Senate candidates disagree on housing

July 25, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

FOREST HILLS—Sonia Chang-Díaz, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson’s Democratic primary challenger for the Second Suffolk seat, came out this week in opposition to Wilkerson’s stated position on affordable housing in new development planned for Forest Hills.

Neither Wilkerson nor Chang-Díaz have been notable presences during the course of the year-and-a-half long Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII) process–a BRA-led effort to develop community guidelines for the development of 6 parcels around the Forest Hills T station.

But Wilkerson wrote a letter that was distributed at the June 26 FHII meeting.

In the letter Wilkerson said she had “been in discussion with the [BRA] over the past 48 hours…I was not aware that the BRA had a 50 percent policy on affordable housing units [in Forest Hills]. As we all know, Jamaica Plain is already an incredibly diverse neighborhood, not just in race and ethnicity but in income as well. I believe that the concerns raised by so many of you in the impacted area are not NIMBY [Not In My Backyard]. I, too, have grave concerns about the 50 percent and do believe that it is not balanced.”

Wilkerson did not respond to repeated Gazette requests to clarify and expand on her statement.

Chang-Díaz told the Gazette she disagrees about the 50 percent, which is described as a “goal” in the guidelines.

“It is balanced. It’s important for maintaining the economic diversity that makes JP great,” she said.

She said she had only attended one of the eight FHII meetings, but that she arrived at her opinion after “talking to residents from Forest Hills who are vocal advocates on different sides of the debate, as well as members of the professional housing and development community.”

At the meeting, John Dalzell, the BRA senior architect running the FHII process, said the 50 percent affordability goal is meant to reflect the current make-up of the Forest Hills community. Fifty percent of area residents in the area meet income requirements for some type of affordable housing, he said.

The June 26 meeting had been billed as a final community meeting to review the community guidelines. But there was a seeming groundswell of new community concerns—about the height and density of the proposed development, public safety and public infrastructure improvements as well as housing affordability—and the process was extended.

The BRA seemed somewhat prepared for the negative reaction at the meeting. In an unusual move, BRA director John Palmeri attended, and he opened the meeting by saying the process would not, in fact be concluded at the end of the session.

The state government does not play a direct role in the FHII process, but Palmeri said he had heard from a number of public officials and community residents expressing concerns in the weeks leading up to the meeting.

“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.

The June 26 meeting was to clear the way for the MBTA to issue an Invitation To Bid (ITB) this month to sell three of the six parcels being considered in the FHII, as well as development rights to the Forest Hills station commuter parking lot—opening 6 acres up for development.

Over 400 residential units and 64,000 square feet of retail space were proposed for those parcels in the guidelines. Over 700 residential units are proposed for all 6 sites, but there are no immediate plans to make the other two, the Fitzgerald parking lot and the Arborway Yard, available to developers.

While affordability was a key concern at the meeting, a number of residents were also concerned about the height and density of the developments proposed in the guidelines—particularly a proposal for a five-story mixed use residential/commercial development at the T station commuter lot site.

Development of that site is particularly complicated because the MBTA wants to maintain at least 240 commuter parking spaces on the lot. That would require at least a few stories of garage parking.

Some community members are calling for development to max out at three stories with no residential development at that site and major reductions in the number of residential units at the other sites.

As the process moves forward, Chang-Díaz said, she would like to hear more from the BRA and development experts about how major reductions in residential density would affect the financial feasibility of developing affordable housing.

“In terms of financing, is it possible to achieve 50 percent [affordability] with reduced density?” she said.

Financing may become a major issue for other components laid out in the FHII process as well. Local residents have said they would like to see more attention paid to public infrastructure improvements in the area. But many of the most substantial long-term improvements proposed in the course of the FHII will rely on significant investments from developers.

Those improvements could include turning the roadway around Forest Hills Station into a one-way loop as well as major pedestrian improvements under the Casey Overpass.

As far as near-term transportation improvements are concerned, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) is still in the process of coordinating traffic signals around the station. That project that has already greatly improved travel time on the Hyde Park Avenue side of the station, Dalzell said.

At the June 26 meeting Dalzell said he would try to make information about improvements to the traffic infrastructure around the station “more real-time” for the community.

Beyond the signal improvements, which the BTD has been working on since at least this spring, there is “no list” outlining what improvements are next on the agenda, Dalzell recently told the Gazette.

The BTD knows “folks would like to see that. They need to get through the task of compiling it,” Dalzell said.

But that process has been slowed because the BTD staff is currently undergoing personnel changes, he said. Frank Johnson, who has been coordinating the BTD’s efforts in Forest Hills, is retiring this month and his replacement, Robert D’Amico, is still getting up to speed.

The BTD has offered to give Forest Hills residents a tour of the downtown command center where the traffic signal coordination can be adjusted in real time, but no date for that tour has been set, Dalzell said.

In the meantime, the next two FHII meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 13 and Tuesday, Sept. 16, Dalzell said. [See JP Agenda].

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