevated tracks along Washington Street to the corridor.

“Ninety-eight percent” of the work that needed to be done to revitalize infrastructure for communities along the corridor got done, Malia said.

In Forest Hills, at the terminus of the Orange Line, there was a “lack of vision, a lack of planning and a lack of completion,” she said. “The pieces frayed at the end and were never tied.”

One of those frays that Malia and several community members at the meeting mentioned is the cab stand on the Washington Street side of the station. Three spots there are designated for taxis, and the rest are supposed to be for passenger pick up and drop off, but all of the spaces are regularly filled with taxis, leaving others no choice but to stop in the street.

“It’s a chronic problem,” Malia said. “There is no place for drop off and the streets are clogged all the time.”

Commenting on street transportation issues at the meeting, Forest Hills resident Jan Hurt said, “The MBTA has not been a good neighbor. The station is filthy, the cabs are not being regulated properly, and I think we are being lied to.”

Dalzell told attendees that transportation improvements are moving forward. “The next round of improvements will be more significant, visible street improvements,” he said. While he did not offer any details of what those improvements would be, he did say that information would be forthcoming in the near future.

“We need to make transportation improvement information more current and more real-time,” he said.

While those improvements will be ongoing, it does not make sense to undertake major streetscape redesigns—including a proposal to turn the streets around Forest Hills into a one-way loop—before the parcels have been purchased and developers have put forth construction proposals, Dalzell said.

For one thing, he said, developers will be expected to fund a portion of that work. “More importantly, it is a question of how to fit that [infrastructure] work into what is being proposed [by developers],” he said.

The land use and transportation planning need to happen in conjunction, he said.

Police and community

Forest Hills is covered by three Boston police districts; E-13 covers most of Jamaica Plain, E-18 mostly covers Roslindale but also covers the Woodbourne neighborhood and; Hyde Park Avenue in Forest Hills, and E-5 covers some of the Arnold Arboretum to the west of the station. Additionally MBTA police are responsible for the station itself, and State Police are responsible for the Southwest Corridor Park.

At the meeting some residents said they think that intricate confluence of police jurisdictions might be strained by the influx of new people a major neighborhood redevelopment would likely bring.

“We are in no-man’s-land,” Hurt said.

While law enforcement issues are outside of the BRA’s jurisdiction, Colleen Keller from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services told meeting attendees talks are underway to realign the Boston Police Department (BPD) district boundaries so the area around the station that the city policing, at least, will be under one jurisdiction.

BPD spokesperson Elaine Driscoll confirmed to the Gazette that those talks are underway, but could provide no further details.

Affordability

While it was not a major focus of the most recent meeting, debates about how much affordable housing to push for in new development in the area have been ongoing throughout the FHII process.

“Its still out there,” Dalzell told the Gazette. “Some folks are concerned the area will become too much of an affordable housing enclave.”

Red Burrows, who represents Forest Hills on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, said many of the issues brought up at the June 26 meeting could have been dealt with earlier in the process.

Burrows, along with Doherty and others, is a member of the Forest Hills Working Group—a community committee advising the BRA on the FHII process.

Burrows claimed that Doherty and others had previously supported the density called for in the guidelines but had been opposed to language in the guidelines calling for a goal of 50 percent affordable housing in the area.

Burrows also said he thinks the Friends of Forest Hills flyer was intended to be alarmist and stall the process.

In recent conversations, Doherty repeatedly told the Gazette he is “not opposed to affordable housing.”

“Why not just call me a racist and get to the bottom line?” he said.

Both Burrows and Doherty emphasized that they do not want the FHII process to devolve into a divisive battle.

Doherty did say that “some people are scared as hell” about federally funded Section 8 housing being developed in the area.

The current draft of the Use and Design Guidelines calls for affordable housing to be made available to people earning 60 to 80 percent of the Greater Boston area median income (AMI). To be eligible for Section 8 housing vouchers, families and individuals must be earning no more than 50 percent AMI. Three-quarters of vouchers are dedicated to those earning no more than 30 percent AMI.

At the meeting, Dalzell said the 50 percent goal in the Use and Design Guidelines had been arrived at by analyzing income levels in Forest Hills. About half of Forest Hills residents could afford market-rate housing in today’s housing market, he said.

JP resident Maddie Ribble commented in favor of the affordable housing goals at the meeting. “Housing prices in JP are tremendous,” he said. “Condos are going for $400,000. I have a good job, but I could never afford that. I would love to live here, but I could never afford it,” he said.

Kathy Brown, who sits on the board of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), said she wanted to “remind people of the affordable housing crisis in the city…How many of you, if you did not own now, could buy now?” she asked.

As the Gazette previously reported, the JPNDC helped with a letter writing campaign to support the 50 percent affordability goals during the BRA’s public comment period on the guidelines in May.

Last week, JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal told the Gazette the JPNC has not yet looked at whether it will bid on the MBTA parcels.

And, right now, any bidding appears a long way off.

“Obviously our job is to work with the community to come up with a vision and craft good guidelines for Forest Hills,” Dalzell told the Gazette. “We will continue to work and listen until we get it right. We are sticking to it,” he said.

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