State puts up $3.1M for basics

July 11, 2008
By

DAVID TABER


Gazette Photo by David Taber Gov. Deval Patrick announces a grant to pay for infrastructure and green space improvements in Jackson Square on June 30. Joining him to look at a model of planned development in the the square are officials and members of the development team including: (front row, left to right) state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez , Mayor Thomas Menino, Patrick, state Rep. Liz Malia, and Urban Edge Presidnet Mossik Hacobian; (second row, left to right) and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation Executive Director Richard Thal and Bart Mitchell of Mitchell Properties.

Phase 1 development of housing, commercial, community space to cost about $115M

JACKSON SQ.—Well over a decade after revitalization was first proposed, state funding for the first part of the first phase of a major redevelopment plan for the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury border was announced June 27.

The funding came in the form of a $3.1 million state grant—a Massachusetts Opportunity Relocation and Expansion jobs grant—to the city. Gov. Deval Patrick announced the grant award at a June 30 press conference at one of the parcels proposed for development on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Centre Street behind the Jackson Square T station. Mayor Thomas Menino and other state and local elected officials were also in attendance.

The grant will be used for public infrastructure improvements in the area. Phase 1 of the redevelopment will create 131 permanent new jobs in Jackson Square, Patrick said at the Friday morning press conference announcing the grant.

The “infrastructure improvements will promote sustained growth over the long term,” he said.

Those grant-funded improvements will include new sidewalks, crosswalks, landscaping and signalization on Centre Street, Columbus Avenue and Ritchie Street. It will also include the creation of a number of open and green spaces in the area and utility improvements necessary to power the planned buildings.

The redevelopment itself will be undertaken later by four different developers—collectively know as Jackson Square Partners—each working on their own projects. Phase 1 will include more than 140 units of housing—about half of them market rate and one-quarter affordable to people and families making less than half of the area median income (AMI); 30,000 square feet each of retail and office space; a 30,500-square-foot youth and families center; and a 25-bed Department of Youth Services facility.

Overall, the multi-phase redevelopment project will create 436 new housing units, with about two-thirds available at below market-rate, and 60,000 square feet of retail space. Future phases will also include the construction of a 30,750 square foot indoor recreation facility. All of the office space proposed in the redevelopment will be completed in the first phase.

The developments—centered around the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Centre Street—will be built by Urban Edge and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC)—both JP-based community development corporations (CDCs); for-profit developer Mitchell Properties; and the Hyde Square Task Force, a community-based nonprofit partnering with the JPNDC on the youth and families center.

“Projects like this don’t happen over-night,” Mayor Thomas Menino said at the press conference. “I look forward to working with the development team over the next several years as we continue to define the plan.”

More funding

The $3.1 million in public infrastructure funding is just a drop in the bucket as far as costs for phase 1 of the project are concerned. The first phase is expected to cost $115 million, and the entire project $250 million.

But, state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez told the Gazette, “Public infrastructure funding is the most difficult” funding to obtain for a new development project.

“This is the seed. These dollars are the seed that we hope will flourish into the next round of public funding as well,” he said. Applications for that funding are in the works, he said.

Richard Thal, executive director of the JPNDC, said private and public funding for various components of the project is coming together.

In March, the Gazette reported that the housing market crisis was stalling the project, along with another JPNDC development at the Blessed Sacrament site in Hyde Square, because the market had dampened the market for tax credits. Tax credits, a major source of funding for developers of affordable housing, can be sold to companies that can use them to reduce their tax burdens. With corporate profits down, the market for such credits has weakened.

While the majority of the new units proposed for the area will be made affordable, only a portion will be eligible for tax credits. The tax credits only apply to units made available to those earning less than 60 percent AMI. Still, a significant portion of the housing will be eligible—32 percent of the proposed units will be made available to those earning less than 50 percent AMI and 27 percent are designated for those making 50 to 80 percent.

Last month, the Boston Globe reported that the JPNDC had been unable to find a single bidder for $4 million in tax credits it had been allocated to fund work at the Blessed Sacrament site.

The market for tax-credits is still weak, Thal told the Gazette after the press conference. “It’s about 10 to 15 percent less than it was at its peak a year and a half ago.”

Other affordable housing developers have recently succeeded in selling credits for around 90 cents on the dollar.

Thal said he is hopeful public funding, including a $1.25 billion housing bond bill championed by Sánchez and recently passed by the state, will help make up the shortfall for affordable housing.

While it is “not a desirable alternative,” if necessary, developers
can also take on more debt to make up the shortfall, he said.

Despite the JPNDC’s struggles selling its tax credits for the Blessed Sacrament project, Thal said, he is hopeful construction will start on the first phase of that development in the fall.

Recent history

At the June 30 press conference, Urban Edge President Mossik Hacobian noted this was the mayor’s third trip to JP to announce milestones in the Jackson Square project.

In 1999, Menino came by to announce that $1 million had been allocated for pre-development work. In 2003, he was there when that work was done and plans were presented. In 2005, he came to JP to announce that the Boston Redevelopment Authority had awarded tentative developer designation to Jackson Square Partners.

“And he will be back next year when we do the ground-breaking,” Hacobian said.

While Hacobian’s history of the project went back to 1999 in his introductory remarks, he was one-upped by state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez later in the proceedings.

Sánchez, who represents the JP side of Jackson Square, recalled early planning meetings for the project at the Nate Smith House in 1995—back when that affordable housing development on Lamartine Street—completed by JPNDC in 1993— was still a recent success. Sánchez was working for Menino in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services at the time, he said.

“I drove him [Menino] crazy for 5 of those 15 years [of the planning process],” Sánchez said. The state rep. said he wondered if the Mayor had back then imagined a project of the size and scope of the proposed effort in Jackson Square.

City Councilor John Tobin also thanked Menino for his years of “quiet steady leadership,” on the project and thanked the Governor for recognizing the importance of the redevelopment “not just for the community but for the city of Boston.”

While Sánchez also noted that an earlier attempt to by Urban Edge to redevelop Jackson Square had fallen through in the 1980s, his retelling of the redevelopment project’s history was expanded on by JP’s other state Rep., Liz Malia, when her turn came at the microphone.

Malia, whose district also includes the Roxbury side of the square, described the project as the “the capstone for community hopes that have long been focused on the area.”

A community movement in the 1970s successfully opposed the extension of Interstate 95 along what is now the South West Corridor Park, and, in the 1980s, the Orange Line was relocated from elevated tracks along Washington Street to the corridor, she said.

After that, though, efforts to revitalize communities—including Jackson Square—affected by the clearing of the corridor when the interstate plan was still alive “were lost for many years,” she said.

“One iteration [of redevelopment plans] was a proposed trash transfer station [in the neighborhood],” she said. “Most of us believed this was not going to serve the community.”

In her comments, Malia gave the Patrick administration a nod for its efforts to increase transparency and communication at the state level and its commitment to moving the Jackson Square project forward.

Speaking to the Gazette, she said that working with various state agencies with jurisdiction over the parcels that are being redeveloped has been challenging over the decades as state administrations have come and gone. “The environment seems much more positive right now,” she said.

There was some “sense of history and consistency over the Dukakis administration,” in the 1980s, she said. But in intervening years “nobody remembered the history of the parcels. They were not on the radar for people who worked for the T and for Transit Realty Associates [the MBTA’s real estate arm].”

The current administration’s focus on transit-oriented development (TOD) has been a huge help, as well, she said. “There was a lot of talk about TOD during the Romney administration. I would have expected Jackson Square would have moved forward if TOD was such a priority,” she said.