Guidelines process done

September 26, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

BRA cuts number of housing units

FOREST HILLS—Less than two months from celebrating its second anniversary, the community planning process for Use and Design Guidelines for the redevelopment of Forest Hills ended with the tenth meeting of the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII) at English High School Sept. 23.

“We are not at the end of the community process,” Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) senior architect John Dalzell said at the end of the three-hour meeting, “We have a good basic plan here that can guide things moving forward.”

The proposed use and guidelines the BRA brought back to the most recent meeting scale back the housing component of the plan from around 700 units overall to between about 380 and 450.

The bulk of the meeting was taken up by a public comment period where opponents and proponents of the guidelines lined up on either side of the English High School cafeteria and took turns speaking.

The completed guidelines, designed via the BRA-led community process, will be included in an Invitation To Bid (ITB) that will be issued by the MBTA for the sale of three lots around the Forest Hills T Station, and the sale of development rights to a fourth—an MBTA-owned commuter parking lot next to the station.

The FHII process also developed guidelines for two other sites, the MBTA-owned Arborway Yard bus facility and the privately-owned Fitzgerald parking lot.

The four sites the MBTA will put up for development will include a mix of uses including office and retail space, open space and a large residential component. Development constraints, including descriptions of height, density and use outlined in the guidelines for those lots will guide the MBTA in determining its asking price for the lots. The MBTA is required by law to sell to the “highest qualified bidder,” and the guidelines will help it to determine what proposals from developers are “qualified.”

After a developer is selected, the process will continue, and it will move slowly. “It’s really important to be clear, this is not going to happen all at once,” Dalzell said.

Developers will engage with the community in the course of their own planning and permitting processes, and the zoning code requires an extensive community review of developers’ plans before construction begins. That includes the appointment by the mayor of an community Impact Advisory Group that “plays a strong role in planning and negotiating community benefit, “ Dalzell said.

The BRA previously attempted to end the process in June, but community outcry at an FHII meeting that month—over concerns about the height and density of the proposed development, traffic and parking congestion and public safety—led to the continuation of the planning process through the summer.

That will largely be accomplished by nixing guideline plans to include about 200 units on what the MBTA calls Parcel S, the commuter parking lot south of the station on the Hyde Park Avenue side.

Instead, the draft guidelines offered by the BRA propose the bulk of the space in two buildings proposed for that parcel be used as institutional office space. The ground level will be used for retail.

At the last meeting Dalzell said that for office space to make sense, a large institutional tenant would have to be found because Forest Hills is not a great location for smaller offices.

The heights of the buildings, 5 stories for the one closest to the T station and 3.5 for one farther south, remain unchanged. At previous meetings, Dalzell described the site as “tricky” because of an MBTA requirement that commuter parking be maintained there, probably on parking levels in the buildings. The guidelines envision Parcel S as a new commercial core for Forest Hills and call for a large open plaza at the site.

Community members at meetings last year originally proposed the development of Parcel S along with the other sites the MBTA plans to sell south of Ukraine Way on both the Hyde Park Avenue and Washington Street sides of the station.

The height and density of proposals for that site have been a major sticking point in recent months, and the MBTA recently proposed taking it off the table, Dalzell said.

“The plan does not hang together” without Parcel S, Dalzell said at the recent meeting.

The community comments were mostly repetitions of comments made at earlier meetings. Jeffrey Ferris of Ferris Wheels Bike Shop spoke in favor of dense, transit-oriented “smart growth” as an antidote for decades of suburban sprawl. Bernie Doherty of the Asticou-Martinwood Neighborhood Association said he would like to see the residential component reduced even more.

Other comments expressed concerns about congestion and public safety in the area.

“You can’t put any more people with any more cars in the area and keep us safe,” one area resident said. Currently, traffic snarls mean that trips that should take 5 to 7 minutes take a half-hour, she said.

As he has at previous meetings, Dalzell said that developing transit improvement guidelines has been an important part of the process, but that plans and timelines for those improvements will have to wait on plans from developers. If the city does streetscape before the parcels in the area are redeveloped, it risks having to go back and redo that work to accommodate new traffic patterns and increased use brought about by those developments. Developers are also normally required by the city to fund portions of that work, he said.

One speaker on the opponent side suggested the guidelines address concerns about parking by recommending deed restrictions that bar residents of some of the new units from owning cars or getting on-street parking permits.

“The City does that,” Dalzell said. “It’s something we can consider.”

On the proponent side of the room. many people introduced their comments by saying they had no professional interest in affordable housing. Felix Arroyo Jr., a neighborhood resident and vice-chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, was among a handful who used language reminiscent of the 1950s Red Scare.

“I am not now, nor have I ever been,” professionally involved in affordable housing advocacy, he said.

Those comments came in apparent response to a letter published in the Sept. 12 issue of the Gazette expressing concerns that “members of special interest groups such as various local nonprofit organizations, including a community development corporation (CDC).”

But controversy over affordable housing played a relatively small role in the conversation at the meeting.

The guidelines call for a minimum of 20 percent of residential units to be made affordable, guaranteeing that future developments will be eligible for state-administered public infrastructure funding. The guidelines also include a goal of 50 percent affordability in the area. That number reflects the current economic makeup of the neighborhood, Dalzell said.

Some of the plans’ proponents actually expressed concerns about the latest round of changes to the guidelines.

“I am saddened that we lost the units we lost,” Arroyo told the Gazette. “Development of publicly owned land should focus on housing stock that is affordable.”

One opponent of the guidelines, local resident and Realtor Mary Hannon, said she doesn’t think any major addition to JP’s housing stock is a good idea.

JP housing prices have been relatively stable in recent years, despite the bottom falling out of the housing market nationally, “because supply is so low,” she said.

“I have several buyers looking for in the $350,000 range for a condo” who are having a hard time, she said. “But that does not mean I think we should build 700 new units.”

Hannon was sitting at a table for the FHII “opponents” group labeled “Friends of Forest Hills,” and had not heard that the proposal for residential units had been lowered to around 400. She said she still thinks that is too much.

A flyer put out by Friends of Forest Hills expressed concerns that the new condo developments would be “unmortgagable.” Hannon said the flyer was attempting to express that banks are reluctant to offer mortgages for condo units in buildings that are under 50 percent occupied. Overall, she said, she does not see how large-scale residential development in Forest Hills makes economic sense.

“Who in their right mind would want to build there besides a community development corporation?” she said.

Like CDCs, private developers regularly develop affordable housing using tax credits and other public funding sources.

Even as the last meeting of the FHII planning process wound down, it was clear the conversation about the future of Forest Hills was not over. And, as the process moves into its next phase, there will be more public forums to continue that conversation, Dalzell said. The BRA will make some changes to the Use and Design Guidelines, and discuss those changes with the Forest Hills working Group—an ad hoc steering committee for the process made up of community members and MBTA, BRA and other city officials.

The final guidelines will be issued with the MBTA’s ITB, and the full FHII will meet again “when we can actually talk to real respondents” to the ITB, he said. “When we have respondents, we will be able to take the thinking much further…We can narrow it down and talk in detail and depth about the approach of the respondents” to fulfilling the goals laid out in the guidelines, he said.

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