MBTA issues ITB

November 21, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

FOREST HILLS—The MBTA issued an Invitation to Bid (ITB) for the development of four parcels around Forest Hills Station late last month.

The ITB comes on the heels of the end of a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)-led community planning process known as the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII). That process, after delays and extensions, ended in September, about two months shy of its second anniversary.

The MBTA plans to pick a developer early next year, said BRA Senior Architect John Dalzell said in a recent interview.

Dalzell, a JP resident who led the community process, said it might be a while before any of the parcels put out to bid get developed. There are “funny things” going on in the finance market, he said, and that might make it tough for developers to raise the capital necessary to undertake new large development projects.

For developers, the planning process is the real problem. It costs millions of dollars and takes thousand of hours to hire architects and planners to design a viable project, Dalzell said.

Developers are also traditionally required by the city to help bankroll transportation and streetscape improvements in the areas where they plan to build. The FHII process included some discussion about streetscape and transportation work, but no specific long-term planning was undertaken prior to the selection of a developer.

All told, it is a huge cost for developers that usually requires investment backing. “Planning is not something you can go to the bank and borrow money for,” Dalzell said.

The plan right now is for the MBTA to look at developers’ bids in early winter, he said, but depending on how things go, “The T might leave [the ITB] out a little longer.”

A few changes were made in the Use and Design Guidelines, which were constructed in the FHII process, before the ITB went out, Dalzell said. Those include an option to move six units of housing proposed for a small parcel on the east side of Washington Street onto another parcel on the west side of the street, leaving the smaller parcel as green open space. Taking that option would potentially increase the number of residential units on the west side of the street from 40 to 46.

Other changes, inspired by the JPNC Parks and Open Spaces Committee, require that half of the about 90,000 square feet of open space proposed for the four parcels be developed as green space, and that one and a half trees be planted for every tree that is removed.

The guidelines are intended to outline a community vision for the sites. That will help the MBTA determine its asking prices and what development proposals are appropriate. The guidelines for the parcels are included in the ITB.

They offer potential developers the opportunity to build about 166 residential units, 62,000 square feet of retail space and close to 200,000 square feet of commercial/office space. Guidelines were also developed for two other parcels in the area.

For the parcels the MBTA is selling, the residential component was brought down from about 400 proposed units at the last FHII meeting on Sept. 23. That was achieved largely by eliminating residential units from what is known as Parcel S, the Forest Hills station commuter lot.

The final guidelines call for 163,000 square feet of office space on the site.

That change means instead of three six-story buildings, there will be only two buildings—one six-story building and one three-and-a-half-story parking structure. Both of those buildings should have ground-floor retail, according to the guidelines.

Arguments about Parcel S in FHII meetings over the summer pitted affordable housing advocates against those who thought the housing component of the plans was too large and the proposed buildings on Parcel S were too tall.

“Now no one is happy,” said Francesca Fordiani in response to the changes to Parcel S, because there is still a tall building but no housing on the site.

Fordiani is Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) member and chair of the JPNC Housing and Development Committee. Guidelines passed by the JPNC call for 50 percent affordable housing on publicly-owned land being offered for development.

The ITB guidelines also call for 50 percent affordability because, BRA officials have said, that reflects the average income in the neighborhood around the T station.

At meetings over the summer, Dalzell—a JP resident who headed the process—has said selling Parcel S as a commercial development may be tricky. Because it is so far from downtown, it will not be an attractive location for office space for smaller businesses. It will likely require a commitment from a large institution, like a hospital, to get Parcel S developed, he said.

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