Ross: BRA should review more projects

February 6, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

Roxbury, Rozzie already look at as-of-right projects

City Councilor Mike Ross wants design review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to be a require-ment for some as-of-right real estate projects, the Gazette has learned. “As of right” means a project does not require zoning variances and can be built without any sort of public hearings or input.

Similar as-of-right design review was proposed for Jamaica Plain in 2005, but was shot down by skeptical residents. But the entire neighborhoods of Roslindale and Roxbury have quietly adopted the as-of-right review policy in the past year, the Gazette has learned. That includes parts of Egleston and Jackson Squares that abut JP.

“It’s something I’m pursuing,” said Ross, whose district includes part of Hyde Square. For now, he and the BRA are working on bringing the design review to his home neighborhood of Mission Hill. But, Ross indi-cated, he eventually would like the policy to be citywide.

The BRA and Mayor Thomas Menino originally proposed BRA review of as-of-right projects in 2005 as a pilot program in Jamaica Plain. The proposal was in response to many controversial developments that, officials and neighbors said, squeezed within the letter but not the spirit of the zoning code.

But JP residents strongly rejected the idea, saying that if a project meets the zoning code, a developer should be allowed to build it, even if someone else doesn’t like it. “As of right” cannot actually mean “as of review,” residents said at the time.

At a large meeting of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council at the time, residents complained that the proposal was arbitrary, unnecessary, intrusive, detrimental to property values and lacking in transparency and accountability. BRA officials, appearing bewildered by the rejection, withdrew the proposal and have not presented it in JP since then.

But Roxbury and Rozzie residents clamored for the design review and have praised it highly.

“It feels so good,” said Roxbury-area City Councilor Chuck Turner with a laugh, referring to gaining the design review. “It was getting to be a very maddening situation,” he said about controversial as-of-right developments in Roxbury.

“I would be fully in support of it,” Turner said of Ross’s proposal. “I’m glad he’s suggesting it be done citywide.”

Rozzie was temporarily under a similar design review policy for a few years while the entire neighborhood was rezoned. Residents liked it so much that they kept the as-of-right review as a formal part of the new zoning code adopted last year, according to BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker.

When the design review in Rozzie was still temporary, residents who had projects undergo the review praised the process highly to the Gazette, calling it helpful and efficient.

“My experience with the BRA, if I had to score on a scale from 1 to 100, [I would give them] a 104,” one Rozzie resident told the Gazette at the time.

The design review policy in Roxbury and Rozzie applies to projects of 750 square feet or larger. That is a higher threshold than the 2005 JP proposal, which would have applied to 150-square-foot projects—including items like decks and porches.

Asked about the fairness of reviewing technically “as of right” projects, Turner noted the relatively high size threshold. He said the design review targets projects of a “size that seems to warrant interest.” He added that he has heard no complaints from residents or from developers.

The existing design review policies require notification to abutters and a 14-day public comment period. It also has teeth: If the BRA finds design problems and the project proponent refuses to make any changes at all, the BRA essentially can kill the project by not allowing the city’s Inspectional Services Department to issue building permits.

“JP did reject it,” Ross acknowledged in a recent Gazette interview. But, he said, the review could be valuable “in a neighborhood like Mission Hill that is being poached by developers.”

Ross is a Mission Hill resident whose district includes a large part of JP’s Hyde Square area. He is also the City Council’s president.

Shumaker confirmed that the BRA has had “initial discussions” with Ross about his proposal and will begin early talks with some Mission Hill residents about it.

Since the failure of the 2005 proposal in JP, the BRA has not actively tried to promote the design re-view, Shumaker said. But, she added, BRA officials still think it’s a good idea and would consider applying it to other neighborhoods by request, as it did for Roxbury.

“It’s just another layer of protection,” Shumaker said. “If people come to us [who] think things are fal-ling through the cracks, we’re happy to take a look at it.”

“We don’t want to stop development,” Menino told the Gazette about the proposal in 2005. “We just want to know what’s going on there. We want to know what it looks like and what it adds to the neighborhood.”

Ross cited a controversial Mission Hill development as one example of why the design review is needed. In that case, a developer recently won approval to demolish older houses and build new ones as-of-right. Part of the controversy is that it might become college student housing.

“It’s the LaRosa thing all over again,” Ross said, referring to the controversial LaRosa Development Corporation, which has built many houses in JP and across the city. LaRosa is often criticized for quickly building as-of-right projects that avoid neighborhood input.

Best of JP 2014