Urban Edge in tangled Webb

January 26, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

Developers hope for federal stimulus

JACKSON SQ.—Development plans for the Urban Edge-owned site on Columbus Avenue are up in the air, and CEO Chrystal Kornegay said at a Jan. 14 meeting that the nonprofit developer might lose the site, which includes its own headquarters.

Development of the site was a major part of the first phase of a neighborhood-wide redevelopment project undertaken by a group of non- and for-profit developers known as Jackson Square Partners. It is also the location of the Webb building, where Urban Edge’s offices are located at 1542 Columbus Ave..

Meanwhile, Mitchell Properties, another member of Jackson Square Partners, hopes to begin work on a mixed-use development at 225 Centre St. early next year. Jackson Square Partners is also hoping to secure funding to begin public infrastructure work in 2010.
Urban Edge

“I may get foreclosed on or have to sell off,” Kornegay said at the January meeting of the Jackson Square Community Advisory Committee (CAC) at the Martha Eliot Health Center. Her comments referred to the property on Columbus Avenue.

Following the meeting, Kornegay was unavailable for comment and Urban Edge did not respond to requests for a follow-up interview before press time.

Urban Edge has been operating under considerable financial strain for at least the last three years. Last year, as the Gazette reported, the CDC underwent a major restructuring plan after two years of operating losses totaling more than $1.75 million. The CDC’s recovery plan included promoting Kornegay from deputy director to the CEO position.

Expected returns from the Jackson Square development project were part of the CDC’s recovery strategy, according to internal documents obtained by the Gazette in January, 2008.

Urban Edge had planned to build a 37-unit condominium development for low- and moderate-income families at 1562 Columbus, and a 25-bed Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility for young men in temporary custody of the state on the rear of the site.

As the Gazette reported earlier this month, plans for the DYS facility fell through about a year ago. Urban Edge recently presented an alternative plan to build homeownership units for homeless families in place of the DYS facility to the rear of the site. That plan was shot down by the CAC because of the location’s close proximity to a city Public Works Department (PWD) salt shed.

“It’s a toxic place. People who live there are subject to noise and pollution,” said CAC member Celia Grant.

“Our big focus is making sure [the PWD] is going to be dealt with before any housing is approved,” said Jennifer Spencer, the CAC’s newly appointed chair.

CAC’s are convened by the city to provide community oversight for large development projects. Their meetings are technically public, but are not normally publicly announced. Jessica Shumaker of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) said the Gazette will be informed of future Jackson Square CAC meetings.

Rodney Sinclair from the Boston Redevelopment Authority said the city also currently opposes that plan.

“Just because something was done 40 or 50 years ago does not mean we should reproduce a bad idea,” Sinclair said.

Tossing another monkey wrench into the works, Jed Baumwell, Senior Housing Development Officer for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), said it is unlikely Urban Edge will get public funding for its planned housing development because the CDC’s plans are contingent on its acquiring a piece of the PWD controlled-land.

The housing plans include residential parking on land that is part of the PWD salt shed lot. Urban Edge has been in negotiations with the city to acquire a lease, license or easement for that land to the rear of the lot, but negotiations have stalled in the last year.

“Urban Edge is in a difficult situation because the property development would require an agreement with the PWD, which they currently don’t have. Demonstration of site control would be a necessary requirement for the city and state funding,” Baumwell said.

Negotiations for that parcel are ”not a focus for Public Works because Urban Edge does not seem to have the financing in place,” to begin development, PWD spokesperson Tim McCarthy told the Gazette.

PWD does not have any funding available to reconfigure the lot to make the land available to Urban Edge, he said.

That seems to leave Urban Edge in a bind. It cannot secure development funding until it has secured site control, and it can’t get site control until PWD is satisfied that the project is moving forward.

Baumwell also said it is unlikely Urban Edge would be granted public funds for another of its new proposals. Instead of building affordable condos on the front of the site, the CDC proposed to either build rental units or units that start as rental but convert to homeownership after 15 years.

It is unlikely Urban Edge would receive funding for the second option, Baumwell said. Conversions from rental to ownership “are not impossible to do, but generally when the city creates affordable rental housing, they do so in perpetuity.”

Any such switch would “probably have to be negotiated on the front end,” he said.

Urban Edge’s description of the rental to ownership plan as an option prior to those negotiations is “probably not the way it should be presented,” he said, “It should be presented as rental.”

In the meantime, Kornegay told the CAC, Urban Edge needs to show its lenders that it is moving forward with plans for the site. It has restructured its mortgage on the property twice since 2002. “I’m going to be in a tough position going to my lender and saying, can I restruc-ture this debt again?” Kornegay said.

A groundswell of community support for the reconfiguration of the salt shed might pave the way for funding from the over-$8 billion fed-eral stimulus bill proposed by newly inaugurated President Barack Obama, Kornegay said.

And that might be enough to convince Urban Edge’s lenders that plans for the unwieldy Columbus Avenue, site are moving forward, she said. “The federal government is printing money. We can say, ‘While you are printing money, break me off a piece,’” she said.

Given the current state of the project, it will likely take Urban Edge another three to five years to get funding to begin construction, Baumwell said.

Next steps

Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC)—another of the Jackson Square Partners—said it is possible that federal funds will help to move other public infrastructure work forward as well.

The work will include streetscape and utilities improvements as well as the creation of green and open spaces in the neighborhood. Jackson Square Partners was awarded a $3.1 million state grant for the work last spring, covering a little less than half of the projected budget for the project.

Infrastructure development in conjunction with low-income tax credit-funded affordable housing developments “is a high priority for the state to support if they get additional funding,” Thal said.

“[Federal stimulus] funding is something that is so unprecedented that it’s not clear what the guide lines are,” he said.

Jackson Square Partners currently hopes to begin that work and to see one of its members—Mitchell Properties—begin work on a mixed-use development at 225 Centre St. by late 2009 or early 2010. The 225 Centre St. development would include 103 rental apartments, including 35 affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, and 16,000 square feet of retail space.

Bart Mitchell, a JP resident and head of Mitchell Properties, did not return Gazette calls for this story, but Thal said Mitchell Proper-ties expects to learn if it was awarded state funding for the project within the next few months.

Overall, “It’s obvious the Jackson Square project is a massive project. It’s been many years in planning and it will be many years in building. Different pieces will come together at different times, and we will push forward as best we can,” Thal said.

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